The Art of Powerful Questions

{Vogt, Brown, & Isaacs, 2003. The Art of Powerful Questions: Catalyzing Insight, Innovation, and Action.}

Questions influence the usefulness of the knowledge we acquire and the effectiveness of our actions. Questions lead to movement and action, generate creative insights, ignite change, engage people’s interest and curiosity, and invite creativity and breakthrough thinking.

Self-questioning keeps creativity alive, asking, “Why do I believe what I believe?” or “What does all this mean?” or “What can we do that can shift this situation?” or “What haven’t we thought of that could make a difference?” can have a generative impact on creating new knowledge and insight.

Asking Better Questions

Education focuses more on memorization and rote answers than on the art of seeking new possibilities. We are rarely asked to discover compelling questions, nor are we taught why we should ask such questions. Quizzes, examinations, and aptitude tests reinforce the correct answer’s value.

Consequently, most of us are uncomfortable with not knowing.

Modern Western culture emphasizes finding quick fixes, black or white, and either/or thinking, with a prevailing belief that real work consists primarily of detailed analysis, immediate decisions, and decisive action.

In contrast, an alternative perspective is that effective knowledge work consists of asking profound questions and hosting wide-ranging strategic conversations on substantive issues.

What Makes a Question Powerful?

Powerful questions transcend many boundaries and open up possibilities. A question that meets people where there is the most energy and relevance for them and uses that energy to go deeper channels the energy to flow into action. Such a question must be simple, clear, and penetrating. A good question invites and challenges you to reflect deeper, to find the knowledge and wisdom that’s already there beneath the surface. People’s energy comes from their values, hopes, and ideals. Questions that relate to something larger than them, where they can connect and contribute, are the most energizing.

Thus, a powerful question: generates curiosity, stimulates reflective conversation, is thought-provoking, surfaces underlying assumptions, invites creativity and new possibilities, generates energy and forward movement, channels attention and focuses inquiry, stays with participants, touches a deep meaning, and evokes more questions.

The Architecture of Powerful Questions

Powerful questions improve the quality of insight, innovation, and action in our organizations, communities, and lives. Therefore, it makes sense to have a basic structure for formulating such questions.

How to Construct a Question?

The linguistic construction of a question is how it is framed with an interrogative. Is it a yes/no or an either/or question? Does it begin with: Which, Who, When, Where, What, How, or Why?

Depending on your goals, a “yes/no” question can be extremely important, for example, if you are closing a large sale. Likewise, the question of getting at the facts of who, when, and where can often be crucial, such as in a legal case. However, opening the space for creativity and breakthrough thinking is more likely with the other interrogatives: what, how, and why.

The Scope of a Question

It is useful to match the question’s scope to the situational need you are working with and avoid stretching the scope too far. Realistic boundaries must be clarified for strategic inquiry and effective action within the system’s capacity.

The Assumptions Within Questions

Almost all questions we pose have either explicit or implicit assumptions that the exploring group may or may not share.

On the other hand, some questions challenge everyone’s existing assumptions.

For example, contrast “What did we do wrong and who is responsible?” with “What can we learn from what’s happened and what possibilities do we now see?” Assuming error and blame creates a defensive response, whereas the second question encourages reflection and is more likely to stimulate learning and collaboration among those involved.

Simply asking, “What assumptions or beliefs are we holding that are key to our conversation?” and “How would we come at this if we held an entirely different belief system than the one we have?” invites exploring conscious and unconscious assumptions and opens up the space to reveal new possibilities.

Using Powerful Questions in Organizations

An example of an inquiry at the HP lab began with the question, “What does being the best industrial research lab in the world mean?” While exploring the practical implications of the question in a disciplined way, a small shift in preposition scaled up the meaning. It shifted the assumptions in the question, profoundly altering the inquiry context: “How can we be the best industrial research lab for the world?” Becoming the best for the world is the larger context for becoming the best in the world, clearly expanding the scope of the question from being the Lab’s question to something many others at HP began to ask themselves as well.

Once reworded, employees could change the scope of related questions depending on the situation. For example, shifting the scope downward meant focusing on “What does HP for the world mean for me? What does it mean in my life, in my own work?” HP employees could also scale up the scope by asking, “What does HP for the world mean for my work group? For my department? For HP as a company? And what might it mean for the world?”

Another example is an inquiry initiated to explore the meaning of community at work and how applying community principles might enhance performance. Framing questions that shifted the context within which workers normally look at their organization, a leader asked people to examine their best community experiences and reflect on times they participated in a community experience that worked well. They queried, “What allowed that positive experience to happen? What kinds of activities were taking place? How did you fit into that?” As members shared their best community experiences, they began to see the analogies to business life. Follow-up questions and other deeper inquiries emerged: “How does a community deal with adversity and adapting to change? What happens with members who don’t uphold the community’s standards?”

As the conversation evolved, important values that people cared about came forward. Finally, a simple question emerged, “How can we create a community at work that enables each person to contribute our best, inspires us to keep learning, and produces valued results?”

How Can I Frame Better Questions?

Explore the art and architecture of powerful questions by asking yourself:

Is this question relevant to the real life and work of the people who will be exploring it?

Is this a genuine question to which we don’t know the answer?

What “work” do I want this question to do? What conversation, meanings, and feelings will this question evoke in those exploring it?

Is this question likely to invite fresh thinking or feeling? Is it familiar enough to be recognizable and relevant and different enough to call forward a new response?

What assumptions or beliefs are embedded in how this question is constructed?

Is this question likely to generate hope, imagination, engagement, creative action, and new possibilities, or is it likely to increase a focus on past problems and obstacles?

Does this question leave room for new and different questions to be raised as the initial question is explored?

Fostering Strategic Inquiry With a Disciplined Process

Assess your current situation. Discover the “Big Questions.” Create images of possibility. Evolve workable strategies.

Assessing your current situation.  

Allow your imagination to reveal the many questions about the broader landscape you’re operating, looking for internal and external signals about the future of your situation. Frame your findings as questions instead of problems or concerns. Ask yourself, “How does A affect C, and what does that suggest? If X were at play here, what question would we be asking? What’s the real question underneath all this data?”

Discovering “Big Questions.”

Once you have posed the most relevant questions, look for patterns and themes. Be disciplined and systematic. Seek the core questions that, if answered, would make the most difference to the future of the project or situation you are exploring. Cluster the related questions and consider the relationships among them. Clarify the big questions that the initial clusters reveal. Frame these as clear and concise queries, not as problems.

Creating images of possibility.  

Ask, “What would our situation look or be like if the big questions were answered?” Create vivid images of possibility. Develop scenarios and future stories based on different ways your big questions might be answered. Look for new territory and opportunities for action grounded in real life.

Evolving workable strategies.

Compelling questions and images of possibility evoke workable strategies, the “big answers” or key initiatives you invent to address your “big questions.” Once you clarify key initiatives, formulate and implement specific action plans.

The cycle is never complete, with continuous “sensing” based on relevant data, ongoing conversations with internal and external stakeholders, informal conversations among employees, and feedback from the organizational environment. With this input, continually reassess the landscape to reveal new questions for exploration.

Discover questions about the future of individual units and the firm as a whole.

Maintaining a rigorous focus on “questions that matter” and hosting strategic conversations on the organization’s “big questions” is a core competence for leaders at all levels.

Is Your Organization an Inquiring System? Assessing Your Organization’s Capabilities.

Our organizational leaders foster an environment where discovering the “big questions” is encouraged as much as coming up with workable solutions.

Our organization has rewards and incentives for members to work across functional boundaries to find challenging questions, creating a common focus and forward movement for knowledge creation.

Our leadership development programs contain as much of a focus on the art and architecture of framing powerful questions as they do on techniques for solving problems.

Our organization’s strategic planning processes include structured ways to discover the “big questions” that, if answered, would have real strategic leverage.

Our organization employs enabling tools and techniques to “seed” itself with strategic questions that “travel well” and catalyze learning conversations within and across functions. (State some of these tools and techniques.)

Our organization uses collaborative technology tools to enable people on the front lines to ask each other questions relating to their daily work, such as customer service or equipment maintenance, and receive help with these questions from colleagues in other locations.

Senior leaders in our organization see the strategy evolution process as engaging multiple voices and perspectives in conversation networks.

How Can Leaders Engage Powerful Questions?

The capacity to create futures we want requires engaging and energizing living networks of conversation and collective meaning-making through which members create new knowledge and bring forth the future. The following are some capabilities to serve leadership excellence in a networked world.

Engaging Strategic Questions.

Leaders must frame strategic questions to open the space for thinking about possibilities instead of just solving problems. Leaders must become comfortable with not knowing and constructively help others bring forth their collective knowledge. Leaders must engage their workers in discovering the “big questions” that lie at the heart of their organization’s future.

A leader’s key responsibility is to create infrastructures for dialogue and engagement, encouraging others at all levels to develop insightful questions and to search for innovative paths forward. Such leaders reward boundary-spanning work to discover challenging lines of inquiry, creating common focus and new knowledge.

Convening and Hosting Learning Conversations.

Creating opportunities for authentic learning conversations around challenging questions requires the capability to establish and sustain trust and psychological safety. Relevant capabilities to use dialogue and other engagement approaches for deepening mutual inquiry and fostering collective intelligence include the following:

Creating a climate of discovery;

Suspending premature judgment;

Exploring underlying assumptions and beliefs;

Listening for connections between ideas;

Encouraging diverse perspectives;

Honoring everyone’s contributions;

Articulating shared understanding;

Harvesting and sharing collective discoveries.

Including Diverse Perspectives.

Leaders connect people and ideas, creating a rich and complex web of conversations across boundaries. As a result, diverse voices and new perspectives emerge, allowing employees to fruitfully explore critical strategic questions and enhance their collective intelligence and capacity to nurture creative futures together.

Supporting Appreciative Inquiry.

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) leverages possibilities, discovering and appreciating what works well and how to leverage it instead of just fixing past mistakes.

Lively conversations use the best of what is as the foundation for what could be.

Leaders ask, “What’s possible here and who cares?” Human systems grow toward what they persistently ask questions about. Positive questions create the opportunity to grow in new directions and tap innovative sources of knowledge, vitality, and energy.

Fostering Shared Meaning.

We make meaning of our experiences through stories, images, and metaphors. Leaders must put time and attention into framing a common language and developing shared images and metaphors. They construct scenarios, and future stories, providing a context for working on today’s “big questions.” Systemwide reflection time for collective reflection facilitates shared meaning-making.

Nurturing Communities of Practice.

People who share a common interest and work together to expand their individual and collective capacity to solve problems create a social learning fabric through communities of practice. Leaders must nurture these learning networks and honor the questions they care about. These communities deal with the daily questions and learning needs, weaving their collective knowledge into these informal groups.

Using Collaborative Technology.

Network leadership supports participation in widespread online conversations for members throughout the organization to contribute their questions and best thinking to critical strategic issues.

Collaborative tools enable strategic questions to travel well within the organization and among customers and other stakeholders who are key to success. Engagement technologies connect individuals and groups with each other and to the larger whole.

Living systems evolve by developing a coherent identity, creating connections in complex relationship webs, and distributing information widely throughout the organization. Utilizing process principles, tools, and technologies that support this evolution is everyone’s job.

Questions for all Seasons

Look at these generative questions to stimulate your thinking about questions related to your specific situation.

Questions for Focusing Collective Attention on Your Situation.

What question, if answered, would make the most difference to the future of our specific situation?

What’s important about your specific situation, and why do you care?

What draws you to this inquiry?

What’s our intention here? What’s the deeper purpose, the big “why,” that is worthy of our best effort?

What opportunities can you see in your specific situation?

What do we know or still need to learn about our specific situation?

What are the dilemmas or opportunities in our specific situation?

What assumptions do we need to test or challenge in thinking about our specific situation?

What would someone who had a very different set of beliefs than we do say about our specific situation?

Questions for Connecting Ideas and Finding Deeper Insight.

What’s taking shape? What are you hearing underneath the variety of opinions being expressed? What’s in the center of the table?

What’s emerging here for you? What new connections are you making?

What had real meaning for you from what you’ve heard? What surprised you? What challenged you?

What’s missing from this picture so far? What is it we’re not seeing? What do we need more clarity about?

What’s been our major learning, insight, or discovery so far?

What’s the next level of thinking we need to do?

If there was one thing that has yet to be said to reach a deeper understanding or clarity, what would that be?

Questions That Create Forward Movement.

What would it take to create change on this issue?

What could make us feel fully engaged and energized about our specific situation?

What is possible here, and who cares?

What does need our immediate attention going forward?

If our success was completely guaranteed, what bold steps might we choose?

How can we support each other in taking the next steps? What unique contribution can we each make?

What challenges might come our way, and how might we meet them?

What conversation, if begun today, could ripple out in a way that created new possibilities for the future of our situation?

What seed might we plant together today that could make the most difference to the future of our situation?