asking powerful questions

asking powerful questions

Everything we know in the world has emerged through people’s curiosity. In a world where any answer seems to be a Google search away, we are losing the capacity to be curious and ask questions. In the realm of big analytics, where virtually any cause and effect can be identified, the biggest constraint is the ability to pose the right question. In life generally, and in the work place particularly, we seem to pay more attention to problem solving and analysis. We tend to have a short term focus – and the pace of life tends to stifle reflective conversations.

Going a step further, if we can lift from just asking questions to asking powerful questions, we invite curiosity and possibility, which can generate energy and forward momentum. To achieve this, the settings are as important as the questions. Vogt, Brown and Isaacs, in their important paper, “the art of powerful questions” make the observation that “authentic conversation is less likely to occur in a climate of fear, mistrust and hierarchical control”.

For many leaders, it can be a stretch to encourage diverse views, explore assumptions, suspend judgement and look for connections of ideas. If they can climb this mountain and be prepared to embrace the possibilities that may flow from the conversations, amazing transformation can take place.

Mark Strom, a colleague of mine in the 20I20 exchange leadership group, presented a brilliant TED talk on asking grounded questions. If you’re genuinely interested in this topic, I suggest you allocate 16 minutes of your life to watching the You Tube clip. Mark contends that while grounded questions generate stories and conversations from which change can occur and people can shine, many things work against this happening……such as preoccupation with spreadsheets, procedures and  strategy documents. Mark shares some powerful examples of the difference between abstract and grounded questions in his talk. He explains that a grounded question often comes from the side rather than front on.

Mark makes the point that logic works well on what cannot change, grounded questions work well on what can change. Questions like “what’s wrong?” and “how do we fix it?” tend to lead to focus on problems, whereas questions like, “why did you become a teacher?” take the shackles off, liberating people to generate stories that often lead to special insights.

Vogt and Strom both give guidance about how to ask grounded questions – there are certain rules about construction, scope and assumptions (such as the power of “why” above “which” and “who”), but both come back to the most important success factor – “stand back and look at the people who you are questioning and admire them”. Grounded and powerful questions are natural and not contrived. They come from empathy and a genuine desire to want to learn the answer. In a trusting environment, the art of powerful questioning can uncover, for people and organisations, a world of possibility and deep change.

Leaders with the courage and mindsets to undertake innovation at the enterprise level, are likely to also have the capacity to incorporate a culture of grounded questioning. These will be the leaders who give as much attention to developing powerful questions as they do to problem solving – and who steer strategy evolution that engages multiple voices and perspectives in networks of conversations. Such leaders are creating the conditions that will help to future proof their organisations.


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