As a consultant and executive coach, I spend a great deal of time thinking about and asking questions as a way to increase awareness to possible solutions and to drive growth for individuals, teams, and organizations.
As Albert Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first fifty-five minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”
Einstein’s quote supports the notion that powerful questions play a key role in driving growth and innovation, and there is an even greater focus on questions now as answers become commoditized by the democratization of information, global connectedness, and access to data.
As such, leaders need to continue to hone their skill at asking questions as a way to create a pathway to greater collaboration, foster better relationships across silos, empower teams, ignite innovation, and ultimately increase organizational growth.
Despite the importance of asking questions, given the constant focus on efficiency, leaders tend to ask “closed questions” (those that can be answered in a binary way) as a way to get to quick answers. For example, leaders will ask a closed question such as “Will the strategy you laid out achieve the overarching business objectives?” where they could be asking an open question like “What assumptions are inherent in the strategy you laid out that might warrant additional consideration?” While leaders need to use a variety of questions (including both noted above), try asking more open questions as a way to tease out assumptions and biases as well as explore alternatives.
So how do you know if you are asking an open question or a closed question? A basic rule is to look at the the beginning of your question: If it starts with “Will” or “Is” you are likely prompting a closed response. Switch gears and see if you can re-frame your question beginning with a “What” or “How.”
Keeping in mind the increasing importance of asking questions as leaders, let us further explore 5 types of questions for leaders to use in accelerating growth of their organizations.
1. Assumption Challenging Questions: The best leaders and innovators are adept at using questions to challenge conventions and underlying assumptions. In Warren Berger’s book, A More Beautiful Question, he introduces a “Why, What If, How” framework for sparking breakthrough innovation. Pairing a good “Why” question (e.g. “Why do electric cars lack sleek styling and performance in line with top sports cars?”) with one focused on “What if” (e.g. “What if we could build an electric car which looked and performed like a Ferrari?”) allows team members to challenge long-held assumptions while exploring new ways of solving a problem. In the example above, the questions challenge the previous assumption that electric cars had to be simple, utilitarian looking vehicles, which lacked the performance of high-end sports cars.
2. Exploration Questions: As a coach, I find questions which allow people to explore alternatives and possibilities particularly powerful when paired with a conversation around growth. Exploration-focused questions can be broad in nature and include questions such as:
- “What are some opportunities we are not currently taking advantage of?
- “What assets or resources do we possess as a company or as individuals that could be better leveraged for growth?”
In addition, exploration type questions can be more specific and address a certain situation such as:
- “What other solutions might customers use to solve the same problem?”
- “How could the individual components of this product be applied to solve different problems?”
Though there are a range of questions that can be asked, the point is to pose questions that inspire exploration and prompt consideration of new possibilities.
3. Reframing/Perspective Changing Questions: Many organizations (including some of the biggest in the world) tend to take an inside-out approach to product development (find marketplace applications for products and technology that the company has already developed). In contrast, an outside-in approach (allow customer needs and pain points to guide development) would likely better lead to better results. While nothing is as effective as “getting out of the building” and talking to customers, one way leaders can take a step in the direction of being more “outside-in” is to use reframing/perspective changing questions. For example, consider asking questions such as:
- “If we put ourselves in the shoes of ______ (customers, partners, suppliers, channel partners, etc.), how would we view this problem differently?”
- “How do you think our customers would perceive this change in _____ (strategy, business model, pricing, marketing, organizational structure)?”
In addition to helping us be more outside-in, reframing/perspective changing questions can help us look at a problem in a new way. For example:
- “How would the most innovative company in our space approach this problem?”
- “What approach would we take if we were entering this market for the first time?”
4. Focusing Questions: Once you have posed assumption challenging, exploration, and reframing/perspective changing questions to challenge the status quo and explore alternative solutions and points of view, the next step is to ask a focusing question (often a “how” question) as a way to move to execution such as:
- “What decisions need to be made now in order for us to move forward with this opportunity?”
- “What groups and individuals will need to be involved to make this new initiative a success?”
The key is to move from the more abstract to the practical so that big ideas can be translated into immediate next steps to start to bring the idea to reality.
5. Action/Commitment Focused Questions: Greater awareness and exploration is a critical part of growth-focused conversations, but without action, positive movement will ultimately not occur. As a coach, I end each session with a commitment to a set of actions clients will take and by when they will achieve each. Similarly, if you are conducting your own strategy or ideation session with your team, be sure to conclude the conversation with questions such as the following to encourage fidelity to execution:
- “What 3 actions will you commit to as a result of this session and by when will you complete each?”
- “What will you do different immediately following this meeting?”
What questions do you use to drive growth of your company? Please use the comments below to share your thoughts.
This article originally appeared on GroupSixty.com.