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What Makes Great Questions?

This is a guest blog post from Whistler Summit speaker Guy Parsons.

Many different frameworks for using questions have been discussed throughout history as far back as the Socratic Method. For example, interrogation is a key technique in the legal field for examining witnesses.

Our purpose here is slightly different. We want you to think of questions as a starting point for taking a team on a journey. If leaders use just what’s in their own head to take a team somewhere, they are capped by their own knowledge. On the other hand, if leaders ask genuine, open questions of the team—and that doesn’t mean giving up responsibility for where the team needs to go—they are no longer limited to just what they know. Everyone can participate in getting to a new place.

What Makes Great Questions?

There are several key elements to keep in mind when forming open, curious questions. They must be authentic and genuine. That means the speaker is searching honestly for new ideas and doesn’t have a predetermined set of answers or a very narrow goal in mind. Questions allow people to leave behind some of their own preconceived notions and encourage them think in ways they themselves had not thought previously .

Truly great questions expand the “sandbox,” the place where the team is allowed to play. They make people reconsider some of the assumptions under which they often labor, such as, “We can’t do that because we don’t have enough financial resources,” or “We can’t do that because we don’t have enough people,”  Or, our favorite, “Our customers won’t let us do that.”  When you question old ways of thinking, you open up opportunities for the team to learn and solve problems in new ways.

To ask questions that challenge assumptions, you have to understand people’s current assumptions and limiting thoughts. You can begin to discover this propensity by asking questions that allow people to explore and brainstorm at the edges of where they are, and possibly into the future or even off on the horizon.

Great questions avoid the appearance of blame. Say somebody got hurt on a factory floor, and the team leader is coming in to explore the circumstances. He has to avoid, as his first question, “How could this happen and who did it?” That sort of an opening bombardment will just shut people down or prompt them to justify what they’ve done. On the other hand, if he asks, “How can we be sure this doesn’t ever happen again?” he’ll get a very different kind of response. People can join with him in finding an answer, and they could end up with a new approach to keeping the work environment safe.

What we’re trying to do is get people to focus on the future rather than on who is to blame. Far too quickly, blame turns to shame, which makes people feel very disempowered rather than part of a solution and ready to move forward to a solution. One of most celebrated TED talks we have ever experienced was delivered by Dr. Brené Brown, who wrote Daring Greatly. She talked about the power of blame and shame and how it shuts us down. The beauty of this discussion is that you can avoid going anywhere near those negative feelings where productivity decreases and dissatisfaction increases. When that negative response is promoted, you push the culture to be closed and defensive. You can avoid that contagion by asking open questions stemming from genuine curiosity.

Some of our favorite examples of completely open-ended questions are:

  • “How can we maximize our position?”
  • “How can we make sure that such and such won’t happen again?
  • “What needs attention to achieve your desired outcome?”
  • “What would have to be true for x to happen?”

There’s a sequence for asking open, inquisitive questions. First, you have to understand the context. Second, you have to make sure your tone and other nonverbal signals support what you’re trying to do. Finally, you ask the right question.

People often think about these things in the reverse order. They open with a question with little or no context, and their tone and body language don’t encourage participants to explore or jointly resolve a situation.

The art of asking the great question is a combination of thinking and performing. It’s about understanding your purpose, context, and audience (which is why you first spend time reflecting), and then forming a question and asking it with the right tone and posture. If you pound your fist on the table while asking a question, you are going to get a very different result than if you ask the same question while turning up both your palms. The content of the question is the main thing, but, if it’s not delivered in the right way, it won’t work. Learner leadership allows you to be conscious of both what and how you communicate.

Guy C. Parsons is the founder of Value Stream Solutions (VSS). VSS provides Lean Business System consulting. Guy leads Value Stream MappingSM workshops and delivers educational presentations on Lean Principles. VSS is currently focused on delivering value to the owners of business at all sizes, from a $20MM privately held aircraft manufacturer to public corporations such as Starbucks and Johnson & Johnson.

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