We Don’t Ask Very Good Questions, Do We?

By Doug Collins | Crowdsourcing
August 16, 2016

Several years ago I was working with the technology team supporting a very large player in the consumer packaged goods industry.

This group was focused internally on how they might pursue collaborative innovation in order to serve their brand clients with more compelling insights. Our engagement was at the time when companies began taking big data seriously.

The group consisted of smart, experienced people. Yet, as sometimes happens, they struggled with why they were there. What might they accomplish together?

At one point, the leader of the group—someone who herself consulted with the company’s CEO—turned to me and, in a moment of admirable candor, observed, “We are not very good at asking ourselves questions, are we?”

Her reflection stuck with me. It served as the inspiration for my most recent book, Great Question! Generating Effective Questions for Successful Outcomes (due out in September 2016 on Amazon).

My first reaction was to think, simply, “Yes—the group is struggling.” Over time and through many subsequent client engagements, I explored the question of, “Why?”

Why do so many people struggle to identify and articulate the question that seemingly is top of mind? The question, which, if asked, might lead to real transformation?

One answer might be that, in school, we are not taught much about posing a question, explicitly. Some of us may recall our early science classes where we were introduced to the concept of the hypothesis. What question do we propose to prove or disprove?

As I recall from my own experience, however, the hypothesis was overwhelmed by the many facts and principles—already proven—that had to be dutifully memorized for the next test.

One answer might be that, at work, we find that rewards and recognition are tied to what we know and to how we express what we know—ideally before the person sitting next to us can express what she knows.

The person sitting on the far side of the conference table, quietly noodling on whether the question is the right question, may feel as if they are losing the race.

Still another answer might be that the group comes to find that they do not enjoy a shared understanding of strategic intent. Searching for the right question serves as a stalking horse for what is, in fact, an exploration of strategy. I cannot count how many times my engagements—ostensibly focused on helping the client build a culture of innovation—turn out to be a cathartic exploration of where the organization is going.

This small book, then, is for the leader of a group of people who would like to help that group identify the critical question for the purposes of innovation, collaboration, and problem solving.

What question, were we to pursue it together, might lead to authentic breakthroughs?

My intent is that the leader, a couple of minutes before a meeting, leafs through this book and, from that small investment in her time, achieves better results than she had in the past.

This book comes in four parts. Each part includes worksheets that the leader can use with their teams. Effort was made not to complicate matters, given that time—the lack thereof—has become everyone’s greatest competitor.

Setting context: can we agree on where we should focus our inquiry?

Identifying the challenge: can we identify together the creative tension—the energy—around this part of the business?

Framing the question: can we structure the question such that it is understandable, accessible, and compelling to all?

Convening the community: how might we be open and inclusive in posing the question once we define it?

One authentic gift we can offer another is to be fully present to them: to listen, without our own thoughts rattling around in our heads. A well-formed question, then, is a sign of respect for the other: a sign that we value their perspective and are willing to listen to their response. Cultures of change and transformation and innovation become possible once we establish a culture of respect—when we learn to listen and to ask relevant, focused questions.

I welcome your perspective on this topic and on the book, proper, which comes out in early September.

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