Power of Questions

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30 May 2019

At work, we are rewarded by our actions, for completing tasks which are expected of you as described in your job description. So, the linear thinking goes that if we do what is required: we are doing a good job, and that we should be rewarded accordingly, be respected….  But I am sure that most of you have experienced otherwise. How many times have you done your utmost best, done everything “according to Hoyle”, achieved all the stated KPI and still didn’t get recognized or a promoted?

I recently read an article on Wall Street Journal, written by a senior figure at MIT Leadership Centre, and I think his research on “asking better questions” could shed some light of the above quandary.

Today’s workplace demands solutions to constantly changing business problems, and that alone, requires all of us to be more agile than ever. It is not only insane to assume that one would expect a different outcome by doing the same thing over and over again, and with this logic, it is also true to say that it is ignorant to think that one can find new answers to new questions by asking the same set of old questions.

Yes, I get it, some job functions and tasks mostly ask that you repeat the same tasks over and over. And what if by asking “opening” questions and not blocking yours or others’ creativity, you were creating a space for an innovative solution which could improve even these routine tasks? As an example of how our thinking closes down opportunities, do you notice yourself discounting the possibility that this kind of thinking could be applied to routine tasks, but was instead limited to strategy like tasks?

We all know that open questions encourage more and often better feedback, and now the question is what kind of “open questions” would warrant even more? Leading to new answers we have yet to discover. According to the author of this WSJ piece, there are lots of questions one can ask to solve any one task, but only the best questioner can knock down barriers to creative thinking and channel energy towards new and more productive pathways. A Power Question usually includes the following five traits.

It reframes the issue. It intrigues the imagination. It invites others’ thinking. It opens up space for different answers. And last but not least, it is nonaggressive – not posed to embarrass, humiliate or assert power over the other party.

If your boss comes to you and says: Our numbers are down this month, how the h*ll did you let that happen? We all react either feeling bad about ourselves, ashamed of what or, at the other extreme, become we become defensive, and argumentative. Notice how all these reactions close down the creative process that is alive and well in all of us.

And now image your boss says “The numbers are down this month, I know you have a lot on your plate, so how can I help you? Let’s take a few minutes and brainstorm some ways we can improve the numbers?”

These less charged statements make it less about “pointing fingers”, and more about finding sustainable solutions. Think about how this could open completely new possibilities, that may have been there all along but which you never thought were not viable because you were not the boss. By staying true to the issue and not apply “hurt” or blame in the question the situation remains open, open to answers.

Starting fact finding with Power Questions, is a useful and empowering skill anyone at any career stage can learn and improve! If you are about to appraise your staff, imagine how much more engaging and insightful it could be if you try to “open” the discussion. If you are asking for a promotion, guess what opportunities it could include if your questions encompass these five elements. And, just imagine you are solving a high-level product concept by questioning in this open-mind manner, perhaps you are another “Steve Jobs” in the making.

I think we all tend to live with our set of assumptions, at work, at play, at home, and therefore we are in the autopilot mode most of the time, from actions we take to the questions we ask. If we start by wondering if there are even better solutions out there and keep the questions from pointing fingers, we can all find the answers we are really looking for.