4 Types of Questions Leaders Should Ask to Improve Team Problem-Solving

Guest Post by Tony Gambill

We live in a 24/7 news cycle that continually highlights how volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous our world is today. Organizations are experiencing technological, social, and economic levels of change that have never before been experienced. Leaders and their teams are dealing with a world of high expectations where change is ever greater and the future is less predictable. What does this constantly changing and complex environment require from today’s leaders and teams to achieve sustained success?

Today’s leaders must develop teams that are capable of navigating the ongoing challenges and issues they will encounter in pursuit of their goals. The best teams differentiate themselves by being great problem-solvers. Teams thrive by making the right decisions and taking the right actions during the harder more complex situations where there is no clear right answer. These situations require the team to lean on each other’s experience, knowledge, and skills to succeed.

It is the leader’s responsibility to shape a team culture that creates opportunities for team members to develop their collective knowledge and skills for effective team problem-solving. Below are 4 Types of questions leaders should ask to improve their team’s ability to problem-solve when encountering the important and complex issues that need to be resolved for the team to thrive.

1.Questions for Clarifying the Issue

A team issue can be defined as a problem, obstacle, barrier, idea, or opportunity for the team, a client or the organization. Too often leaders become impatient when encountering a team issue and want to immediately drive their teams directly to solving the problem. This type of problem-solving works well for routine and reoccurring issues but it is not effective for resolving the important and complex issues.

Leaders can also fall into the trap of becoming confident that everyone else has their same perspective on the issue. One of the key characteristics of an important and complex issue is there are different perspectives on how people view the situation, which drives different perspectives on how team members define the issue. For a team to be successful at solving important and complex problems they need to begin their conversation by getting agreement on the core issue they are trying to solve.

Skilled leaders understand the importance of investing this time up-front to help the team define the core issue by simply asking the following types of questions.

  • “What do team members believe to be the core issue in this situation?”
  • “How would you, as members of this team, define the core issue in this situation? 

Confident leaders will ask these types of questions and listen to their team’s responses prior to sharing their own perspectives. Effective leaders know that if their perspective is needed, it is better to share it once they have heard all of their team’s perspectives. Once everyone has shared their ideas about the core issue it is time for the leader to ask the team to clearly define the core issue they are going to tackle. Sometimes there are situations where multiple core issues will surface and the team will need to decide what is the most important issue and focus on it first.

2. Questions for Understanding Perspectives

As a leader rises within an organization, they will reach a time when they must come to the realization that their role is no longer to function as the team’s primary subject matter expert or problem-solver. It is not a leader’s role to be the smartest person in the room. This is both a frightening time and also a liberating experience for leaders. Frightening because it might feel like loss of control and liberating because they can stop pretending like they know all the best answers.

You have probably heard of the old Indian parable about the blind men and the elephant. There are many different versions of this story, but in general, this is a story of a group of blind men who touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one feels a different part, but only one part, such as the elephant’s side or the tusk. They then compare perspectives and learn that they are in complete disagreement with each of their individual descriptions of the elephant.

Each of the men are partly right since they have made contact with one major part of the elephant. However, they are all wrong because in their blindness and limited perspective they failed to comprehend the creature in its entirety. Their description is missing other important pieces of information that can only be gained by effective communication and respect for the other blind men’s perspectives.

This parable highlights a similar dynamic that occurs when teams are trying to solve complex issues that require broad perspectives, insights, knowledge and technical capabilities. Team members may not agree or even understand others’ “truths,” but awareness of the different relevant perspectives enables the team to have a more accurate view of how their team members view the situation and the issue. The best leaders understand and value that people have different experiences, access to information, values, goals personalities and perceptions that often will lead to the formation of different insights, innovations, and conclusions. Research confirms that diverse teams help to keep team members’ biases in check and makes them question their assumptions. At the same time, leaders need to create inclusive team practices so that everyone feels they can share and be heard. All of this makes teams smarter and, ultimately, makes organizations more successful, whatever the goals.

Below are some examples of the types of questions that leaders should ask to help their team better understand individual perspectives in relation to the issue the team is addressing.

  • What would success look like?
  • What happens if we accomplish this? What happens if we don’t?
  • What is working? / What is not working?
  • What about the situation or process is contributing to people’s behaviors?
  • What do we know so far/still need to learn about this issue?
  • How do you think others might see things differently?

3 –Questions for Creating Solutions

If teams focus on the issue too long, it is easy for them to start to feel stuck or believe that all the doors are shut. “We’ve got an issue …oh no! Not another problem!” There is a weariness about staying too long in the issue. Understanding when to shift the focus of the team’s conversation towards forward-focused solutions makes a big difference. This doesn’t mean that a leader isn’t taking the necessary time to ask questions to clarify the issue or taking the time to ask questions to hear other’s relevant perspectives. It just means they are always looking for the right opportunity to shift the conversation towards generating solutions.

Leaders who are most proficient at these types of questions have learned to stop the habit of quickly sharing their solutions and instead take the time to ask their team questions that can generate insights. Below are some examples of questions leaders can use to move their team into a forward focused solution space that drives the creation of new insights and solutions.

  • How would you suggest we move forward?
  • What are your ideas for next steps?
  • How can we work together to make progress?

It is also helpful to build in reflection time so team members can have time to mull over ideas. This can happen within a meeting by providing team members 5 – 10 minutes to individually come up with potential solutions before sharing with the group. This reflection time can also be accomplished by allowing for space between conversations for reflection.

4 – Questions for Shared Action

There is nothing more frustrating for leaders and their teams than to engage in a great problem-solving conversation where there is team alignment on the issue, perspectives are shared, effective solutions are provided and then – nothing happens. No action, no improvement, no positive advancements for resolving the issue.

It is the leader’s role to create a culture of action and accountability within the team. This is accomplished through creating a shared plan for future action, agreements about who is accountable for completing the defined actions, and clarifying how the team will hold each other accountable. The leader is the only person that can truly hold the team accountable for successful completion of agreed-upon actions

Below are some questions that help leaders generate shared accountability for action during a team’s problem-solving conversations.

  • How will we measure success?
  • What steps must we take to get there?
  • What piece of this will each of you own? What piece of this do I own?
  • How will we hold ourselves accountable?
  • How will we reconnect to check progress?

These 4 Types of Questions will help leaders develop teams that are confident and empowered problem-solvers while also increasing their motivation, commitment, and ability to innovate. Problem-solving is a critical skill-set for leaders and their teams to succeed in today’s world of work. What other leadership behaviors have you seen work for creating teams that are great at problem-solving?

Your reactions, shares, and comments are always appreciated.

Tony Gambill


Tony Gambill is a principal consultant for CREO Inc., an innovative management consulting and advisory firm based in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park. Tony brings more than 20 years of executive experience in leadership and talent development within global for-profit, non-profit, technical, research, healthcare, government and higher educational industries.


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One thought on “4 Types of Questions Leaders Should Ask to Improve Team Problem-Solving

  1. Tony, I like many of the questions you raised. I do have questions about your premisses.
    1. What’s the media’s incentive to scare us with complexity/uncertainty?
    2. How is our world REALLY more complex today?
    3. How does believing our world is complex create additional barriers to problem-solving? 4. When was predicting the future easier?
    If you answer these questions, I’ll gladly provide my answers too. Game?

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