THE ART OF ASKING POWERFUL QUESTIONS

Excerpted from Chapter Two of “Leadership for Sustainability Powered by Questions” by Thomas Johansen, Thomas Specht and Henry Kleive – Part Two  (Click HERE to read Part One “Sustainability – As Mindset and Ethical Claim”)

Socrates cultivated it more than 2000 years ago. Einstein used it to reach some of the greatest scientfic achievements. Steve Jobs used it to develop new technological solutions in businesses that grew to become some of the world’s largest in record time. They all mastered the art of asking inquiring and challenging questions with the power to set things moving. In this book we call them powerful questions. Questions that curiously explore intentions, values, convictions, hopes, ambitions, and possibilities. Questions that challenge our basic assumptions and create awareness of patterns and connections. Questions that give us new understandings of each other and the world around us and thereby expand our repertoire of possible action.

A British research study found that British children aged 4 on average asked 390 questions per day (Berger, 2014, p. 4). This tells us that for children, asking questions is almost as natural as breathing, and it is something the average child does instinctively every day. Before children reach school age, they will in this way have acquired half of all the knowledge they are going to have through their entire life – acquired in non-structured education environments, primarily as a result of a curious, inquiring approach to life, where questions are usually followed by more questions and yet more questions.

In most cases, this naturally wondering and inquiring approach comes to an abrupt end when children meet the formal education system, where children in most cultures are schooled in reproducing answers and acquired knowledge, while the natural inclination to ask questions is not similarly encouraged and rewarded. There isn’t anything wrong with wanting to know or and an answer to something, but the strong focus on getting an answer often gives us a tendency toward categorical self-assuredness. And this tendency is at risk of obstructing new perspectives, ideas, and possibilities.

However, a curious and inquiring approach to the world is not only children’s natural way to learn and experience the world. It is also characteristic of humanity as a species, an existential and practical navigation instrument through which we develop and become wiser about ourselves, other people, and the world around us. Although in a western adult world we often overtrain the ability to answer, at the expense of a question muscle that becomes lax and weak. “The question is the essential quality that separates people from animals – and from gods, for that matter. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger explains this by stating that a human is the only being that questions his or her own existence. Humans relate to the possibility that they could be different – or cease to exist – and this is done simply by asking: Who am I? Why am I one thing and not another? What does it mean to be – and not to be?” (Lauritzen, 2015, p. 9)

Questions are an important source of knowledge and development. A study of the type of questions in the organization that are and are not being asked, by whom and of whom, can be very informative in several areas – e.g. prevalent presumptions, expectations, and agendas. Taking a closer look at the questions being asked and the logic underlying them also gives us an idea of what members of the organization are preoccupied with (Lauritzen, 2016).

Questions not only have explanatory power but also an influencing quality. It is a fundamental premise of this book that the questions we ask affect our focus – what we see and what we pay attention to. In other words, questions become directive of our lives, actions, and organizations. “Organizations gravitate toward the questions they ask,” as the American founder of Appreciative Inquiry, David Cooperrider, has phrased it (Whitney & Trosten-Bloom, 2010).

Thus, asking questions not only has an impact on our relations to other people in the organization. The nature of the questions asked also determines the culture and development of organizations. One of the basic tenets of Appreciative Inquiry is to focus on possibilities rather than problems and that exploration and change happen simultaneously (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2011). The questions we ask shape the focus and the narratives that they invite.

THE IMPORTANCE OF CURIOSITY IN HIGH-PERFORMANCE TEAMS

This book is intended to provide inspiration as well as practical suggestions for training our skill at asking questions that promote sustainable development and create results in service of our organization’s core task. Not simply for the sake of curiosity – but because curiosity is a fundamental human quality and a premise from which organizations, leaders, and employees create the developing and collaborative organization and culture that leads to high-quality task performance. As a result, there is an intimate relationship between working intentionally with questions and creating greater value for customers, citizens, and service users.

A comprehensive research project, conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) by Chilean psychologist Marcial Losada and organizational behavioral researcher Emily Heaphy, focused on the role of communication in business teams and their performance (2004). Heaphy and Losada found significant correlations between the degree of curiosity and openness and the team or organization’s level of performance. They termed the best performing teams “high-performance teams” and concluded that these groups through learning and collaboration to a great extent had developed into teams that understood how to create synergy and added value from their collaboration (Heaphy & Losada, 2004).

Curiosity and a desire for exploration

High-performance teams are far more curious and exploring than team members in lower-performance teams – a curiosity that largely revolves around the ability to ask questions and listening. Low-performance team members largely tend to advocate for their own points of view instead. The percentages indicate the differences between an approach of inquiry vs. advocacy.

Questions are the main ingredient in curiosity. And curiosity is itself an important component of the communication patterns that generate psychological safety, quality in interpersonal relations, and collective intelligence. In other words: all the different elements that impact on the quality of our collaboration, decisions, and actions, and which ultimately become a determining factor for the results and value we create for our customers and the wider world.

In short, there is a clear correlation between working intentionally with questions, the experienced quality of relations and communication, the degree of collective intelligence, and the quality of the decisions and value we create for the customer.

THE POWERFUL QUESTION MODEL AND THE LOGIC BEHIND THE FOUR TYPES OF INQUIRY

Danish philosopher and management researcher Pia Lauritzen is one of few to have done advanced research in questions and the nature of the question. In parallel to Cooperrider’s point that our questions cause the organization to move in a certain direction, her conclusion is that we position ourselves through the questions we ask. !rough our questions we draw attention in a particular direction. In her words: “From the moment somebody asks somebody else a question a framework is established, which it then becomes impossible to avoid.” (Lauritzen, 2015)

We can ask questions in many different ways, and all are not equally constructive. For example, there is a great difference between a leader asking his employees: Why didn’t you do something about the problem? and asking: What do you see as possible solutions to the problem we are facing? The first question reflects the leader’s view that the employees ought to have responded and taken responsibility earlier. It creates a focus on blame. !e second question expresses the view that there is a problem that everyone involved needs to and a solution to together. It invites employees to commit and involve themselves in finding solutions in a forward-looking movement. Being aware of our way of asking questions has a big impact on the way we relate to each other – and also on our ability to contribute, do, and achieve things together. As such, good questions can’t really be put in a template. The quality and effect of the questions always depend on the context they are asked in.

The model is not a recent invention but is one that we have worked with in practice and developed through many years. Some of the model’s main ideas are presented in Systemic leadership – the reflexive practitioner (Hornstrup et al., 2018).

The purpose and intention behind questions

The generic powerful question model is inspired by Canadian professor of psychiatry Karl Tomm’s seminal work on four different types of questions that affect self-perception and the experience of possibilities in very different ways (Tomm, 1988). Tomm identified the four question types in the course of his study of so-called interventive interviewing. ‘Intervening’ refers to something that appears and becomes a part of something else, i.e. an influence. And that is exactly what we do and are as partners in a conversation. We shape and influence the direction of the conversation through the questions we ask.

The model’s fundamental perspective is that every question contains an intention, and that it is based on certain assumptions. Many of the questions we ask each other on a daily basis are intended to provide clarity, for example when we need to coordinate something or when we turn to a colleague for some particular information that we know he or she can give us.

A question such as: When did you contact the customer? creates the expectation that the person asked is able to indicate a specific time, and that this time is an important information. If the colleague answers: I did it on Thursday at three o’clock, and you acknowledge with a thank you, then this interaction constitutes the clarification of what you needed to know.

The Four Question Model:

The generic powerful question model, which mainly consists of two dimensions

  1. A vertical axis indicating whether the intention of the question is to clarify or develop
  2. A horizontal axis indicating whether the question is oriented to the past, the present, or the future.

Clarifying questions are typically based on a linear logic of cause and effect. In the context of this book, we term it a logic of optimization and action.

By contrast, development-oriented questions are based on circular assumptions and a logic of sustainability. This is the type of questions we call powerful questions. They are linked to systemic relational and complexity thinking in which there are no clear-cut contexts or template responses to the challenges or tasks we face at work. What might increase the quality of our team collaboration, making us better at performing the tasks we need to do? This is a developing and generative question with no single correct answer – which is rarely the case when working in a group to achieve a specific goal. Development-oriented questions invite us to be curious about other perspectives, to inquire into patterns, contexts, and differences of view in order to and better solutions or answers that we were unaware of.

Numbers 1-4 represent the four different types of questions that each have a different focus:

  1. Questions that clarify a situation or problem.
  2. Questions that nuance and contribute more perspectives to our understanding of the problem.
  3. Questions that explore desirable future options and generate new possibilities.
  4. Questions that clarify what action we should take.

The model is a powerful practical tool for working with relevant organizational and leadership topics in an inquiring and strategic way. It is also very useful for challenging our own and others’ mental models and to enhance new and innovative solutions. Below we will briefly unfold the model’s four categories and domains of relevance.

Clarifying questions – Category 1

The questions in Category 1 we call questions to clarify a situation or simply clarifying questions. They are aimed at the past or present and focus on clarifying and getting an overview of a situation. We ask lots of clarifying questions on a daily basis, for example when we want knowledge about something that we think the other person can tell us about. This type of questions is retrospective, aimed at the past – you ask about something that has happened. The question also has a clear intention: Just give me a brief overview of the situation. Examples of clarifying questions might be:

> What is the situation?

> What do we know? Where do we get data?

> What is the task or challenge about?

> Where is the challenge particularly evident?

> What is the story – what happened before, during, after?

> Who is involved – who did and said what?

> What other data or important information is available?

Perspective questions – Category 2

The questions in Category 2 are perspective questions. They are aimed at the past and the present but focus on relations, patterns, and contexts seen from different positions. The questions in this category are intended to develop and challenge our awareness and assumptions – and bring out complementary perspectives in the form of other people’s experiences, views, values, attitudes, or assumptions. The idea is to nuance the narrow story of what is currently in focus and add to the information you would get by only using questions from Category 1. A rigid focus on one aspect of a situation tends to become a dominant narrative if it goes unchallenged.

This is true in organizations as well as in our personal lives. !e intention and purpose of perspective questions are precisely to explore and investigate and thereby gain new perspectives. Examples of this type of question might be:

> In what way is the challenge important?

> When is it most evident – and when least?

> How do others perceive the challenge?

> What have we done successfully in similar situations in the past?

> What different values or assumptions about the challenge are at play in ourselves and in others?

> What do these assumptions mean for what we are co-creators of?

The logical premise of this view is that there are always multiple aspects to a situation, and we know that asking questions that bring out unaddressed aspects can be a way to unlock situations we feel stuck in and break open fixed ideas that narrow our possibilities for action. Collaboration problems are a good example of challenges where we can be restricted by a notion that the other person is the problem. In this case, useful perspective questions might be:

> What do you think it is in your own behavior that makes your colleague distance herself from you?

> What would she say is important to her that you do not see?

> What is the meaningful logic in her way of acting that you have not yet spotted?

These questions call for reflection and expand our understanding of a problem. They lead us to think anew about the things and situations we feel challenged by – and thinking anew at the same time gives us an opportunity to do something different that may positively change the deadlocked situation.

Possible-future questions – Category 3

The questions in the third category we call possible-future questions. They focus on the future and on what we want to happen or what we would like to become able to do. The purpose of this type of question is precisely to develop, to generate new ideas and possibilities. These questions are often familiar in coaching conversations, where we ask questions about possible futures in order to open up new ways of understanding and acting in practice. Examples of this type of question might be:

> What do we want to create?

> What do we need to be able to do?

> What would be some noticeable signs that we have handled the challenge and reached the goal?

> What is the best possible way the situation could look in a year’s time?

> What would other important stakeholders recommend that we do?

> What possibilities would it create if we tried solution x, y, z?

As in the case of the perspective questions, possible-future questions do not always have clear-cut, direct answers. They invite us to imagine the desired possible future and to imagine what the other people involved might say. In this way, possible-future questions open up additional perspectives in our understanding and opportunities for new future action.

Action-clarifying questions – Category 4

The fourth category is action-clarifying questions. Their purpose is to ensure that our conversation has a practical result that contributes to the organization’s task performance – that the conversation is a basis for the creation of value by commitment to agreements and actions discussed. The focus is to clarify and coordinate which of the many ideas and suggestions in the conversation are going to be at the center of our further effort. Action-clarifying questions have a clear and forward-looking scope: What is the best possible way to move forward from here? Examples of action-clarifying questions might be:

> Which of the many ideas that have emerged will create the most value?

> What could we do in the short and in the long term?

> What do we need to implement to make that happen?

> Who do we need to get involved to create the desired results?

> What should be our first actions?

> What is the greatest barrier to success?

> What do we need to be aware of in order to reach the goal despite obstacles?

Note from Bob:  Reading “Leadership for Sustainability Powered by Questions” has made me feel that I am reading my first Doctorate Level book on my favorite topic of “Leading with Questions!”  I have so much to learn!  As I have studied the 4 Question Model I have realized that I have so often gone directly from asking Category 1 Questions to asking Category 4 Questions and have missed the incredible value you and I can bring to any conversation by asking Category 2, then Category 3 and then and only then Category Questions! 

You will want to purchase your “Leadership for Sustainability Powered by Questions” book or eBook today by clicking HERE

Henry Kleive, Thomas Johansen, Thomas Specht

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Henry Kleive, Thomas Johansen and Thomas Specht have more than 50 years consulting and leadership experience in Scandinavian and global companies. Thomas Johansen and Thomas Specht are business partners and senior consultants at MacMann Berg – 20 years old Danish consulting company building on a systemic relational mindset. Henry Kleive is the Nordic Lead in Cognizant Technology Solutions, Norway. See more at www.macmannberg.dk

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