IAN MANN REVIEWS | Struggling to solve a problem? Maybe you're asking the wrong questions

Questions Are the Answer: A Breakthrough Approach to Your Most Vexing Problems at Work and in Life, By Hal B. Gregersen and Ed Catmull

"If you want better answers at work and in life, you must ask better questions… (and)  if you want better questions to ask, you do not have to resign yourself to chance and hope they will occur to you," the authors assert. And they know. Gregerson is a Professor of Leadership and Innovation at MIT, and Catmull is the co-founder of Pixar, the most creative and successful movie making machine in the world.

Most questions people raise in business are inconsequential, especially where consequential answers are required. The intention of this book is to equip you to generate the type of questions that will unlock blockages in your own unique situation.

With so many changes all about us, and so little certainty (positive or negative,) we desperately need to ask a lot more and better questions.

Einstein is quoted as saying:

"If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first fifty-five minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes."

And Peter Drucker said:

"There are few things as useless—if not dangerous—as the right answer to the wrong question."

Almost all the successful innovations, the big or small, that could make your organisation more effective are the result of finding the right question or questions. One of the most important tasks of the leader then must be to lead the questioning process, to encourage thinking differently.

People who ask good questions were not born that way. They simply learned the techniques by accident, serendipity or deliberately. Anyone can learn to do this.

Consider how reframed questions can open possibilities in any context. A group of parents in New Jersey, whose children’s autism spectrum disorders made it difficult for them to function independently, were paralysed by the question: "What will happen to our child when we are not around?"

When the group managed to reframe the question, it energised them into a different level of action:

"What can we do to make sure our child has a purposeful life today, and in the future?"

There are very helpful techniques described in the book for developing better questions: the most basic one, that can be used in many contexts, is a different form of brainstorming. Brainstorming is commonly used to generate many answers to a clearly stated problem. The twist Gergersen has used successfully in many organisations is to brainstorm questions.

questions are the answer

Three steps

He calls this a Question Burst and it has 3 steps.

Step 1: Set the stage by selecting a challenge you care deeply about. A common one today may be “how can I prevent the company from hurting the very people who have helped build it?”

Then invite a small group to help you consider that challenge from fresh angles. Include people with starkly different viewpoints and from different contexts. Then explain the problem in 2 minutes, because elaborating will only constrain or direct the questions.

Ask for questions only, no preambles or explanations – these risk guiding others in a specific direction which you want to avoid.

Step 2: Set a timer for 4 minutes and collectively (you too,) brainstorm until it stops. Set a target of 20 questions. The time pressure gets participants to stick to questions only. Write down the questions exactly as stated. Stop when the timer goes off.

You might even ask people before you start Step 2 how they are feeling, and do the same after this step is over. Gregersen has always seen a significant rise in energy and positivity. At this stage your thinking partners' job is done.

Step 3: On your own, unpack the questions. Look for ones that suggest new pathways and select a few that intrigue you and that are different from how you’ve been thinking. The best questions are ones you haven’t asked or been asked before, and for which you don’t have a good answer. Which surprised you? Which made you look more honestly at the problem? Which feels important?

Questions are frames 

Questions act as frames into which answers fit, so if you change the frame, you dramatically change the range of possible answers. Questions you have never thought of are a most effective way of breaking through.

Another technique is to ask yourself what would someone very different to me do in this situation or with this problem.

When faced with a serious problem there is a human tendency to start digging in and making progress on whatever part of the problem is easiest. A comical example used in a Google creative unit, is if the vision "was to get a monkey to sit on top of a pole reciting Shakespeare, the typical team would go straight to work building that pole, when the hard part is going to be teaching the monkey!"

Elon Musk talks of analysing a problem by first principles, that is reducing issues to the most fundamental truths by asking ‘What are we sure is true?’

Referring to goods and services, Clay Christensen talks of focusing on "the job to be done" by the goods and services. What is the job that a cappuccino does? Or the job an Uber does that a taxi, a bus or your own car doesn’t do?

Questions need places to flourish or they won’t, and this goes for teams, whole organisations and retreats. Peoples' natural curiosity, that they are born with, can be encouraged or discouraged by the circumstances in which they find themselves. Those who want to cultivate more questioning should instead create new spaces designed and protected as areas where this is encouraged.

A classic way of generating deeper questions on your own or in a group is by asking “why” five times to every answer you generate. It is an easy and powerful technique that opens the problem and can deepen your ability to do something about it.

And the book has many more useful techniques.

It was the Egyptian Nobel Laureate, Najib Mafu who wrote that you can tell whether people are clever by their answers. You can tell whether they are wise by their questions.

So here is the critical question: "What am I going to do today and tomorrow and the next day so that better questions come into my work and my world?"

Readability                      Light -+-- Serious

Insights                           High --+--- Low

Practical                          High -+--- Low

*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on strategy and implementation, is the author of ‘Strategy that Works’ and a public speaker. Views expressed are his own.

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