Leading with Questions

You probably already know that the questions you ask drive the answers you receive. Think, for example, about the differences in answers received from questions like “How can we drive shareholder value” as compared to “How can be best serve our customers?” But do you also know that your questions can shape your interactions with others, your feelings, the meaning you make of life, and even your results? Consider the difference in outcomes, for example, from a question, such as “What’s wrong?” as opposed to “What works?” Or “why bother” vs. “What’s possible?”

If questions are so important, how can we learn to ask better ones? Here are three important points to remember:

1. Good questions challenge mental models or those blinders that often keep us from seeing what’s possible. Novel questions open up new worlds of opportunity. For example, asking the question “How can we optimize our car rental business?” generates a different set of answers – a fairly limited set, in fact. But asking “How can we optimize our transportation business?” opens up all sorts of possibilities around expanding into hourly contracts for other forms of transportation, such as Zip-cars, bikes, Segways, or scooters.

2. Related to the need to switch mental models to be a more effective leader is the demand for more innovation — in process, products or services. Most innovations represent an answer to a new question, or to an old question asked in a new way. To come up with some unexpected perspectives, try asking a different question. For example, “What haven’t we thought of?” “What can we try?” or “What can we do with this?”

3. Since the questions we ask ourselves are important in influencing our behavior and feelings, we need to look at these internal questions as well. What would happen to our openness to change and risk if we switched from asking ”What could I lose” to “What can I learn?” Or, instead of asking “How could I do such a stupid thing?” what about asking “What benefit can I get from this?”

Because questions are so critical, we need to design ones that challenge assumptions, generate more creative answers, and widen the lens of “our perceptions of what is possible.” One of the first steps in developing good questioning skills is to learn to “question our questions!” We can do this by asking,

  • What do I want this question to accomplish?
  • Is this question expansive, inspiring, and bold?
  • Could this question lead to unforeseen, creative answers?
  • Does this question generate new learning?

Why not start building a portfolio of questions to open up worlds and expand possibilities? A great resource is the book Leading with Questions by Michael Marquardt http://amzn.to/v0jOUY.

According to Meg Armstrong, an executive coach: “Curiosity and asking penetrating questions are enduring qualities in the best leaders.” And management guru, Jim Collins has said: “there is nothing more exciting than picking a question that I don’t know the answer to and questing for answers!”

So, why is it that leaders are so afraid to ask questions?

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