According to Hal Gregersen, author of The Innovator’s DNA, the only way to solve the problems of the future is to “build a capacity in ourselves and the people around us to ask the right question”. He argues that innovators excel in asking the right questions, and know “how to create a space and environment around them that let the new right question surface and emerge to take them down a completely different path.” They also know how to teach that inquisitive mindset to others. He also warns of having a “right” answer to the wrong question. We must learn how to ask the right questions, training our minds to search after the right question to ask in the right context.
Michael “Vsauce” Stevens at TEDxVienna inspires us to be constantly asking “why” and not be afraid to ask the absurd questions, to really dig deep into the reasons behind things, to have that natural curiosity for the world we live in.
In reflection, I’m struggling to get my mind around a few things: firstly, how to have that mindset to even start wanting to ask the right questions, and secondly, how to actually ask those right questions at the right time.
How to have that mindset to even start wanting to ask the right questions
It helps to have an incentive. In my case it’s entering a new role at work where I’m required to ask questions as a strategy for helping improve the outcome of a project. Incentives give you the initial push to start thinking of how to start formulating the questions you need to ask. But there is something deeper that must go on. One needs to realize that asking of questions will actually help initiate a potential healthy and rich discussion that may lead to improving a system, allowing a project to succeed or helping another colleague overcome a difficult problem. Knowing that you will make a difference in the outcome directly because of the well-formulated questions you pose is really the mindset you need to have.
How to actually ask those right questions at the right time
This is probably the most difficult one for me. I am a slow processor by nature so things will pass me by in the moment, and I will later on reflect on that moment and be able to formulate an appropriate question to ask, but the meeting will be over! So there must be a way anticipating discussion topics, formulating questions beforehand and being present in the meeting enough to know when to ask your question at the appropriate time. So perhaps steps will look like this (in the context of needing to ask the right in a project meeting):
- Understanding everything there is to know about the proposed meeting agenda and specific discussion topics
- Invest focused time in formulating a list of questions to ask
- Come to the meeting prepared to ask the question at the right point in the discussion
The only problem is that step 2 needs to be unpacked.
How to invest focused time in formulating a list of questions
This would involve brainstorming, mindmaps, process flows, visual diagrams — anything that will stimulate you to generate creative ideas. Perhaps using the Six Thinking Hats will help divide up the questioning into the categories of managing, information, emotions, discernment, optimistic response and creativity.
Another need is to formulate what you in your role are trying to steer the project team into looking at, conceptualizing, rethinking and ultimately deciding on. A clearly defined goal for what you want to achieve in the meeting needs to be clear to you, and then working backwards from that goal, formulate questions that will generate discussion towards that goal.
It would be too ambitious to think of your “right” question always guaranteeing you the ability to change other peoples’ minds. But there is still power in “putting a rock” in the shoe of another person. That is, your question can spark a thought process in the minds of the listener that they will later go away and mull over. It may irritate them like a rock in their shoe, and they will eventually want to take it out, look at it seriously, and consider addressing that question. That could very well create a “change” moment in that person where they decide on reconsidering their original response.
The bottom line
It will take work for you to formulate that right question, and to be present, prepared and ready to ask that question at the right time to the right people. It will take the work of formulating a number of questions around a topic in order to achieve a specific goal, and then whittling down those questions to maybe one or two really good ones. You will need as much information about the topic you are asking the question about in order to formulate the best response.