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Posts tagged ‘Questions’

appreciation of horizons

Margins. Margins of screens. Margins of books. Margins of the sky.

How often have you looked up from the small screens that surround you? How often have you stopped looking at your calendar as you move from one meeting to the next? How often have you stepped away from the hundreds of details and small pieces of data that seem to make your world run?

Do you see the margins?

Do you see the horizon?

Remember the way you are all possibilities
you can see and how you live best
as an appreciator of horizons,
whether you reach them or not.
— David Whyte, Mameen

designing powerful questions

As a facilitator, questions are one of the tools of my trade. Using the same questions every time creates boredom, dullness, and decreases creativity. I work to create effective questions in the moment. And, one of the questions I am asked in return is, “How do you create good questions?” The World Cafe process suggests that there are three dimensions to creating effective questions:

  1. Scope or scale of the questions
  2. Assumptions in the questions
  3. Construction of the questions

Scope starts with clarity of purpose and intention. Begin by asking yourself what is the purpose and intention of the interaction. Scope should set a context, create a boundary (scale), and be relevant. Without scope, people are overwhelmed, shutting down the opportunity for conversation. For example: How can we cut our budget? or How can we create world peace? are questions with a broad context and no boundaries. Rephrase with scope in mind: What are the opportunities we have in the next week, month, and year stop doing things that no longer serve our clients and start doing something new? How do you create peaceful time for reflection for yourself and your work group within your meeting process?

Assumption starts with understanding of objective and audience. Since people respond to the assumptions made in the question, ask yourself what outcomes are desired and who will be part of the conversation. Assumptions should provoke inspiration and forward movement toward the purpose and intention. Notice the different assumptions in these questions: “What did you learn from our project planning experience?” compared to “What are you learning now from our project planning experience that relates to the current project?” The assumption is that learning is continually happening and has current application.

Construction uses language and shaping. The word chosen to open the question exists on a continuum from less to more powerful.  The less powerful questions can be answered with a “yes” or “no.”  The next level questions begin with “when” or “who,” the next with “how” or “what. ” “Why” questions stand at the top of the continuum. They are special because “why” questions can either provoke defensiveness and reenforce beliefs or they can evoke curiosity and imagination.

Once the opening word is chosen, use active language to shape the direction. The example above applies where past tense “did you learn” is replaced with “are you learning now.” Active language can invite change, innovation, or imagination: Based on our conversation, what change will you make this week in how you structure meeting processes? What are you thinking or feeling now based on our conversation? What are your current concerns about this subject?

Powerful, effective questions increase the value of our conversations through focus on purpose, intent, relevance, and action. Participants engage and connect. Powerful questions can change the thought patterns of individuals and teams, moving beyond business as usual.

What strategies do you use to create effective questions? Do you have a “root” word or words that you use when building effective questions?

Holy curiosity

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one  tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.
Albert Einstein

Idea for reflection -32

Questions for leaders

Jim Collins wrote about the need for leaders to look in the mirror, holding themselves accountable for the direction and culture of their organization. Robert Kaplan’s newest book, What to Ask the Person in the Mirror, lists questions for leaders to ask:

  • Why did you choose this job?
  • Does the way you spend your time match your key priorities?
  • Do you coach and also solicit feedback from your key subordinates?
  • Do you have a succession-planning process in place?
  • If you had to design your company today with a clean sheet of paper, what would you change?
  • Do you act as a role model?
  • Are you reaching your potential and being true to yourself?


What other questions would you ask leaders? What other questions would you ask yourself?

Read an interview with Kaplan and book excerpt.

Avoiding questions

Idea for reflection – 30

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.
  – Albert Einstein

Do what I say, not what I do
Idea for reflection – 29

Avoiding questions

Do you avoid asking questions? People avoid questions for many reasons. We don’t want to make other uncomfortable. We might disrupt the meeting agenda. We worry that it’s a stupid question. Or ask ourself, “What if no one knows the answer?”

One strategy for handling these question stoppers is to begin the question with a phrase that lets everyone know that you’re aware of the situation, but are still going to ask.

Some examples of introductory phrases:

• I might not be wording this well, but …
• This may need a separate conversation, but …
• I know we may not have all the answers yet, but …
• I’m wondering about …
• I’m not clear about …

Whether you’re in a meeting or answering an email, if you find yourself hesitating to ask a question, don’t wait for the perfect moment or the perfect question, consider adding an introductory phrase and ask the question.

Needed: More data or the right question
Creating a space for critical thinking

Abstract perspectives

Jon recently walked through the door with this photo in hand. What is it? My father-in-law, who is a professional artist, would say, “It’s whatever you want it to be.” The value of the abstract is that it challenges our imagination and creativity. It opens the door to all possibilities.

What would you imagine if anything were possible? If you had three wishes to increase the health of your organization in 2011, what would they be? Where are the greatest opportunities for realizing these dreams? Where will you start? How will you take the first step?

The discipline of learning through education

“A well-trained man knows how to answer questions, they reasoned; an educated man knows what questions are worth asking.” – E. Digby Baltzell

This quote appears inside of an article about the Bell Telephone Company’s experiment with educating executives in a broad range of topics.  The executives attended a 10 month program designed to expand their horizons by reading a wide range of books, engaging in discussion with leading thinkers, and listening to guest lecturers.  In the end, even though the graduates better understood the world around them, were more interested in the workings of society, and could see more than one side of an argument, Bell ended the program. The unexpected outcome was that in expanding their confidence and critical thinking capabilities, the executives  were more likely to put their families and communities ahead of the company’s interest in the bottom line.

Katzenbach and Khan in Leading Outside the Lines write that today’s formal leadership programs can create a “self-reinforcing system” when they are based on templates designed to reproduce more leaders like those already in place. Choosing formal leaders is usually based on a process defined by degrees and certifications, alongside demonstration of increasing responsibility and delivery of bottom line results. Many training systems have been adapted from the Bell experiment to better serve the company interest in the bottom line.

Or do they serve it better? I would suggest that both are needed. The discipline of learning through education should be broad as well as deep. People need to be well-trained in technical skills. And, people need to be educated in a wide range of subjects and how to be critical thinkers. No company stands alone. Each is part of larger systems that include families and extended families, communities that are connected to schools and housing, and the global community.  We need leaders who can debate and consider all sides of a question, but most importantly, “know what questions are worth asking.”

Using questions to create doorways

I continue to consider what it means to crack the cognitive egg. Critical thinking is essential to creating new neural pathways. Questions are a tool to stimulate critical thinking. Questions can be trivial or complex.

In an organization, trivial questions may sound like:

  • Who is in charge?
  • How many departments do you have?
  • How often do you have an all-hands meeting?
  • What is your mission statement?

On the other hand, complex questions are meant to create dialogue and discussion. They provoke people to search for the answer and learn along the way. They stimulate other important questions. They can’t be answered once-and-for-all, but keep showing up over and over again. They require re-thinking assumptions and prior lessons.

Here are the above questions revised to increase their complexity and stimulate critical thinking:

  • How does your organization define leadership? Who in your organization demonstrates those leadership characteristics?
  • If you could draw a picture of how your organization divides up and shares responsibilities, what would it look like? Do you see any patterns? How has this picture changed over time?
  • What are the formal and informal ways communication happens in your organization? What are the benefits and weaknesses of the formal and informal communication methods?
  • How does your definition of leadership, the way you manage responsibilities, and communicate say about the core values of your organization? What is significant about the values of your organization?

A final question: How do the answers to these questions fit with what you thought the answers were yesterday?

I close with a quote:

It is easy to ask trivial questions . . . . It is also easy to ask impossibly difficult questions. The trick is to find the medium questions that can be answered and that take you somewhere. – Jerome Bruner in Understanding by Design, 2005, p. 105.

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