Maybe the Question is the Answer?

I recently received an email from an associate saying how thrilled she was to be part of a group that supports difficult conversations. It was significant to me because it was an acknowledgement of an organizational culture that embraces questions.

Unlike some organizations where questions are seen as complaints or as being disruptive or disrespectful, I like to think we have created a culture that reflects an understanding that asking the right question is often the answer.

Without a culture that encourages questions, it’s virtually impossible to achieve results of any significance because being inquisitive and challenging the status quo is inherent to long-term success. We need to ask questions of others, as well as ourselves, because it is the questioning that produces leading edge thinking and innovation.  Along the way those questions create clarity, help us to think critically, challenge our assumptions, and inspire us to see things through a fresh lens.

Perhaps organizations, businesses, and communities lose their ability to achieve success because we tell people to stop asking so many questions. This thinking has been reinforced by an educational system that, for the most part, rewards us for having the answer, not for having good questions.

A study by Dr. Kyung Hee Kim, at The College of William and Mary, concluded that people of all ages have been losing their ability to elaborate upon ideas and now they are less motivated to be creative than people of their age were 20 years ago.

Where does that leave us?

Leading edge thinking and innovation often begins with a provocative, naïve, or even slightly wacky question. Consequently, it seems to me that great success may also be the result of asking great questions. It also follows that mediocre questions will only get mediocre results.

To foster a culture in which questions are embraced as a means of creating value, all team members need to know their queries are respected and appreciated. When someone in charge asks others for ideas, they are sending the message that their input is respected and perhaps even better than his or hers. As a result, team members gain confidence, develop as thinkers and problem solvers, and are more motivated to contribute and own the responsibility for implementation of solutions.

It will also be important to ensure we all ask the right questions. Questions that get the best results are usually open-ended — meaning they’re not looking for a specific answer.

Breakthroughs are often the result of someone asking “What if…?”  Other questions could begin with “How,” or “What do you think about…, “What would you suggest we do here?”  One of my colleagues always asks, “What could we do differently”? “What one idea and/or strategy that we are not currently implementing do you believe would best contribute to our success?”, and “Can that be done in any other way?”

The down side of asking a lot of questions is that people may label you as a troublemaker. As a result it will be important to know and to embrace the understanding that is instead more about pursuing enlightenment, knowledge, and the wisdom that results when instead of passive acceptance you are instead saying, “We can do better”.

Posted on 08-29-14

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