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  • Writer's pictureRob Macey

Want better Strategy? Ask better Questions

The world's greatest inventors, philosophers and entrepreneurs have always done it and most children do it daily - it's asking questions.

Great questions beget better questions and further lines of inquiry. Think of the "5 Whys" sequence developed by Toyota Industries founder Sakichi Toyoda. Or even look to great scientists or philosophers as to first principles questioning or hypothesis framing.

Here's how you could run or introduce your next session to approach a wicked problem or strategic challenge using these phases to explore great questioning at the outset:

Phase 1 - Pick the challenge/problem you'll focus on

You can't tackle everything so focus on what really matters to your project, team or business and write it down and describe it so it's clear. Engage a small group with cognitive diversity to generate the questions. It's good to have people in the room who will bring a different perspective. The rule here is simple: only questions to be developed, without commentary or speeches. Just simple, short, open questions. To be more time efficient you could select the problem first and refine it before selecting your group.

Phase 2 - Build the questions

Allow 10 minutes for building questions in the group. Time is short so use it wisely. Well run, you should aim for at least 10 questions from each participant. Push back on solutions, ideas, commentary, grandstanding. You want to get the best questions out, get them down onto a whiteboard. You might like to consider De Bono's thinking hats concept here or other similar tools to get started, but don't get too bogged down, trust yourself to articulate what springs to mind. Ensure they relate back to the original problem you picked.

Phase 3 - Select the questions that jolt you from your comfort zone

Identify the questions that do this. You could use the 5 Whys process to build upon the ones you choose; and then select one or two that you agree to pursue further. You might employ different mental models to help you select those that unpack a new way of thinking. Hopefully a path has opened up that is different; and this sets the scene for a more focused consideration of your problem. What you're looking for are questions that lead to "ah ha" moments; or challenge you to think about a familiar problem in a different light.

Phase 4 - Test the questions

Take stock and check in with your group as to how they feel and think about the questions. Are they on target and relate to the original problem statement? Are they clearly framed, open questions? If so, keep them. If not, cull them.

Phase 5 - Remain accountable

Of course we can't remain in a state of questioning. We do need to get up and solve things eventually. Once you've chosen your focus area then you'll need to remain accountable for the follow up actions. Having taken some time at least to explore questions first, you've set a course that energises you or your team to pursue something with renewed focus.

The above phases should take about an hour if run efficiently and will provide you with (in a time poor world) some surprising pathways if you've selected a diverse group and stuck to the rules.

Better questioning at the outset can: challenge default thinking; break down long held assumptions; promote active listening; uncover unconscious bias (or various others like confirmation or optimism bias); mitigate against group think; encourage cognitive diversity (by allowing all participants to contribute not just the extroverted ones); and foster an environment of innovation by encouraging good questioning.

What's your experience of questioning and what differences did it produce?

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