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Great questions focus on the things people don’t realize they don’t know. (ISTOCKPHOTO)
Great questions focus on the things people don’t realize they don’t know. (ISTOCKPHOTO)

MONDAY MORNING MANAGER

How great leaders know the right questions to ask Add to ...

Peter Drucker, who was called the man who invented management, once said that “the important and difficult job is never to find the right answer; it is to find the right question.” After decades of working with leaders, Hal Gregersen, a professor of innovation and leadership at the international business school Insead, has come to the same conclusion, and has developed two tools to help, which he calls Catalytic Questioning and QBurst.

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The best innovators, he has found, have a deep curiosity about the world. They don’t accept the way things are. They probe, asking questions that will lead them to new answers.

Many executives would say that they ask a lot of questions and are skilled at it. But when Prof. Gregersen asks them how they uncover the right question to ask, he gets blank stares. It’s instinct, and they can’t formulate a process.

For something so important, it’s vital to have a process, he believes. He finds that when he is stuck, it’s often because he can’t ask the right question. He has found that great questions focus on the things people don’t realize they don’t know. “Great leaders are exceptional about asking questions about the blind spots around them – the things they don’t know,” he said in an interview.

There’s an important emotional component, too. Often the reason we have a blind spot is that we are emotionally afraid to probe into an issue or peer in a certain direction.

“We work very hard emotionally to run away from things we don’t know. To go into that space means I have to challenge how we do things,” he noted. He cites Whole Earth Catalog creator Stewart Brand, who is fond of repeating the quote: “Every day I wonder how many things I am dead wrong about .”

To find out, you can gather a team of people to investigate an issue through Catalytic Questioning. It’s a form of brainstorming, but takes only about 20 minutes (if that’s too long, Prof. Gregersen has a second version that takes only four minutes).

The process, which he outlined recently on Harvard Business Review Blogs, starts by gathering everyone around the flip chart or whiteboard and wiping your mental slate clean. You need to jettison assumptions, so you can tackle a problem with fresh eyes. Picking the topic is important: You want to address an issue that you care about intellectually and emotionally and that is holding you or your organization back.

“It doesn’t work if you are just going through the motions. You want to be engaged,” he said in the interview. The problem – or opportunity – should be one that you don’t have an answer to currently.

Ask people for questions you might want to follow up to better understand the issue. Write them down as quickly as they come forth – but don’t discuss them. This is a time solely for questions, not to edge into answers or to discuss whether the questions are justified. As the questions are raised, they will likely spark other questions.

Aim to accumulate at least 50 questions or, if it’s a substantive issue, perhaps as many as 75. This can be the difficult part. “Usually people get stuck at 20 to 25 questions. Once stuck, you must keep going,” he said. When dead pause occurs, with no questions, just let it be and wait for more. Usually, he says, it will take 10 to 20 minutes to pull out all the questions the group can conceive.

Now the group needs to choose the three or four questions that are catalytic – the ones that hold the most potential for disrupting the status quo. Those will be the ones you want to explore fully, to see what new thinking the answers open up. Your gut will likely be a better gauge than your brain. “If a question evokes an emotional response, that’s a good indicator. And the exploration then may be internal – ‘Why am I so defensive?’” he said.

The whole process takes about 20 to 25 minutes, usually. He also devised a shorter approach, QBursts, which can be carried out by teams but more likely by an individual who wants to understand a problem better. It’s the same process, but more limited in time; he said that although managers disbelieve him when he suggests the approach, they find it often gives them a new angle on issues.

Prof. Gregersen urges us to take four minutes every 24 hours to develop questions about a challenge. He did this before moderating a panel at last year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, writing down a bunch of questions one evening and then the next morning realizing a few would be highly provocative. A key in all the questioning is to consider your pattern of thinking and what it reveals.

“Questions are like keys that unlock doors in our lives and in our work. The challenge is to find the right key to unlock the right door,” he concludes.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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