Powerful questions – why and how to ask them

by Toby Bartholomew, on 12 Mar 2019 2 min read

Team meeting, taking notes

Have you ever been in a meeting which seemed to have no point to it and was a waste of time? Would it have helped to have someone ask: “Why are we having this meeting? What is its purpose?”

Or maybe you’ve been part of a project that has diverted from its original goal (or never had a clear one to begin with). Could it have been helped with someone simply asking: “What is the purpose of this project? What are we trying to achieve? Why?”

After too many of these meetings and projects, I wanted to learn more about how I could start asking these sorts of questions. This led me to ‘The Art of Powerful Questions’ by Vogt et al. It considers what powerful questions are, why it is important to ask them and how to do so.

What is a powerful question?

For the article, the authors interviewed many international academics and asked what they thought made a compelling, powerful question. Many of the reflections focused on how a good question should be thought-provoking, make you look deeper and uncover knowledge that was already there. What stood out for me was an example given by an academic from Mexico, discussing a powerful question in an interview:

‘It’s a real art to find as well as to shape the right question for your situation. Once a friend told me about a time she was being interviewed. The interviewer said, “We’re just going to ask you one question: What’s the question we should be asking?”’

This shows that when forming your question, it’s important to get those you are asking involved, as they know their situation better than anyone else.

Importance of powerful questions

The importance of powerful questions is in starting new trains of thought and action, as the authors explain:  “Questions open the door to dialogue and discovery. They are an invitation to creativity and breakthrough thinking. Questions can lead to movement and action on key issues; by generating creative insights, they can ignite change.” As Albert Einstein famously said:

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

How to create a powerful question

The power of a question is dependent on 3 factors:

  1. Construction – How a question is formed can drastically affect its power. For example, a closed question (one that has a Yes/No answer) is a lot less powerful than an open question which allows someone to expand on their answer. Most people rank questions with these words from more powerful to less powerful as follows:
    1. Why
    2. How
    3. What
    4. Who, When, Where
    5. Which, Yes/No questions
  2. Scope – To make your questions powerful you need to clarify the scope as precisely as possible. For example, do you want your solvers to be thinking at a team level or at a global level? This will help keep realistic boundaries for your Solvers when they are coming up with solutions.
  3. Assumptions – It is important to understand the assumptions that come alongside the questions we ask. For example, the question, “How can we best implement our new project management tool?” assumes that those involved have agreed that you should implement the new project management tool. To ask more powerful questions you must become aware of these assumptions and use them appropriately.
What now?

Whether it’s asking "Why?" at the beginning of a meeting or "How might we...?" when framing a global challenge, powerful questions should be a vital part of our work lives.

Topics:Creative Thinking