Principle 3: Questions before answers

shutterstock_142135432I like the Radio 4 series, The Public Philosopher.

Each episode takes a controversial issue (e.g. welfare, rape crime, morality and the state) and features Michael Sandel, a Harvard academic, in an auditorium. What makes the programme so enjoyable is the story-like unfolding of the plot as he asks members of the large audience questions on the topic.

He makes comments and injects his knowledge into the arena but the programme centres on the answers that audience members give to his questions and the discussion and debate that this then sparks. The to and fro of the questions and answers reveal new and valuable dimensions to the issues under scrutiny. It’s an illuminating podcast to listen to.

Most strategic organisational issues benefit from a similar approach.  These issues are many sided, complex and with undesirable trade-offs or dilemmas and little immediate clarity as to the best answers. Yes – new data is important for choosing the best way forward. But before any of this the key is to find the right questions to answer.

The power of questions

Good questions have an unerring ability to spark engagement, reflection and discussion. They provoke thought and can change minds in a matter of minutes as they excite emotion in the anticipation of discovery.

No wonder that they are at the heart of good education – with many Law and Business Schools using the Socratic method of questioning as the basis for lectures and case analyses.

They are also at the heart of the third principle for leading wholehearted change: to lead with questions rather than answers. Leaders use questions as a key tool for wholehearted change. Indeed they are often the tool that helps people perceive the gap (see last post).

Too often, our image of the effective leader is the macho all-knowing Hollywood hero – the invulnerable character with fantastic judgment and bold moves. A guy with all the answers. I guess, if they existed, these characters would be marvellous but they don’t! Reality is real people who have to deal with other real people, bringing their limited knowledge, talents and emotional issues into a complex situation with other multidimensional people, challenges and lots of baggage.

Yet too often we want to lead with answers.

In reality, to generate change the most effective leaders provide people with the best questions not the best answers. They lead with the questions that challenge people to produce answers. Relevant to the ‘why’. Self-evidently important. A challenge to the status quo.

Their questions engage – emotionally and intellectually. These ‘pull’ people to really look at the most important issues and start to work at them. Rarely is a crisis so visible that the questions are obvious to all upfront. A leader with the right questions helps people to see the crisis and positively engage with it and with urgency. Only then do people begin to themselves see the need for change and only then do answers become important.

Leaders use questions

Leaders therefore should:

1 Identify the agenda on which the organisation needs to work

Good questions set an agenda. As Einstein is reputed to have said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solution.” The key is for leaders to adopt a questioning approach and uncover which questions need answers.

How do we penetrate this target market?

Why have we had no significant new product in the last 5 years?

What would a digitally enabled organisation look like?

How can we halve our environmental footprint whilst doubling our business?

Why is inter-function co-operation so poor?

Questions set the territory for exploration and express the challenge. Leaders’ need to keep ahead of their teams in understanding the key questions. The right questions are the right ones even when there are not obvious answers. Too often leaders can be like the proverbial drunk looking for their lost keys under a lamppost because there is light there rather than because it is the right place to look.

Leaders focus on identifying the most important areas and work out the key questions here.

2 Work up questions that unlock and engage people on the key issues

For wholehearted change it is vital to engage people emotionally. Questions are a great way to do this, especially when they are asked  with the full expectation of getting an answer. If done well, the question and the expectation empower and engage.

Questions help to uncover the kind of gap discussed in the last post – they help to flesh it out, and by engaging people and building the communication around it they start to build a common language and understanding of it. Where leaders can keep a measured focus on the gap through posing questions they can build the right level of energy and tension to promote innovation and change.

An interesting recent book, A More Beautiful Question, by Warren Berger illustrates the power and significance of questions in doing this and highlights how this is only increasing in importance as information floods our environment. As this happens it becomes too difficult for one person to carry all the answers. Good questions becomes even more important.

3 Use questions to press people to take on their own responsibility

Questions also help to avoid the sloping shoulders that challenges can bring, pressing people to pick up their responsibilities. They help to pass the ‘gap’ around with the expectation that each must play their part in closing it.

Too often leaders, especially community leaders, act as ‘rescuers’ to sort out the issues and problems for their teams. This deprives people of fulfilling their responsibility, contributing their understanding and ideas and undermines their commitment. It ‘robs them of their development opportunity’ as a friend of mine expresses it. Leading with questions works against this risk.

Well formed questions hold people to account in a positive way – by expressing your confidence in their expertise, ability and desire to come up with ways forward … and expecting them to work out the answers! It coaches them to solve their own problems.

How might this look?

How you might work on this…

  • Examine how much and how well you currently use questions in discussions with your team. Good questions sometimes need working at. Consider an area of concern and think specifically about what initial questions need answers
  • When talking with people, ask them what questions they have and are working on in their areas of responsibility
  • In meetings, openly consider what are the key questions and share potential answers without offering these as ‘the way we will go’ but challenging others to come up with better answers
  •  In 1:1’s with your team specifically emphasise questions and challenge for answers
  • Strategy development is very effectively question driven and it can be used as a cascading tool to develop a robust and engaging strategy. Start the leadership team off by challenging them to consider what are the most important questions facing the organisation


Asking good questions is hard and not just in the thinking of them.  It needs a shift in our mindset and a degree of confidence in the power of questions so that we let go of the need to control outcomes directly; to prove how smart we are (to ourself often) because we have the answer;  to under-leverage the insight and expertise of those around us and to deny them their opportunity to develop further.

Leaders seeking wholehearted change make maximum use of questions to raise tension and engage people before they start to share any answers that they might have.

Principle 1 provides forward momentum – the wind in the sails that is needed to change – and a direction to press towards.

Principle 2 sparks the need and the urgency. It acts to pull people forward into change. If people are clear and committed to a purpose then the gap acts as a moral imperative. It performs just like a vacuum in nature. People seek to resolve the tension.

This principle is a way of connecting people with these effectively.