Systems Only Get the Right Answers When They Ask the Right Questions
Consider the possibility that everything we know today about our world emerged out of a vast pool of questions. Consider that human systems naturally evolve towards the questions people ask.
Questions push the boundaries of our knowledge and understanding of what is possible. How might we transplant a heart or put a person on the moon? These accomplishments may not have been likely without first opening the door with powerful inquiry.
Questions open up a new level of thinking, one that reaches beyond problem solving towards possibilities and creativity. Today's systemic issues rely on the capacity to raise penetrating questions that challenge current mental models and underlying assumptions. Rather than find “quick fix” answers, competent leaders design "inquiring systems" for collective meaning-making and discovery. Imaginative questions can help us rethink complexity by stimulating fresh thinking, focusing on intention, and leading into the future, according to Eric Vogt, Juanita Brown, and David Isaacs, authors of The Art of Powerful Questions: Catalyzing Insight, Innovation, and Action.
Asking powerful questions is something I am learning to do. A colleague of mine is very good at shaping the right questions. Her ability to dig deeper and pry open hidden values and ideals leads to action and positive shifts in energy. This holds true both in her personal life and professional life. My conversations with her often end with feelings of inspiration, a sense of direction and clarity.
So then I ask, "What makes a powerful question?"
According to Vogt, Brown, and Isaacs, powerful questions have the capacity to "travel well" into larger networks of conversation throughout the organization or community. Thus, they are thought provoking, generate curiosity, reveal underlying assumptions, and invite creativity. They, generate energy and forward movement, channel attention and focus inquiry, touch a deep meaning, and evoke more questions.
Although, yes/no, which, who, when, and where questions can be mighty, why, how, and what questions tend to open our minds rather than narrow the possibilities we can consider. For example, consider the differences here:
- Do you value our relationship?
- Why do you value our relationship?
- How may we support each other so that our relationship is strong and healthy?
- What is it about our relationship that you find most satisfying?
The point is to create useful insight, a skill I intend to master.
Vogt, Brown, and Isaacs caution to not only be aware of the influence of our words but also to pay attention to the scope of a question. What is the field of inquiry we wish to consider? For instance, are you considering the relationship among individuals? Within a work group? Inside an organization? Among external stakeholders?
The third dimension to consider is the assumptions within questions. Explicit or implicit, questions have assumptions built into them. Seeing the world through someone else's truth and suspending our own belief system invites examination into both conscious and unconscious assumptions.
Just recently, I vied with the assumptions of an environmental group. In their quest to create a relationship with people living within and around a natural community as rare and significant as the rainforest, they assumed the people simply did not care about this ecosystem. Through a series of penetrating and direct questions, they began to realize they knew nothing about the people residing there or their relationship to that unique place.
My hope is that we begin to ask questions together so that we may invoke a fundamental shift that ultimately leads to integrity with each other and the natural world. That's a broad scope, I know. But this shift begins with posing questions to one self.
What assumptions do I need to test or challenge in order to bring about peace within my family, my community, and myself? What are my intentions? What's the next level of thinking I need to do? What would it take for me to create change? What's possible here, and who cares? What seeds might we plant together that could make the most difference to the future?