How many open-ended, idea-prompting questions do you ask every day?
Do you ask more questions than you give orders or provide answers?
Recently, I worked with a client, and we explored the vital topic of curiosity as a leadership attribute and questioning as a behaviour.
At the start of the work, most individuals assumed their ratio of questions-to-orders/answers would be high.
It was their belief they were curious and used of open-ended, provocative questions about customers, markets, competitors, processes and so forth. One manager offered, “It’s my job to help them think about the possibilities, not provide the answers.”
Imagine their surprise when a survey of their direct reports, demonstrated that their directives and answers significantly outnumbered questions.
I was once called out for blathering on instead of listening and was disappointed to admit that I had a propensity to opine and answer rather than stimulate thinking through listening and questions.
Moving the ratio in the right direction became a developmental exercise for me.
And here’s why I believe this is so important.
Questions are the Seeds of Ideas and Innovations
In a world drunk on the speed of change and filled with uncertainty, the right questions provoke thinking and give-way to actions, experiments, and ideas that provoke more questions and beget more ideas.
As the leader, you set the tone for curiosity on your team. Questions free people to think and to speculate and to follow threads in pursuit of strengthening some aspect of the business.
What Is Your Ratio?
For the next few days, keep a log of the number of times you ask open-ended, exploratory questions (“Did you finish that work?” doesn’t count!) versus issuing answers or directives.
If your ratio is skewed toward the questions, great, keep it up. If not, here are some question prompters to put to work as part of your developmental activity.
7 Questions to Stimulate Curiosity on Your Team
1. “What if?”
- “What if we develop a new product that eats our old one in the marketplace. Will it eat the competitor’s as well?”
- “What if we changed this process to empower our employees to make decisions directly with customers without seeking approval from a manager?
- “What if we changed our view of who our real competition is in the marketplace?”
2. “What do you know that is new?” Former GE Chairman and CEO, Jack Welch, upon first meeting someone would ask, “What do you know that is new?” and took the time to listen to the answers.
3. “What do we need to know to make this decision?” Most decision-making processes are fraught with incomplete data, opinions and biases. This simple question challenges groups and individuals to think around and through a problem before making an informed choice.
4. “What does this mean for us/our customers?” I use this liberally in situations where changes in the external environment or industry or competitor announcements send everyone into panic mode.
5. “How would you approach this situation if you framed it as an opportunity instead of a problem?” This question forces people out of a defensive mode into the world of possibilities.
6. “What events in markets and technologies that will change everything? This question moves people beyond the four-wall and inside-out thinking.
7. “What are the real burdens our customers hire our products to remove?” Reframing questions on what your products and services do to resolve customer’s problems is a great way to rethink your innovation efforts.
Start asking more open-ended, thought and idea-provoking questions and you’ll find the number of ideas people and teams generate will grow.
Of course, you have to bring those ideas to life.
But for the moment, focus on asking more and directing less.
And see where it takes you.
Remember, your curiosity is contagious.