Skip to main content

Questions, Anyone?

| May 23, 2017

by Jim Bruce

As young children, one of the first things we began to do after we had learned to talk is to ask questions.  Our brains thirst for information, for knowledge, to understand.  Paul Sloane, author of the Innovative Leader, tells us that asking questions is the simplest and most effective way of learning. 
So, if as children we asked questions constantly, and if as students, we asked questions to understand our studies, and if when we take on a new role we ask questions about the role and its surrounds, etc., why is it that at some point in life the number of questions we ask begins to go down, significantly down.  Why?
Conceivably, perhaps we think we know all that we might need to know in the area being discussed and are not open to new information.  And, perhaps, not asking questions is a mask to conceal the real reason.  Could we just be lazy and not want to exert the effort to really engage the topic or don’t want to possibly challenge our beliefs on the subject.  Sometimes people are afraid to ask because they will look uninformed, weak, or unsure.  By not asking, they may give the impression that they are in command of the issues.  And, some people are in a hurry to move on and don’t want to stop and ask questions as it might slow them down.
However, not taking the time to stop and ask the relevant questions runs risks, no matter what you are trying to accomplish.  You may, for example, have missed a key piece of information and rush to implement the wrong solution or take wrong actions.  Lacking key information, you may look foolish.
Eric Schmidt, when he was CEO of Google, said “We run this company on questions, not answers.”  By continuing to ask questions, you can continue to find even better answers.  A wise philosophy, I think.
We can ask questions in all facets of our life.  Inga Stasiulionyte, an Olympian in the javelin throw and now an executive life coach, believes that asking people the right questions will push them to figure out answers on their own, thus enabling them to move forward.  And, as we help others and ourselves, we need to insist on an appropriate precision in the answers.  For example, “fine” from an athlete in training probably is not a sufficiently precise answer to the question “how are you?”  And, neither is “OK,” from a team member struggling with a difficult problem. 
James Ryan, Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of Wait, What? And Life’s Other Essential Questions suggests that leaders need to inspire the curiosity, creativity, and deeper thinking in those around them and suggests that this is often best done by asking questions.  He suggests that there are really only five questions that need to be asked:
1.  “Wait, What?”  All too often, we jump to conclusions without having sufficient information.  We perhaps listen just long enough to form a quick opinion, and then we either endorse the proposal or object to it.  Too often, this results in a bad decision, leaving key assumptions untested.  We all need to give ourselves permission and ask others, family, colleagues, and staff to slow down and explain in more detail.
2.  “I wonder why…?” or “I wonder if…?”  Adults often find it hard to ask questions about the world around them.  Not so children.  They question everything.  Why is the sky blue?  Why is the grass green?  Why don’t the clouds fall down?  And, when they do, they encourage others to think, reason, and explain things anew.  In a like way, leaders need to remain curious about their organizations, about the tasks they are working on, about their staff, about themselves, in order to bring new ideas to bear.  Simply asking “I wonder why…” can often be a useful nudge to get a broader conversation going.
3.  “Couldn’t we at least…”  This beginning can often get you unstuck from a contentious discussion where consensus seems impossible.  “Couldn’t we at least carefully describe what our differences are?”  “Couldn’t we at least list the options that we need to explore?”
4.  “How can I help?”  Most of us instinctively want to help but too often, we don’t stop to think about the best way to help.  We just jump in and, overwhelming everyone as we take charge.  By asking, “How can I help?” we encourage those involved to think about the problem and whether we can and how we might be of help.
5.  “What truly matters?”  This is a question that we need to stop and ask often.  Ask it when we are working on a complicated task, or in a difficult personnel situation, or when our personal workload is overwhelming, etc.  It’s better to ask this early when there is time to do something about the situation than late in the “game” when time is short.  It helps everyone stay focused on the right priorities.
So, become and remain curious.  Ask questions, not just the obvious ones on the surface but show real interest in truly understanding the issues at hand.  Dean Ryan’s five questions can give each one of us a good start on our journey of curiosity.
Make it a great week.  .  .   jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Paul Sloane, “The Single Most Important Habit for Innovative Thinkers,”
Inga Stasiulionyte, 6 Underlying Benefits of Asking Questions, SUCCESS.
James E. Ryan, 5 Questions Leaders Should Be Asking All the Time, HBR, April 2017.