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| February 28, 2017

by Jim Bruce

“The important thing is not to stop questioning … Never lose a holy curiosity.”                                  Albert Einstein

Young children are incessant askers of questions.  Endless, relentless.  Based on a 2013 Telegraph Media Group Survey of some 1000 mothers in the U.K., kids between ages two and 10 ask an average of 23 questions per hour.  Age four girls top the list at about 30 questions per hour while nine-year-old boys come in last in the survey at about 12 questions per hour.  A similar study of primary school teachers indicated that they answer about 19 questions per hour and medical doctors, 18.

Yet, as curious children go off to school, they reduce the number of questions they ask.  Hal Gregersen founder of the 4/24 Project, an organization that challenges leaders to set aside four minutes each day to ask better questions, reports that “The average six- to 18-year old asks only one question per one-hour class per month.  Contrast that with the average teacher, who peppers kids [in their classes] with 291 questions a day and waits an average of one second for a reply.”
So, while we seem to be born curious, by the time we’re out of school we’ve lost our curiosity.  Why might that be so?  Writers speculate that in school we receive recognition for right answers, not for asking good questions.  And, later in the workplace this incentive continues – we reward those who answer questions, not those who ask them.  Further, your stature in an organization may decline if you ask too many questions that challenge others’ ideas, particularly if they are in positions of higher authority.  And, as this occurs, you ask even fewer questions.
Also, because asking questions will often delay the decision-making process, it’s easy to move past the questioning stage and jump to conclusions which, in turn, may lead to poor decision making, re-work, and possible embarrassment when the work proceeds to an incorrect conclusion.  Pohlmann and Thomas, principals at analytics and decision sciences solutions provider Mu Sigma, suggest that in our “always on” world, we’re always rushing to the answer.  We need to slow down, ask the questions that need to be asked so that we reach better decisions. 
Paul Sloane, writer and speaker on lateral thinking, creativity, and leadership innovation, argues that questions are the best way to gain deeper insights and develop innovative solutions.  Donald Latumahina, Lifehack blogger and student at the National University of Singapore, suggests four reasons for being curious and asking questions:

  • It makes your mind active instead of passive.
  • It makes your mind observant of new ideas.
  • It opens up new worlds and possibilities.
  • It brings excitement.

Yet, in spite of good reasons to ask questions, we stop asking them.  Sloane believes that some of us don’t ask because we’re lazy.  We assume that we know the main things we need to know and don’t bother to ask more questions to learn more.  So, we hang onto our beliefs and assumptions, right or wrong.  Others don’t ask questions because they fear that this may lead to them looking weak, ignorant, and unsure.  Asking questions might introduce uncertainty, or show that they are not as knowledgeable as they want to appear.  And, finally, as noted earlier, asking questions may slow their work down. 
Leaders must set an example in this regard.  To do this, we need to learn more about asking questions.  Pohlmann and Thomas suggest that we begin by recognizing that there are different kinds of questions that can lead to different outcomes.  They identify four kinds of questions that we might consider:
Clarifying questions help us understand what has been said.  Too often our comments do not register with our conversant, we speak past each other.  Clarifying questions help us uncover the real intention behind the words initially said.  “Can you tell me more?”  “How did you come to that conclusion?”  “I’m not sure I understand what assumptions you made.  What did you assume?”
Adjoining questions help us explore parts of an issue that have not been discussed in our conversation.  Sometimes we are so focused on the immediate that we do not understand the broader issues and implications, the unintended consequences.
Funneling questions take us on a deeper dive into the issue.  We ask these questions so that we can understand how the solution was reached, how changing assumptions or boundary conditions could impact the solution, etc.
Elevating questions raise broader issues and address the bigger picture.  They help you zoom out so you see the current issue in its larger setting.  You might, for example, ask how the current work on a service management system for IT might be broadened to include the physical plant service management system.
As leaders we need to ask more questions and encourage others to do so as well.  In doing so, we’ll better understand our goals, how the work of related projects fits together, and as a result generate solutions that better meet our organization’s needs.
As you plan for the meetings you will attend or schedule this week, think about questions that you might ask to make each of the discussions in these meetings better meet your needs and those of your organization as well.  Work to make asking good questions a new practice.
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.
Telegraph Staff, Mothers Asked Nearly 300 Questions a Day Study Finds, Telegraph Media Group Limited.
Stephannie Vozza, 8 Habits of Curious People, FastCompany, April 21, 2015.
Tom Pohlmann and Neethi Mary Thomas, Relearning the Art of Asking Questions, Harvard Business Review, March 27, 2015.
Jeff Boss, Embrace Curiosity:  4 Ways Questioning Makes You A Better Leader, Forbes, May 22, 2016.
Paul Sloane, Ask questions:  The Single Most Important Habit for Innovative Thinkers,
Donald Latumahina, 4 Reasons Why Curiosity is Important and How to Develop it, Lifehack Blog.