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Questions Are The Answer: Building A Culture of Inquiry

By Laree Kiely

Linda Elder and Richard Paul, in their book The Thinker’s Guide to the Art of Asking Essential Questions, pose this very powerful concept: “All thought is responsive to a question.  Assume that you do not fully understand a thought until you understand the question that gives rise to it.”

Think about it for a bit. It almost makes your head hurt. Spend the next few moments thinking back on a recent conversation you might have had where people were lobbing out answers, but had never stated the originating question. Much research, including the work on groupthink, shows that answering the question without ever asking it can often send organizations seriously sideways.

kiely 1Leaders have always been taught to have (and rewarded for) answers. That is a 1950’s mentality. This new world is too complicated for leaders to have all of the answers without doing some serious due diligence and gathering information from multiple sources. In fact, often the people deepest in a system are the ones with the richest information. They are the ones with their feet on the ground and directly face the consumers.

In previous columns, we have discussed that the quality of the answers is very dependent on the quality of the questions. Yet how can we be sure to ask the right questions? Here are some tips and ideas to get started in this process:

1) Get in the habit of thinking, “If this is the thought/answer, what was the question that generated it?”  This tool can be incredibly clarifying. It is also at the root of critical thinking.

2) Learn your default questioning style. Step one: pick a topic and write down the first six or seven questions that come to mind. Write each question on a separate post-it note. Sort your questions into two piles by asking the following questions: are they focused more on the present or are they more future-oriented? Now sort your present-focused questions into two piles based on whether they are judging or simply gathering more information. Do the same with your future-oriented post-its. You should have four piles.

According to Gary Cohen, in a July/August 2010 Ivey Business Journal article titled “Just Ask Leadership: Why Great Managers Always Ask the Right Question,” the first pile (present focus/information gathering) is the Professor style. The second pile (present focus/judging) is the Judge style. Pile number three (future focus/information gathering) is the Innovator style while the fourth pile (future focus/judging) is called the Director style. Do you have a predominant style? The bottom line here is that we should all cultivate the ability to ask all types of questions, not just the ones that come from our default style.

3) Avoid the “bring me a rock” phenomenon. My friend Leo Wade, a retired senior vice president from the University of Southern California, taught me this wonderful metaphor. It is when a leader asks a team to do something or to solve a problem. In the story, the leader asks the team to “bring me a rock.” Here is how it typically plays out.

In the beginning, the team goes about this task in a very earnest way. They might even meet on their own time. Maybe they might all meet at the park on Sunday. As their families gather for a picnic, the team works together. They are fully engaged and enthusiastic about the task. They discuss “rocks,” determine which rocks would be in the best interest of the organization and where to find such rocks. They go out of their way to find the right rock. Then they take it back to their manager who looks at the rock and says, “Oh no, not that rock. That one will never do.”

kiely 2So the team meets again. Only this time they are not looking for the right rock. They are looking for the rock that will please the manager. They are trying to second-guess him and are no longer thinking in terms of what they should be solving. They meet on company time and use company money to buy the lunch. They are less enthused. In the back of their minds they are thinking, “If he had some specific rock in mind, why didn’t he just tell us to go get that rock?” Again, they try and think perhaps that he really values their thinking.  Once again, the manager says, “No, not that rock either.”

They meet for a third time. They are no longer thinking at all. Why bother? By this time, you can only imagine what they want to do with the rock.

This story is a cautionary tale.  It does not take very long to cause the thinking muscle in our organizations to atrophy. It is not like a switch we can turn on and off at will.  Once it is dormant, it is very difficult to bring back to vitality. Believe me; we cannot afford to have people who are not thinking in our organizations. It is too perilous and too hazardous.

Using questioning to learn and gather information helps strengthen that mental muscle in our organizations over time. However, if we are going to lead with questions, we have to enter the process with an open mind. If you have an answer already “baked” in your head, first ask if you should be so sure. Then, if you are sure it is okay to be so sure, just tell people. Do not use the bait and switch model of questioning just to look like you want input from others. People are perceptive. They notice this and quickly lose faith in their leader. Leaders gain trust in inches, but lose it in miles.

Quoting Cohen, he warns, “’Just Ask’ leadership is not built around the Socratic Method.  Plato suggests that Socrates did not know the answers to the questions he asked.  I never bought that argument, nor should you.  If you have been using this questioning method at work, please do yourself a favor and stop.  Many smart employees can see right through it as just another technique.  They do not like playing cat and mouse with you.  If you know the answer that you want them to arrive at, tell it to them.  Bear in mind, though, that it’s generally more advantageous to doubt that you know the answer and to ASK.”

There is a lot more to building a thinking organization through questioning and inquiry, but this can get us started. An open mind, a spirit of curiosity, and the use of questions rather than certainty can significantly help us be more equipped for this new world and all of its complexities. So here is a final reminder. When we are questioning, we are learning.  When we are answering, we are only accessing what we already know. The shift has to be from what we know to what we NEED to know.

I leave you with a wonderful quote from an unknown source, “Leadership is in the hands of the person who asks the next GREAT question.”


Laree Kiely, Ph.D. served on the faculty at the University of Southern California for over 15 years. Dr. Kiely is president of the Kiely Group and serves as faculty for leadership programs at Duke CE, UCLA, USC, Thunderbird, and Ivey (Toronto). The Kiely Group specializes in leadership and organizational impact.  She can be reached at [email protected].

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