I have learnt to be careful when asking questions. Sometimes questions give rise to heated emotions. Once, whilst I was trying work out what was going wrong in a project, my client retorted, “I don’t need questions. I need answers right now! So let’s brainstorm some solutions to this problem real fast!”. Apparently, he thought asking questions meant postponing action.
This incident and many others brought to mind a key question we have been asking ourselves in the Program Team Innovation, of the NAP Process Industries Network. Why is innovation such a slow process, which often strands at a wonderful idea? Using leading brainstorm techniques like best practices, do’s and don’ts, and mapping factors for success and failure, we did not get very far. What we did find is that our thinking had a strong solution bias. It is focused on finding that one brilliant idea or innovative product. Thereby, the underlying need tends to be overlooked which prevents from getting to the root of the problem.
This insight gave me the idea that we should seek our solutions in questions, not answers. Asking questions can accelerate innovation. However, it is challenging for the facilitator, especially in a testosterone-heavy environment that privileges action over reflection. Therefore, you need a solid process. This idea was not new, as a web search soon revealed. As early as 1985, Jon Roland first wrote about what he called “Questorming”, his method can be found online. He wrote: “Its aim is not so much to get a group to come up with “solutions” to a “problem” as to come up with well-stated and well-selected questions or problem formulations. In one sense it addresses the process leading up to what is done in more conventional brainstorming: formulating the problem to be solved by the group”.
Somehow this method has yet to reach the Netherlands, where, to this day, we brainstorm by default. ‘The question’ is unpopular in the corporate setting because it directs our attention to the problem and does not provide solutions. In this context we have to keep challenging ourselves to think in questions, without directly seeking answers. Working in this way, one might find better questions that provide valuable insights. This is the upside of asking questions. They often help the person on the receiving end to generate new insights. This then is also the crux, the problem owner knows far more about the situation than those called in to help him. If the latter engage in brainstorming you could be lucky, but usually the generated solutions have already been thought of before.
In ‘questionstorming’, we generate as many questions as possible about a given problem and the context surrounding it. A good question departs from the individual vantage points of the participants. Initially, the problem owner provides an explanation and background information. This transfer of information is part of the ‘questionstorm’ process and allows for time to think of good questions. Subsequently, the ‘questionstorm’ begins and all questions are recorded. The problem owner does not participate, but rather carefully listens to all questions. The participants can ask for clarification or elaboration, but both they and the problem owner refrain from answering at this stage. Eventually, the answers should come from the problem owner and not the participants. They remain in the question mode throughout the entire process. All questions that have been resolved are ticked off. For the remaining ones the problem owner formulates a plan of action for reaching an answer.
The results are astounding! Participants and especially problem owners indicate reaching valuable insights. In one problem owner’s words: “You have given me a 10 square meter mirror!” and “I now see that we have in fact been trying to find solutions to the wrong question”. ‘Questionstorming’ has proven to be a valuable and instructive process. It turns out asking questions is an art. We have mastered hiding our solutions and suggestions in our questions and that is exactly what we should avoid. When there is sufficient trust and you are genuinely curious you can even ask “why”? without immediately feeling the urge to respond “well, just because”. Free as a child to ask about all that you do not understand, what a fantastic starting point for growth!