Beautiful questionsSolutions are nice. Questions are better. The quality of our questions shapes not only the answers available to us, but our entire life. Asking great questions will change a person’s trajectory.

If you want to get to the root of any tough situation, you’ll ask hard questions, the ones you’d rather avoid because you instinctively know the answer will irritate or disrupt. Each answer will lead naturally to the next question in cycles that take you closer to the center. You peel back layers of the issue, question after question, answer after answer, until you hit pay dirt. Falsehoods drop away. Outdated concepts separate out. What remains carries a distinct ring of truth.

It’s okay to not like where it takes you. It’s also okay if, having arrived at the crux, there’s no obvious solution. The more you see and understand the source of the issue, the greater the odds that you’ll arrive at a workable, maybe even elegant, way through to the other side.

Percipient questioning can flip an organizational culture on its head by challenging notions of how things should be. Gary Hamel, in The Future of Management and What Matters Now, illustrates how simple questions can penetrate outdated assumptions about competition, cost structure, customer satisfaction and even employee engagement. His tip to managers is to ask, “‘Where do I have this wrong? … Is there an option I haven’t considered?’ The best leaders are the ones who get the most options on the table before making a decision, and the most adaptable companies will be those that encourage folks to voice heretical viewpoints.”

In The Surprising Power of Questions, from the May-June 2018 Harvard Business Review, authors Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John take an even more pragmatic approach. Different situations with different intended outcomes necessitate different approaches for both the questioner and the responder. Unlike Hamel, who challenges  leaders to put their own interests behind those of others, Brooks and John prescribe a set of calculations. Their implied aim is to accumulate knowledge as a means to power, rather than quenching curiosity or advancing knowledge for the greater good. I’d characterize it a transactional mindset rather a relational approach.

I recommend keeping it simple, straightforward and real. To draw out people’s potential (as well as possibilities within organizations), travel with sincere questions in your quiver. Without costing a dime, they’ll equip you to dispel assumptions and unearth new options.