At some point in the last two decades of my professional career I noticed a shift. Early on I believed that my value in any of my enterprises, or in the ones I supported, came from having the right answers to increasingly complex questions. The more questions I was asked, the better the day. The more often I hit the target with a good answer, the more valuable I felt I was.
Then, as the complexity and sophistication of my work and of our challenges grew, the more often I realized that finding the right answer eluded me. It was quite unrewarding. I spent more time and energy in search of correct, powerful and keen answers and packaging them so that they would leave my teams with awestruck clarity. It was a great feeling but decreased in frequency, occurring less often than I liked. This approach also set me up to argue my point. While I was (and am) quite good at that skill, it usually left the team feeling less—rather than more—engaged.
Then, oddly, as increasing complexity advanced, and as the skills and competencies and commitments of my team grew, I found that I needed to ask better questions. This shift was freeing. And it was surprisingly invigorating. I found that if I changed from answering to asking and then from asking surface questions to asking deeper, more catalytic questions, our strategies accelerated, our teams engaged more deeply, and our passion (and fun) increased. And, I slept better.
Looking back I’ve found some questions are reliable starting points for me. They have become my 4 Favorite Questions.
First: What problem are we trying to solve? It may not come as a surprise to you, but it did to me, that the presented problem is rarely the problem worth solving. Asking this question is clarifying. And when we identify the problem, we ask what is the problem that created that problem?
Second: What opportunities does that core problem create? This is a fun one. Most often I found myself thinking that the work was to solve the identified problem. Boom! Done! Next? But, a few years back I began to realize that every problem brings something else to the party: An Opportunity. If not for the problem, this Opportunity would not exist. This question takes the toxicity out of simple problem solving.
Third: What have we tried already? What have we done that obviously isn’t working? Why are we still doing it? Who cares? What is working? What is not?
Fourth: What would you do if I were not available? This is both instructive and entertaining. Most of the time, with a smile, I can say, “You are probably correct in that approach.” It is also humbling as it occasionally reveals my inadequacies and over-controlling nature as a leader.
In every case these 4 Favorite Questions have resulted in far better engagement, more innovative solutions and greater alignment in my team. Try them on for size. They may help you, too.