THE ART OFPOWERFUL QUESTIONSCatalyzing Insight, Innovation, and Actionby Eric E. Vogt, Juanita Brown, and David Isaacs
THE ART OF POWERFUL QUESTIONSCatalyzing Insight, Innovation, and Actionby Eric E. Vogt, Juanita Brown, and David Isaacs“If...
Why Don’t We Ask Better Questions?                           as a global community, we need these skills now moreIf asking...
assumptions will be key to creating positive futures.            a compelling question. Here are some of theirAs Einstein ...
should be asking?” Sometimes the most important         rowing the possibilities we can consider. Is it a yes/no    thing ...
That’s what we mean by a powerful question—one                  expand in scope.As you work to make your questionsthat pro...
It’s often helpful to examine a question for any     exploration. Just a few practice sessions will greatlyunconscious bel...
ly altered the context of the inquiry—to become the      times they had participated in a community experi-best for the wo...
cared about started to come forward—values like              From these examples, it’s clear that improving thelearning, m...
the relationships among them. Begin to clarify the “big        THE GAME PLAN PROCESS                                      ...
IS YOUR ORGANIZATION AN INQUIRING                                                           How Can Leaders Engage Powerfu...
However, authentic conversation is less likely to occurin a climate of fear, mistrust, and hierarchical control.          ...
QUESTIONS FOR ALL SEASONS Here is a series of generative questions that we and other colleagues have found useful to stimu...
Nurturing these learning networks and honoring         Co-Evolving the Futurethe questions they care about is another core...
For Further Exploration                         provides software andBrown, Juanita. The Wor...
Purposeful Community and Change Leadership for the 21st Century -Handout #8 powerful questions
Purposeful Community and Change Leadership for the 21st Century -Handout #8 powerful questions
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Purposeful Community and Change Leadership for the 21st Century -Handout #8 powerful questions


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June 29, 10:30am – noon, Room: Union A
Purposeful Community touches all aspects of the learning process. The four components of Purposeful Community will be explored in relation to increasing student achievement and growth. Participants will learn about the phases of the change-leadership process in the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative (called Enhancing Leadership Quality for Collaborative Action Impact). A mindset-management approach to leadership and delivery models will be shared, which will assist participants in creating a plan for Purposeful Community and Change Leadership in their own school or district.
Main Presenter: Mark Glasbrenner, Battelle for Kids
Co-Presenter(s): Barb Hansen, Battelle for Kids

Published in: Technology, Education
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Purposeful Community and Change Leadership for the 21st Century -Handout #8 powerful questions

  1. 1. THE ART OFPOWERFUL QUESTIONSCatalyzing Insight, Innovation, and Actionby Eric E. Vogt, Juanita Brown, and David Isaacs
  2. 2. WE’D LIKE TO THANK KEN HOMER FOR HIS INVALUABLE ASSISTANCE IN SHAPING THIS ARTICLE AND FRAN PEAVEY FOR HER PIONEERING WORK IN MAKING STRATEGIC QUESTIONS PART OF OUR LEXICON.THE ART OF POWERFUL QUESTIONS: Catalyzing Insight, Innovation, and Actionby Eric E.Vogt, Juanita Brown, and David Isaacs; illustrations by Nancy MarguliesDesign and layout by Nancy DaughertyCopyright © 2003 by Eric E.Vogt, Juanita Brown, and David IsaacsAll rights reserved.ISBN 0-9724716-1-8T Printed on recycled paper.Printed in the United States of America.First edition. First printing September 2003.Published by: Produced and Distributed by: Whole Systems Associates Pegasus Communications, Inc. 166 Homestead Boulevard One Moody Street Mill Valley, CA 94941 Waltham, MA 02453 e-mail: e-mail: www.pegasuscom.com570209 08 07 06 05 04 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2
  3. 3. THE ART OF POWERFUL QUESTIONSCatalyzing Insight, Innovation, and Actionby Eric E. Vogt, Juanita Brown, and David Isaacs“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on over time, led to significant advances in the field ofthe solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining physics. Many years later, an empirical demonstrationthe proper question to ask, for once I know the proper ques- showed that light from distant stars actually curved astion, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” it passed through the gravitational force of our sun. —ALBERT EINSTEIN Einstein’s graduate students rushed to him as he was walking through the Princeton campus andW hen was the last time you sat through a meeting and said to yourself,“This is a complete waste oftime!”? Was it yesterday, or even just a few hours ago? exclaimed, “Dr. Einstein, light really does bend!” Einstein looked at them quizzically and said, “Of course!” He had come to this conclusion throughWhy did that gathering feel so tedious? Perhaps it’s exploring the question in his own thought experi-because the leaders posed the wrong questions at the ment years before.start of the session. Or, worse yet, maybe they didn’t ask Another Nobel-prize winner, physicist Arnoany engaging questions, and as a result, the meeting Penzias, when asked what accounted for his success,consisted of boring reports-outs or other forms of one- replied,“I went for the jugular question.” Still practic-way communication that failed to ing his questioning discipline today,engage people’s interest or curiosity. Penzias recently commented at a Fast The usefulness of the knowledge Company Conference, “Change startswe acquire and the effectiveness of the with the individual. So the first thing I doactions we take depend on the quality “I WENT FOR each morning is ask myself, ‘Why do Iof the questions we ask. Questions THE JUGULAR strongly believe what I believe?’open the door to dialogue and discov- QUESTION.” Constantly examine your own assump-ery. They are an invitation to creativity tions.” It’s this type of self-questioningand breakthrough thinking. Questions ARNO PENZIAS, that keeps creativity alive.can lead to movement and action on NOBEL LAUREATE In other key examples of the impor-key issues; by generating creative tance of powerful questions, a query byinsights, they can ignite change. James Watson and Francis Crick, “What Consider the possibility that every- might DNA look like in a 3D form?” led tothing we know today about our world the discovery of the double helix and for-emerged because people were curious.They formulat- ever altered the scientific landscape. During the Tylenoled a question or series of questions about something crisis in the early 1980s, considering the question,that sparked their interest or deeply concerned them, “What is the most ethical action we might take?”which lead them to learn something new. Many Nobel enabled Johnson & Johnson to restore consumer trustlaureates describe the “Eureka!” moment of their dis- and become a leader in corporate responsibility. Andcovery as when the “right” question finally revealed asking, “Where can I get a good hamburger on theitself—even if it took them considerable time to come road?” motivated Ray Kroc to create McDonald’s, theup with the final answers. For example, Einstein’s the- fast-food chain that became an international icon. Evenory of relativity resulted from a question that he had for ordinary folks, asking a question as simple as,“Whatwondered about when still a teenager: “What would does all this mean?”or “What can we do that could helpthe universe look like if I were riding on the end of a shift this situation?” or “What haven’t we thought oflight beam at the speed of light?” Einstein regularly that could make a difference?” can have a startlingpracticed this kind of “thought experiment,” which, impact on creating new knowledge and insight.THE ART OF POWERFUL QUESTIONS 1
  4. 4. Why Don’t We Ask Better Questions? as a global community, we need these skills now moreIf asking good questions is so critical, why don’t most than ever.of us spend more of our time and energy on discover- Are there organizations that do place a high valueing and framing them? One reason may be that much on questions? Consider this: In Germany, the job titleof Western culture, and North American society in par- Direktor Grundsatzfragen translates as “Director ofticular, focuses on having the “right answer” rather Fundamental Questions.”As a German colleague said:than discovering the “right question.” Our educational “Yes, there’s a job title of Direktor Grundsatz-system focuses more on memorization and rote fragen. Some of the larger German companiesanswers than on the art of seeking new possibilities. have an entire department of Grundsatz-We are rarely asked to discover compelling questions, fragen. These are the people who are alwaysnor are we taught why we should ask such questions thinking about what the next questions willin the first place. Quizzes, examinations, and aptitude be. Of course, these people are only in thetests all reinforce the value of correct answers. Is it German companies headquartered in Germany,any wonder that most of us are uncomfortable with such as Daimler, Bayer, Siemens, or SAP. If thenot knowing? German company is acquired by a U.S. compa- The aversion in our culture to asking creative ny,they usually eliminate the Grundsatzfragenquestions is linked to an emphasis on finding quick positions.”fixes and an attachment to black/white, either/orthinking. In addition, the rapid pace of our lives and The German understanding and appreciation ofwork doesn’t often provide us with opportunities to Grundsatzfragen may stem from a culture that high-participate in reflective conversations in which we ly values philosophy and the ongoing questioning ofcan explore catalytic questions and innovative possi- priorities and the meaning of life. Even today, thisbilities before reaching key decisions. These factors, focus is reflected in some unique aspects of high-coupled with a prevailing belief that “real work” con- school education. In the German Gymnasium, fromsists primarily of detailed analysis, immediate deci- the ages of 14 to 17, students are typically assigned tosions, and decisive action, contradict the perspective study groups with 30 of their peers. In the words ofthat effective “knowledge work” consists of asking one graduate, “We work intensely together in everyprofound questions and hosting wide-ranging strate- subject, and then in the second year, we meet Goethegic conversations on issues of substance. (the famous 19th-century German philosopher), and The reward systems in our organizations further we question our entire world for two years. Wereinforce this dilemma. Leaders believe that they are emerge with a greater appreciation for the power ofbeing paid for fixing problems rather than for foster- questions and the power of conversation.”ing breakthrough thinking. Between our deep attach- As we enter an era in which systemic issues oftenment to the answer—any answer—and our anxiety lie at the root of critical challenges, in which diverseabout not knowing, we have inadvertently thwarted perspectives are required for sustainable solutions,our collective capacity for deep creativity and fresh and in which cause-and-effect relationships are notperspectives. Unfortunately, given the unprecedented immediately apparent, the capacity to raise penetrat-challenges we face both in our own organizations and ing questions that challenge current operating POWERFUL QUESTIONS AND KEY OUTCOMES Who Question Outcome Watson and Crick “What might DNA look like in 3D form?” Discovery of the double helix James Burke, CEO, “What is the most ethical action we might take?” Restoration of consumer Johnson & Johnson confidence Ray Kroc “Where can I get a good hamburger on the road?” Creation of McDonald’s2 THE ART OF POWERFUL QUESTIONS
  5. 5. assumptions will be key to creating positive futures. a compelling question. Here are some of theirAs Einstein said, “The problems we have cannot be reflections:solved at the same level of thinking that created Finn Voldtofte (Denmark): The question has to catchthem.” And in her book The Art of the Question, people where they are, to meet them where thereMarilee Goldberg adds,“A paradigm shift occurs when is the most energy and relevance for them, anda question is asked inside the current paradigm that then use that energy to go deeper. Action willcan only be answered from outside it.” It’s this kind of flow naturally from that energy.paradigm shift, based on powerful questions, that may Felipe Herzenborn (Mexico):The question also needsbe necessary to create truly innovative solutions to to be simple and clear and penetrating. It’s like aour most pressing concerns. laser beam. A good question invites and chal- lenges you to reflect at a deeper level—to find theWhat Makes a Question Powerful? knowledge or wisdom that’s already thereIn a wonderfully evocative description, Fran Peavey, a beneath the in the use of strategic ques- Verna Allee (U.S.): To me, the mosttions, observes: energizing questions are those that “Questions can be like a lever you “A PARADIGM SHIFT involve people’s values, hopes, and use to pry open the stuck lid on a ideals—questions that relate to OCCURS WHEN A paint can. . . . If we have a short something that’s larger than them, QUESTION IS ASKED lever, we can only just crack open where they can connect and con- the lid on the can. But if we have a INSIDE THE CURRENT tribute. People don’t have a lot of longer lever, or a more dynamic PARADIGM THAT CAN energy around questions that are question, we can open that can up ONLY BE ANSWERED only about removing pain. much wider and really stir things FROM OUTSIDE IT.” David Isaacs (U.S.): Even though it’s up. . . . If the right question is useful to acknowledge pain, I think MARILEE GOLDBERG, applied, and it digs deep enough, it’s also important to shift the ques- THE ART OF THE QUESTION then we can stir up all the tion away from a problem focus or creative solutions.” fix-it focus to a possibility focus. There’s always a subtle feeling of dis- While you may not immediately empowerment in a problem,a feelingknow the characteristics of a powerful question, it’s that all the doors are shut.“We’ve gotactually quite easy to recognize one. For instance, if you a problem . . . oh no! Not another problem!”There’swere an Olympic judge scoring the power of questions a weariness and stuckness about it. Simply asking,on a scale from one to ten (with ten being the highest), “What’s the possibility we see in this situation?”canhow would you rate the following queries? make a big difference. 1. What time is it? Toke Moller (Denmark): Here’s an example of that 2. Did you take a shower? approach. I was working with a local school to 3. What possibilities exist that we haven’t frame a possibility-oriented question. We asked thought of yet? teachers, students, parents, and administrators, 4. What does it mean to be ethical? “What could a good school also be?” This way of posing the question helped people to see their We have tested questions such as these in several school in a different light. It resulted in some amaz-different cultures. In the process, we’ve discovered ing new ideas. I’m quite sure they would not havethat, despite cultural differences, people quite consis- been as innovative if the question had focused onlytently rate questions one and two as being less power- on fixing problems.ful, and questions three and four as being more power- Carlos Mota (Mexico): It’s a real art to find as well as toful. Clearly, powerful questions are ones that transcend shape the right question for your situation. Once amany boundaries. friend told me about a time she was being inter- Not long ago, we hosted a conversation with a viewed. The interviewer said, “We’re just going togroup of international colleagues about what makes ask you one question: What’s the question weTHE ART OF POWERFUL QUESTIONS 3
  6. 6. should be asking?” Sometimes the most important rowing the possibilities we can consider. Is it a yes/no thing to do is to help the people themselves shape question? Is it an either/or question? Does it begin the questions in the most powerful way, since they with an interrogative, such as Who,What, or How? know their own situation the best of anyone. WHO WHATThus, a powerful question: WHEN WHERE WHICH • generates curiosity in the listener WHY HOW? • stimulates reflective conversation • is thought-provoking Just for fun, try placing these words in a pyramid • surfaces underlying assumptions of lower to higher power. Don’t think too much; use • invites creativity and new possibilities your intuition. • generates energy and forward movement More Powerful • channels attention and focuses inquiry • stays with participants • touches a deep meaning • evokes more questions Less Powerful A powerful question also has the capacity to “trav-el well”—to spread beyond the place where it began When asked, most people rank these words frominto larger networks of conversation throughout an more powerful to less powerful as follows:organization or a community. Questions that travel wellare often the key to large-scale change. As we’ll explore More Powerfulbelow, how such queries are crafted can make a differ-ence in their capacity to move a system toward innova-tive futures. WHY, HOW,The Architecture of Powerful Questions WHATAs shown at the start of this volume, powerful ques- WHO, WHEN, WHEREtions can dramatically improve the quality of insight, WHICH, YES/NO QUESTIONSinnovation, and action in our organizations, in ourcommunities, and in our lives.Therefore, understand-ing the basic architecture of formulating powerful Less Powerfulquestions is a key skill in today’s knowledge economy.There are three dimensions to powerful questions: By using the words toward the top of the pyra-construction, scope, and assumptions. Each con- mid, we can make many of our questions more robust.tributes to the quality of learning and knowledge cre- For example, consider the following sequence:ation that emerges as we engage with others in a gen- • Are you satisfied with our workingerative inquiry. relationship? • When have you been most satisfied with our Construction working relationship? • What is it about our working relationship that Assumptions you find most satisfying? • Why might it be that that our working Scope relationship has had its ups and downs?THE FIRST DIMENSION: As you move from the simple “yes/no” question atThe Construction of a Question the beginning toward the “why” question at the end,The linguistic construction of a question can make a you’ll notice that the queries tend to stimulate morecritical difference in either opening our minds or nar- reflective thinking and a deeper level of conversation.4 THE ART OF POWERFUL QUESTIONS
  7. 7. That’s what we mean by a powerful question—one expand in scope.As you work to make your questionsthat provokes thoughtful exploration and evokes cre- powerful, tailor and clarify the scope as precisely asative thinking. possible to keep them within the realistic boundaries However, a note of caution: Unless a “why” ques- and needs of the situation you are working with.Avoidtion is carefully crafted, it can easily evoke a defensive stretching the scope of your question too far. Forresponse, as people try to justify their answer rather example, compare the following question to the onesthan proceed in a spirit of inquiry. For instance, the above:questions, “Why can’t you ever tell me exactly what • How can we best manage the economy?you are thinking?” or “Why did you do it that way?”can cause someone to defend a given position or While extremely interesting, this query is clearlyrationalize some past decision, rather than open new outside the scope of most people’s capacity to takepossibilities. In contrast, when a “why” question stems effective action, at least in the short term. In many sit-from genuine curiosity, such as “I wonder why that uations, this would be a less strategic question thanhappened?” then the inquiry has the potential to cre- one for which those involved had the capacity toate useful insights. make a more immediate difference. Just because a question is situated near the top ofthe pyramid does not necessarily mean that it is more THE THIRD DIMENSION:important or more relevant than its counterparts at the The Assumptions Within Questionsbottom. Depending on your goals, a “yes/no” question Because of the nature of language, almost all of thecan be extremely important (particularly if you are clos- questions we pose have assumptions built into them,ing a large sale!). either explicit or implicit.Likewise, a question These assumptions maythat gets at the facts “A VITAL QUESTION, A CREATIVE QUESTION, or may not be shared byof who, when, and RIVETS OUR ATTENTION. ALL THE CREATIVE the group involved in thewhere can often be exploration; for instance POWER OF OUR MINDS IS FOCUSED ON THEcrucial, such as in a the question, “Howlegal case. However, QUESTION. KNOWLEDGE EMERGES IN RESPONSE should we create a bilin-when you want to TO THESE COMPELLING QUESTIONS. THEY OPEN gual educational systemopen the space for US TO NEW WORLDS.” in California?” assumescreativity and break- that those involved in the VERNA ALLEE, THE KNOWLEDGE EVOLUTIONthrough thinking, exploration have agreedquestions construct- that being bilingual is aned around the words important capacity forat the top of the pyramid will have more strategic lever- the state’s students. However, some powerful ques-age than those that use the words at the bottom. tions challenge everyone’s existing assumptions. For example, ask yourself what assumptions the followingTHE SECOND DIMENSION: question might challenge: “How might we eliminateThe Scope of a Question the border between the U.S. and Mexico?”It’s important not only to be aware of how the words To formulate powerful questions, it’s important towe choose influence the effectiveness of our query, become aware of assumptions and use them appro-but also to match the scope of a question to our priately. So, contrast the question, “What did we doneeds.Take a look at the following three questions: wrong and who is responsible?” with “What can we • How can we best manage our work group? learn from what’s happened and what possibilities do • How can we best manage our company? we now see?” The first question assumes error and • How can we best manage our supply chain? blame; it is a safe bet that whoever is responding will feel defensive.The second question encourages reflec- In this example, the questions progressively tion and is much more likely than the first query tobroaden the domain of inquiry as they consider larg- stimulate learning and collaboration among thoseer and larger aspects of the system; that is, they involved.THE ART OF POWERFUL QUESTIONS 5
  8. 8. It’s often helpful to examine a question for any exploration. Just a few practice sessions will greatlyunconscious beliefs it may introduce to the situation. enhance your ability to engage in productive conver-You can do so by simply asking your team, “What sations stimulated by dynamic questions.assumptions or beliefs are we holding that are key tothe conversation we are having here?” and “How Using Powerful Questions in Organizationswould we come at this if we held an entirely different There are more and more examples of how the disci-belief system than the one we have?” Each of these plined use of compelling questions is making a differ-questions invites an exploration into both conscious ence in organizational life. These changes often hap-and unconscious assumptions and opens up the pen in surprising ways, opening new avenues thatspace for new possibilities to reveal themselves. people never considered before. By surfacing or altering assumptions, we can shift HP “for the World.” Sometimes something asthe context of a strategic inquiry and create new simple as changing a preposition in a sentence canopportunities for innovation. Compare the have a dramatic impact on how an organiza-following two questions: tion conceives of its mission and role. • How can we compete with the Consider how a small shift in the con- Chinese? struction of a question led to major • How can we collaborate with changes in the scope and context the Chinese? of strategic inquiry at Hewlett- Packard, resulting in effective The second question changes the innovation and targeted action.context by challenging our traditional busi- The director of HP Labs wonderedness paradigm and the assumptions that why the organization was not con-underlie it.As a result, it opens up a new line sidered the best industrial researchof exploration and set of subsequent questions. laboratory in the world. As he thoughtThe art of reframing questions in this way has about it, he realized that he did not knowimportant implications for not only shifting our what that designation really meant. He chargedassumptions, but also creating new possibilities for Barbara Waugh, a key staff member, with coor-constructive action. dinating the effort to respond to the question, By understanding and consciously considering “What does being the best industrial researchthe three dimensions of powerful questions, we lab in the world mean?” Instead of looking forcan increase the power of the questions we ask answers outside the company, Barbaraand, as a result, increase our ability to generate encouraged the director to share his coreinsights that help shape the future.As with any question with all HP Lab employeesnew skill, the best teacher is experience, and around the world.the best coach is a thoughtful listener. We To that end, Waugh initiated aencourage you to experiment with global network of conversationsincreasing the power of your questions around that question, using theand see what impact you have. company’s technology infrastructure along with face- For example, in advance of an important meeting to-face gatherings to support the dialogues. Just byor conversation, spend a few minutes with a col- exploring the practical implications of the question inleague and write down several questions that are rel- a disciplined way, the Lab began to see productivityevant to the topic. Rate them in terms of their power. gains. But one day, an HP Lab engineer came intoReferring to the three dimensions outlined above, see Barbara’s office and said, “That question is okay, butif you can spot why certain questions are more com- what would really energize me and get me up in thepelling than others. Experiment with changing the morning would be asking, ‘How can we be the bestconstruction and scope, to get a feel for how doing so industrial research lab for the world?’”changes the direction of the inquiry. Be sure to exam- That one small shift changed the entire game byine the assumptions that are embedded in your ques- scaling up the meaning of and shifting the assump-tions and check to see if they will help or hinder your tions embedded in the original question. It profound-6 THE ART OF POWERFUL QUESTIONS
  9. 9. ly altered the context of the inquiry—to become the times they had participated in a community experi-best for the world as the larger context for becoming ence that really worked, using queries such as,“Whatthe best in the world. This question allowed that positive experience to hap-obviously “traveled well”—it was no pen? What kinds of activities were tak-longer just the Lab’s question, but ing place? How did you fit into that?”Assomething that many others at HP members shared what they knew frombegan to ask themselves as well. their own best community experiences,Employees at HP Labs and through- “THE QUESTION they began to see the analogies to busi-out the whole company responded NEVER FAILED US.” ness life. They posed follow-up ques-to this new focus with a tremendous tions, such as,“How does a community MIKE PFEIL, CORPORATEsurge of collective energy. deal with adversity and adapting to EXECUTIVE Once they reworded the original change? What happens with membersquestion, Barbara and her colleagues who don’t uphold the community’scould change the scope of related standards?”questions depending on the situa- As the conversations evolved,tion. For example, shifting the scope important values that people reallydownward meant focusing on “What does HP for theWorld mean for me? What does it mean in my life, in HOW CAN I FRAME BETTERmy own work?” HP employees could also scale up the QUESTIONS?scope by asking, “What does HP for the World meanfor my work group? For my department? For HP as a Here are some questions you might ask yourself ascompany? And what might it mean for the world you begin to explore the art and architecture ofitself?” powerful questions. They are based on pioneering HP’s E-Inclusion effort, a major project to enable work with questions being done by the Public Conversations Project, a group that helps createthe world’s poor to enter the new economy while constructive dialogue on divisive public issues.providing critical medical and other information tocommunities in the third world, stemmed in large I Is this question relevant to the real life and realmeasure from the HP for the World exploration. The work of the people who will be exploring it?question has now traveled far beyond the company: I Is this a genuine question—a question to which“What does it mean for us to be ‘for the world’?” was I/we really don’t know the answer?a key question explored at a State of the World Forum I What “work” do I want this question to do? Thatwith a group of more than 1,000 global leaders from is, what kind of conversation, meanings, and feel-every continent. ings do I imagine this question will evoke in those Creating a Sales “Community.” Another case who will be exploring it?in which a catalytic question empowered leaders in I Is this question likely to invite fresh thinking/new ways occurred in the sales organization of a feeling? Is it familiar enough to be recognizablemajor U.S. corporation. Mike Pfeil, the area director of and relevant—and different enough to call for-sales, wondered how a community, rather than a tra- ward a new response?ditional company, might deal with the challenges it I What assumptions or beliefs are embedded in theconfronted. As a learning experiment, he began to way this question is constructed?host conversations with employees from all levels in I Is this question likely to generate hope,his organization to explore the meaning of communi- imagination, engagement, creative action, andty at work and how they might apply community new possibilities or is it likely to increase a focusprinciples to enhance performance. on past problems and obstacles? To depart from the group’s traditional focus on I Does this question leave room for new andproblems, the sales director framed questions that different questions to be raised as the initialshifted the context within which workers normally question is explored?look at their organization. He asked people to examine Adapted from Sally Ann Roththeir best experiences of community and to reflect on Public Conversations Project c. 1998THE ART OF POWERFUL QUESTIONS 7
  10. 10. cared about started to come forward—values like From these examples, it’s clear that improving thelearning, mutual respect, contribution, and sharing quality of the questions you ask and creating a frame-with others. Another simple but powerful question work of engagement that encourages their explo-emerged from those early dialogues:“How can we cre- ration can create business value. Because learning toate a community at work that enables each person to engage thoughtful questions can lead to insight, inno-contribute our best, inspires us to keep learning, and vation, and action, doing so will become an essentialproduces valued results?”This simple strategic capability for leaders ofshift of lens led other leaders in the organizations who want to create sus-company to look how it functioned tainable results in the face of bothwithin the larger communities in “QUESTIONING short- and longer-term challenges andwhich it operates.The learnings from BREAKS OPEN THE opportunities.this project informed subsequent STAGNANT, HARDENEDwork in the area of corporate respon- SHELLS OF THE Fostering Strategic Inquirysibility and in the creation of mission Beyond building the capacity of individ- PRESENT, OPENINGgoals that include the perspectives of ual employees to ask powerful ques- UP OPTIONS TO BEboth internal and external stake- tions, an organization can designholders in creating the company’s EXPLORED.” processes that use such queries tofuture. FRAN PEAVEY enhance the emergence of knowledge The local leader who launched creation and strategic thinking. As thethis effort is now a corporate vice chairman and CEO of a major multina-president. In looking back on his expe- tional corporation says, “Discoveringrience with engaging powerful questions to shift the strategic questions is like panning for gold.You have tocontext for exploring business realities, he shared the care about finding it, you have to be curious, and youfollowing: have to create an anticipation of discovering gold, even “As we learned more, the meaning of the though none of us may know ahead of time where question continued to evolve. We asked our- we’ll find it. You head toward the general territory selves, “How can we go out and plant this where you think the gold may be located, with your seed? How do we frame it as we bring other best tools, your experience, and your instincts. And people into the conversation?” The question then you begin a disciplined search for the gold.”We’ve always worked in stimulating the dialogue. partnered with this leader to create a set of tools for Sometimes as leaders it’s important not to col- fostering strategic inquiry and working with powerful lectively work on what the answer is but to questions in the service of positive futures called the work on what the question is.That was a big “Game Plan” process. The following steps may not insight for me as we did this work. The ques- apply to all situations and they may not always play out tion never failed us.” in the same sequence. However, the Game Plan sug- gests ways that organizations can create both formal Improving Questions at Pfizer. In another and informal processes to support individuals as well asrecent case, professionals at Pfizer, the world- teams in discovering the “gold” for themselves.renowned pharmaceutical firm, are experimentingwith a systematic method of improving the quality of The Game Plan Processtheir questions.Through a custom-designed workshop, The steps in the Game Plan can be used both as amarketing and finance professionals in Pfizer’s process discipline by individuals looking at a particularEuropean business unit have been learning to articulate situation, as well as by functional and cross-functionalpowerful questions.These executives have discovered groups and leadership teams charged with thethat meetings have more energy and creative ideas responsibility for key decisions regarding futureflow more quickly when they place attention on for- courses of action. The Game Plan can also involvemulating catalytic questions. With this discipline in diverse stakeholders to provide important perspec-place, new ideas are more easily finding their way into tives both on the current situation and on possiblekey products and services. future actions.8 THE ART OF POWERFUL QUESTIONS
  11. 11. the relationships among them. Begin to clarify the “big THE GAME PLAN PROCESS questions” that the initial clusters reveal. Frame these as clear and concise queries, not as problems. I Assess Your Current Situation Something fundamental changes when people begin I Discover the “Big Questions” to ask questions together—they go beyond the nor- I Create Images of Possibility mal stale debate about problems that passes for strat- I Evolve Workable Strategies egy in many organizations. Create Images of Possibility. Ask yourself, “What would our situation look like or be like if the Assess Your Current Situation. Get a feel for ‘big questions’ were answered?” Creating vivid imagesthe larger context in which you are operating. Scan the of possibility differs from pie-in-the-sky visioning,internal and external business and organizational envi- especially if people with a variety of perspectivesronments that may affect the future of the system or have participated in the earlier stages of your analysis.project you are working with. This situation analysis This part of the conversation can also provide cluesmight include the assessment of critical results data, for refining or reframing your big questions as well asmeetings with key stakeholders, and the mapping of inventing creative strategies. Developing scenarios—your strengths, opportunities, and threats. It might also stories of the future based on different ways your biginvolve looking for “signals”—inter- questions might be answered—cannal and external events, develop- also be useful. These often revealments, and trends that can affect the new territory and opportunities forfuture of your situation. Like trackers “STRATEGIC action that are grounded in real the mountains, look for both obvi- QUESTIONS CREATE Evolve Workable Strategies.ous and subtle indicators that point A RESONANT FIELD Workable strategies begin to emergeto storms as well as sunny skies. in response to compelling questions INTO WHICH YOURAllow your curiosity and imagination and to the images of possibility that OWN THINKING IS these questions evoke. In a sense,to take the lead as you begin to iden-tify the many questions that the MAGNIFIED, such strategies are the “bigbroader landscape within which CLARIFIED, AND NEW answers”—the key initiatives youyou’re operating reveals. MOTION CAN BE invent to address your “big ques- It will be challenging, but CREATED.” tions.” Once you clarify key initia-important, to frame your findings as tives, you can formulate and imple- FRAN PEAVEY, STRATEGIC ment specific action plans.questions rather than as problemsor concerns—questions that end QUESTIONING Of course, the cycle is neverwith a question mark, not with a complete. You need continuousperiod or an exclamation point. To “sensing”based on relevant businesshelp in designing these queries, ask and organizational data, ongoingyourself, “How does A affect C and conversations with internal andwhat questions does that suggest? If X were at play external stakeholders, informal conversations amonghere, what question would we be asking? What’s the employees, and feedback from the organizationalreal question underneath all this data?” environment. This input enables you to continually Discover the “Big Questions.” Once you think reassess the landscape you’re operating in—revealingyou’ve posed most of the relevant questions (and new questions for exploration.there may be many of them), look for patterns and The innovative leader with whom we developedthemes.This is not a mechanical process, even though the Game Plan process has shared this tool with theit should be disciplined and systematic. You are on a entire organization. People from throughout the com-treasure hunt, seeking the core questions—usually pany have found that it provides a way to discoverthree to five—that, if answered, would make the most questions that matter to the future of individual unitsdifference to the future of the project or situation you and to the firm as a whole.The company has also usedare exploring. Cluster related questions, and consider the Game Plan as part of refining the corporation’sTHE ART OF POWERFUL QUESTIONS 9
  12. 12. IS YOUR ORGANIZATION AN INQUIRING How Can Leaders Engage Powerful Questions? SYSTEM? ASSESSING YOUR For all organizations, in today’s turbulent times, engag- ORGANIZATION’S CAPABILITIES ing people’s best thinking about complex issues with- out easy answers will be the key to creating the futuresI To what degree do leaders in your organization we want rather than being forced to live with the foster an environment in which discovering the “big futures we get. Leaders will need to develop capacity in questions” is encouraged as much as coming up the design of “inquiring systems” in order to learn, with workable solutions? adapt, and create new knowledge to meet emergingI Does your organization have rewards or incentives opportunities and challenges in the more fluid organi- for members to work across functional boundaries zational structures of the future. For example, the lead- to find challenging questions that create common ership challenges of the next 20 years are likely to focus and forward movement for knowledge revolve around the art of engaging and energizing net- creation? works rather than solely managing hierarchies as in theI Do your leadership development programs contain past. Successful leaders will be those who see organiza- as much of a focus on the art and architecture of tions as living networks of conversation and collective framing powerful questions as they do on tech- meaning-making through which members create new niques for solving problems? knowledge and bring forth the future.They will under- stand how to operate in networks that are both internalI Do your organization’s strategic planning and external to their organization. processes include structured ways to discover In particular, we believe the following core capa- the “big questions” that, if answered, would have bilities, rarely taught in today’s MBA or corporate lead- real strategic leverage? ership programs, will help define leadership excel-I What enabling tools or technologies does your lence in a networked world where knowledge and organization employ to “seed” itself with strategic learning are keys to success: questions that “travel well” and catalyze learning Engaging Strategic Questions. How many lead- conversations both within and across functions? ers today know how to frame strategic questions thatI Does your organization use collaborative tech- open the space for thinking about possibilities rather nology tools to enable people on the frontlines to than solving problems? How many leaders are com- ask each other questions related to their daily fortable with not knowing and can constructively work (i.e. customer service, equipment mainte- help others bring forth their collective knowledge? nance) and receive help with these questions from How many leaders can engage their workers in dis- colleagues in other locations? covering the “big questions” that lie at the heart ofI Do senior leaders in your organization see the their organization’s future? process of strategy evolution as one that engages In a volatile and uncertain environment, one of the multiple voices and perspectives in networks of strongest steps leaders can take is to assist their organ- conversation? izations in discovering the right questions at the right time. One of their key responsibilities is creating infra- structures for dialogue and engagement that encouragemission and values in the midst of a volatile and chang- others at all levels to develop insightful questions anding external climate. By moving from a problem orien- to search for innovative paths forward. Leaders alsotation toward a more rigorous and disciplined focus on need to consider reward systems that provide incen-essential questions, the organization is slowly shifting tives for members to work across organizational bound-from a “fix-it” mode to an inquiry model for business aries to discover those challenging lines of inquiry thatand organizational strategy evolution.This company has create common focus and new knowledge.found that maintaining a rigorous focus on “questions Convening and Hosting Learning Conver-that matter” and hosting strategic conversations on the sations. A core aspect of the leader’s new workorganization’s “big questions” is a core competence for involves creating multiple opportunities for learningleaders at all levels. conversations around challenging questions.10 THE ART OF POWERFUL QUESTIONS
  13. 13. However, authentic conversation is less likely to occurin a climate of fear, mistrust, and hierarchical control. QUESTIONINGWhen the human mind and heart are fully engaged in I Stimulates creativityauthentic conversation and listening for core ques- I Motivates fresh thinkingtions, new knowledge often begins to surface. Thus, I Surfaces underlying assumptionsthe ability to facilitate working conversations that I Focuses intention, attention, and energyenhance trust and reduce fear is an important leader- I Opens the door to changeship capability. I Leads us into the future To succeed in this pursuit, it’s essential for leadersto strengthen their skills in the use of dialogue andother engagement approaches that deepen mutual Supporting Appreciative Inquiry. Openinginquiry and foster collective intelligence.These capa- spaces of possibility in our organizations requires abilities include: shift in leadership orientation from focusing primari- • Creating a climate of discovery ly on what is not working and how to fix it, to also dis- • Suspending premature judgment covering and appreciating what is working and how • Exploring underlying assumptions and beliefs to leverage it.Appreciative Inquiry (AI), developed by • Listening for connections between ideas David Cooperrider and his colleagues at Case Western • Encouraging diverse perspectives University, is a process for leveraging emerging possi- • Honoring everyone’s contributions bilities rather than just fixing past mistakes. When • Articulating shared understanding used in a disciplined way, this kind of inquiry stimu- • Harvesting and sharing collective discoveries lates lively conversations that use the best of what is as the foundation for what might be. These skills are especially important in situations Leaders who ask,“What’s possible here and whoin which there are no simple answers and finding cre- cares?” have a much easier time gaining the coopera-ative paths forward can make a positive difference. tion and best thinking of their constituents than those Including Diverse Perspectives. Leaders must who ask,“What’s wrong here and who is to blame?” Inbecome connectors—of both assessing the results of more than apeople and ideas. Diverse voices decade of research and practice inand new perspectives that aren’t the area of Appreciative Inquiry,limited by traditional boundaries “A QUESTION NOT ASKED Cooperrider has stated unequivocal-of function, hierarchy, discipline, ly that “the most important insight IS A DOOR NOT OPENED.”technology, tenure, and geograph- we have learned with AI to date isic region play an increasingly MARILEE GOLDBERG, that human systems grow towardimportant role in a company’s THE ART OF THE QUESTION what they persistently ask questionsstrategizing.As Gary Hamel of the about.” By asking positive questions,London School of Economics organizations have the opportunitypoints out, “Strategizing depends to grow in new directions and tapon creating a rich and complex web of conversations innovative sources of knowledge, vitality, and energy.that cuts across previously isolated pockets of knowl- Fostering Shared Meaning. We make meaningedge and creates new and unexpected combinations of our experiences through stories, images, andof insight.” metaphors. To tap into this pool of shared meaning, The connections among these diverse voices and which is the ground from which both powerful ques-perspectives allow employees to fruitfully explore tions and innovative solutions emerge, network leaderscritical strategic questions. Building and encouraging need to put time and attention into framing commonpersonal relationships through networks of collabora- language and developing shared images and metaphors.tive conversations across traditional boundaries helps They can do so by constructing compelling scenarios—critical strategic questions travel well. In this way, stories of the future—that provide a context for work-workers enhance their collective intelligence and ing on today’s “big questions,” as in the case of the Gametheir capacity to nurture creative futures together. Plan process described earlier. In addition, leaders mustTHE ART OF POWERFUL QUESTIONS 11
  14. 14. QUESTIONS FOR ALL SEASONS Here is a series of generative questions that we and other colleagues have found useful to stimulate new knowl- edge and creative thinking in a wide variety of situations around the world. Look at these questions to stimulate your own thinking about questions related to your own specific situation. Play. Use your imagination. Questions for Focusing Collective Attention I What’s missing from this picture so far? What is it on Your Situation we’re not seeing? What do we need more clarity I What question, if answered, could make the about? most difference to the future of (your specific I What’s been your/our major learning, insight, or situation)? discover so far? I What’s important to you about (your specific I What’s the next level of thinking we need to do? situation) and why do you care? I If there was one thing that hasn’t yet been said in I What draws you/us to this inquiry? order to reach a deeper level of understanding/ I What’s our intention here? What’s the deeper pur- clarity, what would that be? pose (the big “why”) that is really worthy of our best effort? Questions That Create Forward Movement I What opportunities can you see in (your specific I What would it take to create change on this situation)? issue? I What do we know so far/still need to learn about I What could happen that would enable you/us to (your specific situation)? feel fully engaged and energized about (your I What are the dilemmas/opportunities in (your specific situation)? specific situation)? I What’s possible here and who cares? (rather than I What assumptions do we need to test or “What’s wrong here and who’s responsible?”) challenge here in thinking about (your specific I What needs our immediate attention going situation)? forward? I What would someone who had a very different I If our success was completely guaranteed, what set of beliefs than we do say about (your specific bold steps might we choose? situation)? I How can we support each other in taking the next steps? What unique contribution can we each Questions for Connecting Ideas and make? Finding Deeper Insight I What challenges might come our way and how I What’s taking shape? What are you hearing under- might we meet them? neath the variety of opinions being expressed? I What conversation, if begun today, could ripple out What’s in the center of the table? in a way that created new possibilities for the I What’s emerging here for you? What new future of (your situation)? connections are you making? I What seed might we plant together today that I What had real meaning for you from what you’ve could make the most difference to the future of heard? What surprised you? What challenged you? (your situation)?incorporate time for systemwide reflection in order to these key strategic questions are often lost becauseenable members to share insights and emerging ques- few of today’s leaders have been trained to notice,tions. Collective reflection provides opportunities for honor, and utilize the social fabric of learning thatthe shared meaning-making that is essential in times of occurs through informal “communities of practice”turbulence and change. that exist throughout the organization.A community of Nurturing Communities of Practice. Many of practice is made of up people who share a commonthe most provocative questions that are vital to an interest and who work together to expand their indi-organization’s future are first discovered on the front vidual and collective capacity to solve problems overlines, in the middle of the action of everyday life. But time.12 THE ART OF POWERFUL QUESTIONS
  15. 15. Nurturing these learning networks and honoring Co-Evolving the Futurethe questions they care about is another core aspect It is quite easy to learn the basics of crafting power-of the leader’s new work. It is important to under- ful questions. However, once you understand thestand how these communities deal with the ques- importance of inquiry, it’s hard to turn back. As yourtions and learning needs that arise in the course of questions become broader and deeper than before, sothe daily life of the organization. These understand- does your experience of life.There is no telling whereings can provide clues about how the knowledge that a powerful question might lead you. Transformativeresides in such communities might be engaged in the conversations can result from posing a simple ques-service of critical strategic questions. Leaders who tion such as,“What questions are we not asking our-take communities of practice into account as impor- selves about the situation in the Middle East?”tant strategic assets help assure that new work Tantalizing possibilities emerge from the simple actprocesses or organizational structures do not destroy of changing an article from “in” to “for,” as in the HPthe fabric of collective knowledge that is woven into example. Profound systemic change can emerge fromthese informal groups. creating a process discipline such as the Game Plan Using Collaborative Technologies. Intranet for discovering and acting on the “big questions”and groupware technologies are now making it possi- within a business setting.ble for widely dispersed work groups to participate in For organizations that need collaborative learninglearning conversations and team projects across time and breakthrough thinking in order to create a sustain-and space. As these tools become even more widely able future,asking “questions that matter”and engagingavailable, the notion of “network leadership” will diverse constituencies in learning conversations are aexpand to include supporting widespread online con- core process for value creation. Because questions areversations where members throughout the organiza- inherently related to action, they are at the heart of antion can contribute their own questions and best organization’s capacity to mobilize the resourcesthinking to critical strategic issues.The HP case shows required to create a positive future. Seeing the organi-how important enabling technology infrastructures are zation as a dynamic network of conversations throughfor strategic innovation. Several forward-looking which the enterprise develops encourages members atcompanies, including Hallmark, Kodak, Discover every level to search for questions related to real workCard, and General Motors, are now using an innova- that can catalyze collective energy and momentum.Fortive online conversational technology, Communispace all of us, thoughtful participation in discovering and(, to listen to their cus- exploring powerful questions can make a difference—tomers’ concerns and questions at a deep level and to our team, to our organization, and to the larger com-generate insights about new products at a faster rate munities of which we are a part.than was previously possible. Living systems evolve by developing a coherent Such collaborative tools will be a critical factor in identity, creating connections in complex webs of rela-how well strategic questions can travel both within tionships, and distributing information widely through-the organization and among customers and other out the organization.At the same time, human systemsstakeholders who are key to success.These technolo- naturally evolve toward the questions that they ask.gies of engagement create possibilities for individuals Seeing the ways in which the art and architecture ofand groups to connect with each other and to the powerful questions can help an organization create itslarger whole in ways that were previously unimagin- path into the future, and utilizing process principles,able. Leaders who are not skilled in their use or who tools, and technologies that support this evolution, isdo not recognize their strategic importance and sup- everyone’s job. For it is only in this way that organiza-port their use throughout their organizations will be tions are able to cultivate both the knowledge requiredat a significant disadvantage. to thrive economically today as well as the wisdom needed to ensure a sustainable future. Copyright © 2003 by Eric E.Vogt, Juanita Brown, and David IsaacsTHE ART OF POWERFUL QUESTIONS 13
  16. 16. For Further Exploration provides software andBrown, Juanita. The World Café: Living Knowledge services to support creative work conversations andThrough Conversations That Matter (Ph.D. disserta- large-scale corporate communities.tion, The Fielding Institute; available through Whole is a high-trust community ofSystems Associates at 415-381-3368) experienced practitioners in large organizations explor-Brown, Juanita et. al. The World Café: A Resource ing innovations in learning and human performance.Guide for Hosting Conversations That Matter is a global resource for(Whole Systems Associates, 2002; available at hosting conversations around questions that matter both for-profit and nonprofit settings.Goldberg, Marilee. The Art of the Question (JohnWiley and Sons, 1997)Leeds, Dorothy. The Seven Powers of Questions: Secretsto Successful Communication in Life and Work(Berkley Publishing Group, 2000)Peavey, Fran. “Strategic Questioning” in By Life’sGrace: Musings on the Essence of Social Change(New Society Publishers, 1994; more information isavailable at About the Authors Juanita Brown (, Ph.D.,Ray, Michael. Creativity in Organizations (Stanford collaborates with senior leaders to create strategic dia-University Press, 1990) logue forums focused on critical organizational andStrachan, Dorothy. Questions That Work: A Resource societal issues.for Facilitators (ST Press, Ottowa, Canada, 2001) David Isaacs ( is presidentVogt, Eric E. The Nature of Work in 2010 (Aspen of Clearing Communications, an organizational andInstitute, Northern Telecom Journal, 1995) communications strategy company working with cor- . The Art and Architecture of Powerful porate leaders in the U.S. and abroad.Questions (MicroMentor Corporate Learning Journal, Eric E. Vogt ( operates as a1994, available through catalyst for innovation and accelerated change with . Learning out of Context in Learning the global corporate members of InterClass, a high-Organizations: Developing Cultures for Tomorrow’s trust network of experienced practitioners at theWorkplace (Productivity Press, 1995) intersection of human performance and business strategy.Vogt, Eric E. and Kate O’Keefe. The Joy of Leadership:Recipes for Developing Tomorrow’s Leaders (InterClassPress, to be published January 2004)THE ART OF POWERFUL QUESTIONS 14