Why questions matter (more than solutions)

Josie Gibson Catalyst Paper, Change, Collaboration, Complexity, Creativity, Innovation

Catalyst Paper Series 1/1 July 2017

So much depends on the ability to address the right issue at the right time. Yet how do we know what that is if we don’t ask the right questions? And how do we know what’s ‘right’? Innovation specialist Fiona Ingram sheds light on an overlooked yet critical skill in the leadership toolkit: questions.

There’s lots of activity in organisations, yet precious little traction on the complex problems we’re trying to address.

What’s causing this gross mismatch between investment and outcomes? My experience working in and consulting to multiple organisations has shown, time and again, that we don’t invest enough focus and energy making sure we’re solving the right problem. This has serious implications for all organisational endeavours, but particularly innovation. All too often we focus on the wrong thing and the result is sub-standard innovation performance. We need to make better decisions about how to direct scarce resources, funds and time. And that requires a fundamental shift in how we view problems.

‘If you’re solving the wrong problem, you’re going to be hard-pressed to arrive at the right solution.’

David Perkins

The current reality

The lack of problem diagnosis seems widespread. In a recent study of more than 100 C-suite executives from public and private organisations in 17 countries, 85 per cent either agreed or strongly agreed that their company was bad at diagnosing problems. Furthermore, 87 per cent either agreed or strongly agreed that this flaw created significant costs for their organisations.

We’re rushing headlong into trying to solve the wrong thing, over and over. We’re habitually falling in love with a solution before we really understand the problem.

The hurdle? We’re rewarded for solutions rather than for asking the right questions. This creates an inbuilt bias to jump to solution mode as soon as possible. Crucial steps are missed or paid token attention. Before the ink is dry on another management directive, we’re frantically trying to figure out solutions without spending enough time to ensure we’re even on the right track. In many organisations this is considered admirably productive as we go about being busily – and uselessly – active.

‘We are wasting limited resources on shallow solutions to complex problems.’

Stanford Social Innovation Review

In a typical initiative where fresh thinking is required, there’s perfunctory effort allocated to setting goals or objectives. Picture the scene: high-performing team members milling about impatiently and waiting for the starter’s gun so they can get to the ‘real’ work. Boom! As soon as possible the team plunges into the busywork and this continues until the finish line.

Typically the process is linear, and often about two-thirds to three-quarters of the way through there’s a freak-out that causes dangerous doubt to surface. People can’t quite put their finger on it, but there’s a creeping suspicion that the initiative won’t really make much difference and create the desired impact. It often transpires that the initiative is quietly wrapped up or abandoned and everyone makes a hasty exit.

The unsettling reality at this point is that, because the right question wasn’t addressed in the first place, the underlying issue will still be there. And inadvertently there may be other problems that arise from the work that’s been done to date.

In most organisations there are typical behaviours that accompany the ‘busywork’ syndrome:

  • Delivery-driven behaviour, where the main focus is the delivery date
  • Using the goals or requirements set up front as a crutch. People don’t necessarily agree with them but are just ‘doing what I’m told’
  • People often follow a process blindly without checking throughout that the process is creating what’s needed
  • Often people are fearful of speaking up and flagging doubts that all the activity will produce what’s intended.
How to overcome this

In a solution-obsessed world, the concept of generative questions is often overlooked. Generative thinking focuses on the future, creating new ideas and options. It’s driven by genuine curiosity and opening up new possibilities. It contrasts with the more familiar, and comfortable, approach known as analytical thinking. Analytical thinking is about breaking something down, deducing and analysing its parts in order to understand something. It’s a useful way of thinking when we need to make small tweaks to something we know is working well. However, if this is the only thinking tool in your kit, it’ll be tough going when you need fresh thinking for the unknown.

Generative questions enable us to create something new rather than analysing the past. They’re the type of questions that spur our creative thinking and help us become more efficient in creating new value. They make the size of the overall pie bigger rather than copying someone else in the hope of gaining a bigger slice of the current pie.

‘Too often we… enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.’

John F Kennedy

To ask the right questions we must understand different perspectives beyond conventional organisational wisdom. We need to listen and observe relevant groups to challenge our thinking and extend our knowledge. This might include using the appropriate techniques to surface limiting biases and assumptions and understand people such as customers, beneficiaries, employees or other stakeholders such as supply chain. This is critical to ensure that we’re not thinking too narrowly about the problem or question space and not making decisions that are based on a lack of understanding of the situation.

Prepare for discomfort

Generative thinking is difficult; you’ll probably be swimming against the organisational tide. There’s just no getting around the fact that working in an experimental and adaptive way is intensely uncomfortable. It requires an appetite for ambiguity and great self-discipline to not give in to the comfort of a premature answer in order to avoid the pain of uncertainty.

This is heavy lifting thinking, where the ability to sit with multiple perspectives and pathways for a time is critical. We don’t do it because it’s fun (it’s not), but because when you hit on that right question it feels so good. It’s a bit of shared magic. Intuitively, everybody recognises

they’ve landed on the right question to address and it’s something they can really connect with.

‘I love having written, but I hate writing.’
Billy Joel

Thinking in this way doesn’t come naturally to all; we don’t all have to be skilled at generative approaches. However, it is important that generative questions aren’t overlooked just because they’re difficult and uncomfortable. In order to get good innovation outcomes we can all be proud of, we need to stretch ourselves beyond what’s patently not working.

A preferred process

When fresh thinking is required, spend significantly more time up-front understanding the problem space and crafting the question to address. Think about how you frame and pose your questions, taking care not to close off options (or people). A fluid and emergent process follows where experimental steps guide the way. These chunks of work create learnings that shape the next chunk, guiding the team forward. Overall, the time spent is similar; it’s just weighted differently.

The biggest shift is to use questions to learn, rather than to ‘be right’. We all possess the ability to think creatively and ask questions that shed new light. It’s a key tool – try it and see. TCN

About the author

Fiona Ingram loves sensemaking in complex situations so the opportunities, challenges and value become clear. She uses a combination of generative and critical thinking and an eclectic toolbox honed by experience in diverse organisations and industries. She joins the dots across different disciplines (from fashion to innovation, entrepreneurship and strategic foresight) and draws on expertise from different sectors (private, government, social). She believes creating outcomes of real substance and having fun are not mutually exclusive and can create intense shifts in thinking. Follow Fiona on Twitter @FionaIngram and LinkedIn.


This is the first in an occasional series of Catalyst Papers exploring the 21st century leadership skillset. We love it when readers are as excited about Catalyst Network content as we are. If you want to share or reuse any of this information, please ensure full and clear credit is given to Fiona Ingram with a link back to the original material.


Fiona Ingram – Mobile: + 61 (0)409 009 757  Email: contact@fionaingram.com.au