Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 6, Issue 47;   November 22, 2006: Asking Brilliant Questions

Asking Brilliant Questions

by

Your team is fortunate if you have even one teammate who regularly asks the questions that immediately halt discussions and save months of wasted effort. But even if you don't have someone like that, everyone can learn how to generate brilliant questions more often. Here's how.
A light bulb, the universal symbol of creativity

A light bulb, the universal symbol of creativity. Creativity is essential for generating brilliant questions.

As Bugs dragged the picnic table from across the patio, Ash pulled the chairs away to make room for him to set it next to the other table. They arranged the eleven chairs around the two tables, and it was almost like being in the conference room.

Bugs was still puzzled. "Tell me again why we're meeting out here," he said.

"We need to start asking some brilliant questions," said Ash. She pointed towards their building. "And we're hoping for some out-of-the-box thinking if we get outside that box."

It might work. Changing a team's surroundings can change the team's perspective. But even if you can't meet outside, you can get better at asking brilliant questions. Here are seven methods for generating brilliant questions.

Relax assumptions
Make a list of the assumptions the group is making, but which are outside their awareness. What if one of them weren't true? See "Assumptions and the Johari Window: Part I," Point Lookout for September 27, 2006, for more.
Question the facts
What if the facts aren't really facts? What's the evidence that something actually is fact? List the facts, and for each one ask, "How do we know this is true?"
Distinguish facts from explanations
Sometimes supposed facts are actually explanations of facts. For instance, some might believe that because the system fails only when the new module is installed, the problem is in the new module. And thus a "fact" is born: the problem is in the new module. But that's only an explanation. See "Critical Thinking and Midnight Pizza," Point Lookout for April 23, 2003, for more.
Play the "As If" game
A brilliant question
immediately halts discussion.
It can save months
of wasted effort.
Try formulating a question that presupposes the group's goal. For instance, you could ask, "If we did have a process for turning lead into gold, what would we have to know?" Sometimes this is called "solving the problem in reverse."
Go "meta"
Ask yourself what you aren't asking questions about. What are the characteristics of the things that the group isn't looking into? Can you explain why the group bounded its inquiries in this way? If the basis of the boundary isn't proven knowledge, it's worth crossing the boundary.
Watch for "silver bullet" thinking
Sometimes groups focus on single-concept solutions. They assume that the problem has only one cause, or that a single innovation will produce all of the desired results. What if there are several contributing causes? Can we achieve the desired result using different approaches for different situations?
Decouple causes and effects
Some of the cause-effect associations we "know" might be wrong. Imagine that what we think of as an effect isn't an effect of the cause(s) we think it belongs to. Or imagine that a cause or effect has some effects we haven't yet identified. If so, what then?

Asking brilliant questions isn't rocket science. Why don't more of us do it more often? Go to top Top  Next issue: The True Costs of Indirectness  Next Issue

Reader Comments

Mickey Kirksey
While reading "Asking Brilliant Questions" I also read "Midnight Pizza."
Sometimes I love your columns because they show me things I am doing wrong and how to do them better. But occasionally I love your columns because they show me the things I do right. Today was one of those days. I'm an "out of the box" thinker. I collect stories regarding assumptions and share them with people as I draw them into my world of "unassumptions."
My introduction of others to that world is so practiced, it sometimes seems rote. But it is not rote. It is a passion for me. Like a good lunch for cheap, I share it, preach it, and live it.
I have an empty compressor on my desk (named Wilson by some dry wit I used to work with; after the soccer ball on the movie Castaway) with a magnetic sign saying "What Did I Assume?" People ask me about it and I tell them the story of how I met Wilson. That opens the door to my lecture about assumptions, and how everyone makes assumptions all day every day without thinking. And I usually toss in my introduction to paradigms.
Occasionally I run across a person who, when I tell them my stories and explain how destructive assumptions can be, you can actually see the light come on in their eyes. Those are the people I seek out for my team members.
This thought process is a fundamental part of who I am, but you have helped me realize it is a valuable skill that makes me good at my job.

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Related programs

Managing in Fluid EnvironmentsAlthough brilliant questions might seem at first to be happy accidents, they can become an important element of organizational strategy. By acquiring skill in generating brilliant questions, organizations can tackle more challenging projects more successfully. My program, "Managing in Fluid Environments," explores how to use brilliant questions to reduce the variability of results and manage risk. More about this program.

The Politics of Meetings for People Who Hate PoliticsThe technique of asking brilliant questions actually has broad applicability — it can be helpful in any collaborative setting. Most collaborations involve meetings, where asking brilliant questions can be especially useful. My program, "The Politics of Meetings for People Who Hate Politics," explores how to use brilliant questions to make meetings more effective, especially when politics plays a role. More about this program.

Are you planning an offsite or retreat for your organization? Or a conference for your professional society? My programs are fresh, original, and loaded with concrete tips that make an immediate difference. rbrenEMIumedPeULkLOcJner@ChacUMXkhRQtNpWEFVLWoCanyon.comContact me to discuss possibilities.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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Check-ins give meeting attendees a chance to express satisfaction or surface concerns about how things are going. They're a valuable aid to groups that want to stay on course, or get back on course when needed. Available here and by RSS on May 3.

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