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: 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

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

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.

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenFImAbPUmoGRmilAiner@ChacjqeXxAhvvLTciPPIoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Submitting a status reportStatus-Report as a Second Language
Sometimes, the clichés the losing team's players feed to sports reporters can have hidden meaning. So it is with Project Status Reports, especially for projects in trouble.
A glass of red wineI've Been Right All Along
As people, we're very good at forming and holding beliefs and opinions despite nagging doubts. These doubts lead us to search for confirmation of our beliefs, and to reject information that might conflict with our beliefs. Often, this process causes us to persist in believing nonsense. How can we tell when this is happening?
World global temperature departuresConfirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part I
We continue our exploration of confirmation bias, paying special attention to the consequences it causes in the workplace. In this part, we explore its effects on our thinking.
Still Life with Chair-Caning, by PicassoSolutions as Found Art
Examining the most innovative solutions we've developed for difficult problems, we often find that they aren't purely new. Many contain pieces of familiar ideas and techniques combined together in new ways. Accepting this as a starting point can change our approach to problem solving.
Industrial robots assembling automobilesUnnecessary Boring Work: I
Work can be boring. Some of us must endure the occasional boring task, but for many, everything about work is boring. It doesn't have to be this way.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness, Problem Solving and Creativity and Effective Meetings for more related articles.

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. rbrenjNJTZDFmPLnsszXFner@ChachSyvqJvmEJwtOKgtoCanyon.comContact me to discuss possibilities.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The Jolly RogerComing August 22: Dealing with Credit Appropriation
Very little is more frustrating than having someone else claim credit for the work you do. Worse, sometimes they blame you if they get into trouble after misusing your results. Here are three tips for dealing with credit appropriation. Available here and by RSS on August 22.
RMS Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912And on August 29: Please Reassure Them
When things go wildly wrong, someone is usually designated to investigate and assess the probability of further trouble. That role can be risky. Here are three guidelines for protecting yourself if that role falls to you. Available here and by RSS on August 29.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrencCcTDXwsioRrmSySner@ChactmjSHhGBGLbYkUWLoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.