How the Right Questions Shape Your Organization

Terry Fadem asks a lot of questions — about questions.

What role do questions play in the success or failure of an organization? Do leaders, as a rule, tend to ask certain types of questions? What’s the effect of these questions? What are the common mistakes or pitfalls that managers should avoid? How can they ask better questions?

Fadem, a Mack Institute Senior Fellow, researches the aggregate effect of questions, and the errors, problems, and benefits that they produce. Through hundreds of surveys and interviews, he’s gathered data on how managers ask questions and deal with the answers. The patterns that have emerged indicate several common errors that effective leaders should avoid.

Habit questions, for instance, are one of the most pervasive errors Fadem identifies across industries. Managers tend to fall into an interrogative rut, asking the same type of questions over and over. These are the questions with which they are comfortable, and which have previously led to success. Their habits, however, can lead to missed opportunities. If a manager, when faced with two options, habitually compares the options on the basis of cost, he or she may overlook the true issue of which option provides the most effective solution.

“The right questions generate the answers that are needed to make the business successful.”

The Art of Asking by Terry FademQuestions also send a message about expectations. If those working on the project know that their manager will tend to only focus on questions of cost, they’ll tailor their work to those expectations, leaving other aspects of the project underexamined. Also detrimental is a manager who uses questions to posture or assert dominance, or who frames questions in a way that implies the desirable answer. Workers who know what the boss wants to hear will tend to communicate exactly that.

On the other hand, Fadem’s found that “What if” questions are hallmarks of the most creative organizations. Asking “What if…?” throws off the constraints of reality. If all questions send a message, “What if” signals that nothing’s off the table, that all kinds of possibilities are open to consideration. It can lead in outlandish directions, but it also shifts the focus away from the present and into the as-yet-imagined future. When managers’ questions signal that they’re thinking about the market of tomorrow and not just the market of today, that’s when they open the door to innovation.

To learn more, check out Terry Fadem’s book The Art of Asking: Ask Better Questions, Get Better Answers.