How can we ask better questions? An Analysis on the Outcomes of a ‘Change the Question’ Exercise

This article was originally published on our Medium Platform Rethinking Organizations.

Why ask better questions?

Milan Kundera once wrote, ‘The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything.’ As HMD, we also believe in the power of asking questions. Questions can change our view of the world and make us look from a different perspective through elevating our conversations. That is why as a team we invest plenty of thought in the questions we ask.

We are not the only ones believing in the power of asking questions. Over the years, extensive research has been conducted on the topic, and it has been shown that questioning is one of the most critical skills for creativity. One of the most famous amongst all was ‘Innovator’s DNA’ by Jeff Dyer, Clayton Christensen, and Hal Gregersen. Their research, conducted with more than 100 top innovation executives worldwide, showed that questioning is one of the four critical discovery skills innovators have.

*Gregersen continued his focus on questions and wrote ‘Questions Are the Answer: A Breakthrough Approach to Your Most Vexing Problems at Work and in Life’, which has become a staple in the HMD Book Club. We love you Hal ❤

1. What makes up a question?

So how can we ask better questions (and what constitutes a better question anyway)? To answer that, we first have to look at what makes up a question. Fundamentally, all questions have three components; a structure, an assumption, and a scope.

Structure: Structure is the basis of a question and determines the frame that answers fall into. If we ask yes/no questions, the answer we seek is either a yes or a no. These are called ‘close-ended questions,’ which intrinsically guide the answers more than they are supposed to. We also have ‘open-ended questions’ like ‘how,’ ‘why,’ and ‘what if.’ These would probably require more than a sentence to answer, which automatically stimulates deeper thinking than a close-ended question.

Yes/No -> Which -> Who -> When -> Where -> What -> How -> Why -> What If’

Assumptions: Whether we are aware of it or not, all questions have assumptions hidden inside of them. Think of a question as simple as ‘what’s your name?’ This question implies that you ought to have a name. Just like in this example, all questions have assumptions. Being aware of the assumption you make is one of the first steps to better your question.

Tip: If you want to discover the assumption in your question, try to turn the question into a statement. Example: Question 1: What is your name? — Assumption 1: You have a name; Question 2: How can we make sure everyone is on the same page? — Assumption 2: Everyone has to be on the same page; Question 3: Whose fault is that? — Assumption 3: Someone is to blame.

Scope: The scope of a question defines the area of focus to which we are looking for an answer. Think about it this way; ‘What change do we want to create?’ can be both about what we want as a team or as an organization. They both concern ‘us,’ but what we can do differs significantly depending on whether we are a team or an organization. Another example would be this: ‘What change can I create to have a i) better personal life? / ii) better society?’ The answers you might have for these questions wouldn’t be the same. Changing the scope means narrowing down or broadening the extent of our question, which would directly shape the generalizability of our answers.

2. ‘Change the Question’ Exercise and Our Evaluation Method

Up until now, we have conducted many workshops focusing on the questioning skills of individuals from different age and occupational groups. This enabled us to understand the innovative capacities of organizations as well as individuals. In these workshops, we discussed the importance of questions with our focus groups and deep-dived into the three components of a typical question. This made it possible for us to gather insights about what makes a better question. It was also a good way to collect data from different samples (which is something we love to do) to discover the reasons why questioning skills develop more in some groups than others.

2.1. The Exercise and Its Conduct

‘’Change the question” is an exercise in which the participants are informed about the three above mentioned components of a question and are later asked to change a question of their choice in five steps:

1-Write down a question → 2-Notice & change the assumption → 3-Change the structure → 4-Change the scope → 5-Write down your last question.

Step 1: Participants are instructed to formulate a question about a specific topic (e.g., work/school life after the pandemic).

Step 2: Participants are asked to notice and change the assumption in their questions.

Step 3: Participants are asked to change the structure of the latest version of their question.

Step 4: Participants are requested to change the scope of their questions. (This enables them to think about the scale of their question.)

Step 5: Participants are asked to rewrite their questions if they want to.

The data we analyzed was gathered from three workshops held with different groups of individuals; (i) white-collar employees of a Turkish conglomerate, (ii) students from a state university, and (iii) teachers who were involved in the ‘Creative Problem Solving’ program. The sample comprises a random selection of 50 participants’ (20 students, 20 employees, and ten teachers) answers.

2.2. Our Evaluation Method: Triangulation

To analyze the outcomes of these three workshops, we used the ‘triangulation method’ in data analysis. The term triangulation refers to the practice of using multiple sources of data or approaches to analyzing data to enhance the credibility of a research study (Salkind, 2010). For the purposes of this article, we both multiplied the sources of our data and our analysis approaches to maximize credibility. We did this using three different samples composed of participants from different age and occupational groups described above.

In addition to triangulating the sources of our data, we also triangulated the analysis. Three different people from our team went through the data analysis process by scoring each question individually and discretely. Scoring the quality of a question can be very subjective; thus, having three different people score the questions minimized the possible effect of our individual biases. The three-staged analysis process included the following steps:

1/ We first scored the initial questions participants wrote down. On a scale of 1 to 5, we gave the weakest questions 1, and the strongest ones.

2/ We then looked at whether each participant successfully noticed and changed their assumptions, the structure, and the scope of their questions.

3/ Lastly, we scored their last question, again on a scale of 1 to 5 (from weakest to strongest).

As a final step, we cross-analyzed the final scores within and across our samples. We compared the success rate of samples on completing the steps successfully (e.g., whether they were able to change the assumption or not) and how this affected the overall score of their first and last questions.

Finding 1: The attempt to change the question itself leads to a better one.

Our sample scored an average of 2,51 for their initial questions. After the exercise, the average increased 15% to 2,90 for the last question they submitted. This proves that if we intentionally focus and think more profoundly about our questions, we might ask better ones.

The analysis also revealed that changing the components of a question is not as easy as it may sound. Only 26% of participants were able to change all three components. Moreover, if they did so, the average score of their last question increased 26% to 3,18. This indicates that learning more about the fundamental components of a question and succeeding in changing them raises our questions’ quality.

Finding 2: The key to asking better questions is changing the ‘assumption.’

It turns out that identifying the assumption and changing it is key to getting a better question. Within our sample, we found out that the most significant jump in scores happened for those who were able to change the assumption, who saw a 24% increase in their last question scores (which is the highest within all three components.)

Example from a white-collar employee:

– First question: Why did employees’ sense of belonging decrease while working remotely?

– Assumption: Remote work affects the sense of belonging to work negatively.

– Last question: What do online communities have that makes people feel a sense of belonging?

Even though it is a crucial factor to asking better questions, only 58% of participants were able to change their assumption (which is the lowest score within all three components.)

Our findings also showed that noticing and changing the assumption is a determinant of the quality of a question; those who were not able to change the assumption only showed a 2% increase in their last question scores. This finding correlates well with research as well. In the HBR article “The Innovator’s DNA,” Dyer, Gregersen, and Christensen wrote that innovative entrepreneurs asked questions that are likely to challenge assumptions compared to most managers.

One of the most surprising outcomes of this research was that white-collar employees had the most challenging time changing their assumptions. Only around half of them could successfully change their assumption while this rate goes up to %60 for students and %70 for teachers.

It now makes sense: most companies call incremental developments innovation because their employees don’t ask questions that challenge assumptions.

Don’t get us wrong; it is clear that ‘why’ or ‘what if’ questions are more likely to lead us to discover insights than yes/no questions.

In our sample group, 88% were able to change the structure of their questions. Those who successfully changed the structure of their initial question scored 19% higher on average than those who were not able to do so. However, our analysis did not reveal any significant correlation between changing the question into an open-ended one and the score of the last question. In other words, asking an open-ended question did not indicate an automatic increase in the quality of that question.

Think about two of the most famous questions in the history of science:

– Newton asked: “If an apple falls, does the moon fall too?”. When you look at the structure, it is basically a yes/no question. Nonetheless, it stimulated deep thinking, so much so that it led Newton to discover the force of gravity.

– On the other hand, Einstein asked: “What would happen if I rode a beam of light?” which is a scenario question. It is open-ended in nature and led Einstein to develop his theories about special and general relativity.

The structure of a question is indeed an essential determinant of its quality. We can even generalize and say that asking open-ended questions is more likely to get you closer to finding insights. However, asking these types of questions for the sake of asking them wouldn’t get you anywhere. At the end of the day, your question is only as good as its ability to change your perception.

Finding 4: Being aware of the scope can lead the way to innovation.

A good question always sparks new ways of thinking. However, we are not always in a position to take action on our novel thoughts. It is not always possible to make a breakthrough via a question we ask (Newton was lucky in that sense). This is not because the question is not good enough; it takes more than that to trigger innovation. The equation of innovation is questions + actions. Thus, even though a question is good, it simply does not always allow for a discovery.

An example from a teacher:

As a parent, what role do you want to have in your child’s education and why?

This question is thought-provoking both for the teacher and for the parent. It is inspiring, and it gives a well-defined scope.

We have discovered that 77% of our sample was able to change the scope of their questions. This increased their last question scores by an average of 16%. However, those who were not able to change it also raised their average by 13%. This shows that a good question is good from the beginning, but what sparks innovation is hidden somewhere else.

The key to trigger innovation is making sure your scope is specific and aligned with the change you can create.

Even though the reasons why people participated in the workshops differed, we believe there were common traits among the ones who asked better questions. Let’s remember our sample group first:

– Students, who were part of a program focused on developing innovation and entrepreneurship skills, participated with their initiative.

– On the other hand, the employee group consisted of people from different departments who were invited to attend the workshop to create awareness about questioning as a critical skill for innovation.

– Lastly, teachers participated in the workshop as part of the ‘Creative Confidence Program,’ which was organized to increase teachers’ creative capacity and change their perspectives about teaching.

These facts undoubtedly affected their question scores.

When we looked at the initial question participants wrote down, we found that the group who got the highest scores were teachers (2,92), and the lowest scores belonged to employees (2,12). Now, you might think that this has an occupational reason, as teachers are expected to juggle with questions efficiently. It’s their job to ask. However, not all teachers are equipped with the necessary knowledge to think deeper about their questions and improve them: Only around half of them were able to complete the exercise. Because they already had awareness about creative confidence, they initially asked better questions; however, they were not as good as the other groups at revising them to a better state. Their last question scores were %12 higher than their first question scores, while the rates went up to %17 for students and %18 for employees.

On the other hand, employees had the best success rate but still scored the lowest compared to other groups. The average score of their last question was 2,50, while students scored 2,93 and teachers scored 3,27. This implies a simple thing; people who improve their creative problem-solving skills are more likely to ask better questions.

It turns out that asking better questions is not as easy as it may sound. The determinants of a good question can vary significantly. However, through this research, we were able to gather some insights on the subject:

Good questions are..

..the ones that are about why and how (and not just why and how questions). They fundamentally focus on ‘why,’ ‘how’ and ‘what if’ rather than ‘what.’ But here is the catch; not all open-ended questions are equally high toned. Just because a question starts with ‘why’ doesn’t mean that it provokes thinking. The good ones go beyond seeking answers and make us see what is not initially seen about the situation at hand. It focuses on underlying reasons rather than superficial causes.

..the ones that change your assumptions. We are usually not aware of our most fundamental thoughts, so it might be difficult to challenge them, but we will be rewarded with new paths to solving problems if we do so. After all, questions are like puzzles; they are to be solved. But good questions lead to a perspective shift which challenges the way we were solving puzzles before. Thus, it is vital to be aware of the assumptions we make; and the more often we do this, the better.

..the ones with a well-defined scope and spark action. They empower you to research, prototype, deep dive into the matter, and create something novel. The end result can vary; it can be a new idea or a new product, but it commonly leaves you with a feeling of inspiration. And if you don’t feel motivated to act after a question, you should probably double-check the scope of it.

..the ones you feel great after. Our brains are inherently wired to make us feel rewarded when we have a moment of revelation. A good question is all about that spark and ignition. So, you should know in your heart whether a question is great -or not.

Start paying attention to your questions, and what you discover will be much more than just answers.

Image Credit: Fakurian Design