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What Might Happen if You Asked a Powerful Question?

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Would you rather be asked: "Why did you fail?" or "What would help you succeed next time?". Too often leaders, pressed for time, throw the easiest question at a team. But a moment's reflection, followed by a wise open-ended question can generate new possibilities when a team is stuck. The art of the deceptively simple "Powerful question," a centuries-old educational technique, is still taught to coaches-in-training, for example, by the Coaches Training Institute (CTI).
A vital question, a creative question, rivets our attention.
All the creative power of our minds is focused on the question.
Knowledge emerges in response to these compelling questions.
They open us to new worlds.

-- Verna Allee, in The Knowledge Evolution
The trick lies in NOT asking the weak question, particularly the "yes/no" question, in which the asker's assumptions lead the discourse. Another pitfall is the blaming "why" question, which can prompt a "justifying" answer, rather than reflection and truth-telling, which would be more constructive. (Note that Lean's "Five Whys" exercise is a constructive use of the same Why question, though it can be challenging on teams with trust issues). Then there are the questions that are not questions at all: in one case, asking "How do you feel" led in a surprising direction, when it would have been just as easy to say "You must be frustrated!" (not a real question at all, but still demanding a yes/no answer).

Looking for further examples? Independent coach Lyssa Adkins has applied Powerful Questions to some Agile Team situations, including this one:
    A team member rehashes, yet again, something that happened months ago.
Weak Question:
    Why are we talking about this again? (implicit: "cut that out!")
Powerful Question:
    What do you make of that?
While, at first, it can feel strange to ask such open-ended questions, this one introduces the possibility of  a new kind of conversation, if there is some underlying issue that no one has been talking about. Now that it can be talked about openly, the team's range of possible approaches is expanded, and surprising new directions can result.

In a non-judgmental environment Powerful Questions can contribute to learning and problem solving in a way that a veiled "oh, shut up already" never would! Note that eliminating unnecessary "Why" questions can be a great first step toward establishing a blame-free environment, where Powerful Questions thrive.

For more on creating Powerful Questions that open up new possibilities, offers this article on what makes questions powerful [pdf], which looks at such questions as:
  • "How can we best manage our work group?"
  • "How can we best manage our company?"
  • "How can we best manage our supply chain?"
The article includes this quote, which seems useful a useful reminder to for Agile software teams:
“A paradigm shift occurs when
a question is asked inside the current paradigm
that can only be answered from outside it."

-- Marilee Goldberg, from The Art of the Question.

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