Are questions better than answers?

I was in a leadership coaching session with a CEO of a leading Australian organisation recently, and posed the following question, “Pick one, answers or questions?”, I was delighted by his response which was, “I’d take great questions any-day”.

This has intrigued me for two reasons, the first was my own reaction—why was I so delighted?—and the second, he was in the top job of a large organisation and was happy to be asked great questions rather than be given immediate answers.

I think at the crux of both of these sits a belief I have about effective leadership in our current century. I think because the current business context is an environment of rapid change, I think it is almost silly to assume we’ll be able to have immediate answers to complex issues. Which quite honestly challenges the fundamental teaching of our education system, which values answers over questions. I think a more valuable skill to develop in our current times is the ability to ask  well formed, meaningful questions that then drive well considered outcomes, rather than having quick answers.

In design, there is a deliberate slow down and immersion phase at the beginning of every enquiry. This exists for a very important reason which is to provide time to observe the system that will be undergoing some form of change as in inevitably the case with design. This observation occurs from multiple perspectives, as in human centred design, we are always dealing with a socio-technical system which is by its very nature, dynamic and complex. It cannot be understand by a single perspective. The other benefit of this observation and study is that it provides fuel for our intuition, to challenge our own invisible biases that inform what we observe. Things are not always what they seem.

Jumping to answers prevents us from the benefits of exploring the problems space completely. Our exploration of the problem space connects us with human insight, from which we can then create multiple opportunity spaces for us to explore a meaningful outcome. In fact, Huddler’s have created a way to talk about this, with a hat tip to Dr Simon Lawry who introduced this to our vernacular, it looks like this.

A diagram of Dr Simon Lawry's Problem solution FrameworkThe power of this diagram is the causal logic that underpins it. When we can show diagrammatically that it pays to contemplate whether we are in problem (question) or solution (answer) mode. And to explore the insight that underpins the problem and why it exists in the first place. To then give permission to our creative minds to have fun and dream of some wonderful alternative scenarios, and then to test these potential solution with those who will be living with them. I often refer to the prototyping and convergent part of this framework as the risk mitigation pathway for business. As it is through this activity that organisations can test the answers and fix them while they are still cheap to test and fix.

The energy source that fuels this way of thinking are great questions, not answers. Great questions results in great outcomes, it’s time we cared more about how we ask meaningful well considered questions, rather than how we come up with ‘right’ answers quickly.