Since I’m in the business of helping people ask better questions. I shouldn’t be surprised when someone asks me, “What makes one question better than another?” That’s actually a good question. Before I describe why I think it’s a good question, let’s have a look at some classic categories of second-rate questions:
Questions that are actually advice or judgment masquerading as a question: Shouldn’t you unplug the toaster before trying to unjam that bagel with your knife? Just because it’s good advice, doesn’t make it a good question.
Questions that beget questions instead of answers: What should we do? Unless the situation in which this question arises is dire, the appropriate response is, “that depends, what is happening and what do you want to have happen?”
Questions that constrain rather than liberate: Should we build it ourselves or outsource it?
Questions that make it unsafe to answer candidly: The boss asks forcefully at the conclusion of a meeting, “I don’t see any reason why we can’t meet this deadline, do you?”
I apply four criteria when evaluating the quality of a question. I refer to each criterion as an imperative. Better questions satisfy four imperatives.
Imperative 1: Will answering the question help you avoid solving the wrong problem?
To avoid solving the wrong problem you must recognize the influence of underlying structures and cultural norms. It’s tempting to solve problems as they arise without questioning the cause, but when the problem persists or regularly reemerges, efforts to solve each problem in isolation become counterproductive. I can take an aspirin to make my headache go away, but if the headache keeps coming back I will need to understand more about what’s causing it.
“What can I take to get rid of this headache?” is not as good as, “Why do I get a headache every time I drink red wine?”
Imperative 2: Will answering the question reduce the risk of missing something important?
Being attentive to our environmental context and the competitive landscape reduces the risk that we will miss something important. The overwhelming amount of information available to us conspires with the relentless pace of work to narrow the aperture through which we learn about the world. If we keep our heads down and focus only on our functions and our objectives, we may miss emerging trends that could make the way we are currently framing our questions irrelevant.
“How do we leverage social media?” is not as good as, “What influences how our future best customers make judgments about a brand?”
Imperative 3: Will answering the question make it easier for people to take concerted action?
The answers to our most important questions involve and impact others. Crafting questions that are considerate of people who will be impacted by the answer is not just an ethical thing to do, it avoids unanticipated conflicts in priorities and improves your answers by including diverse perspectives.
“How do I get people to focus more on our customers?” is not as good as, “What conditions encourage helpfulness?”
Imperative 4: Will answering the question increase the novelty of your options?
Questions that allow for multiple and diverse options inspire fresh thinking. Those who value learning from mistakes ask different questions than those looking for options that simply improve the status quo.
“How will that work?” or “What are the benefits and risks of that approach?” are not as good as, “If we experimented with that idea, what would we learn?”