Are Your Questions Holding You Back?

blackboard showing words in chalk: What's next

Organizations grow in the direction of the questions they ask.

I learned this truth when I studied Appreciative Inquiry, and I’ve seen it play out countless times. Let me give you an example—a composite of several organizations I’ve worked with.

The leaders of MadCat Enterprises, a small professional services firm, strongly believed in planning for growth. They held quarterly leadership retreats, which they typically spent fine-tuning their processes. They would drill down into deep analysis of past projects, believing that a strong understanding of what went wrong would keep them from repeating past mistakes.

They weren’t wrong. But they weren’t growing. And they couldn’t understand why not.

The answer is obvious: The questions they were asking were pointing backward rather than forward.

MadCat leaders were focusing on what happened, how much it cost, who made the mistake, and who deserved credit. The goals they reached were the ones those questions were designed to accomplish: keeping current customers satisfied and securing repeat business.

They were not finding new clients or growing the smaller segments of their business. To do that, they needed to ask questions that focused on the future, not the past. They needed to take their wondering beyond how they could tweak their processes.

In other words, this leadership team needed powerful questions.

Powerful questions are short and content free. Long, detailed questions lead to long, detailed analysis, not to forward momentum. Even when they tried to think of the future, this leadership team would ask questions like, “What processes do we need to put in place to gain new business from small and mid-size clients?” A long question like that restricts thinking to a pre-defined space.

A short, powerful question might be “What do we need to move forward?” Another might be “What do our clients need?”

Those two questions share two other characteristics of powerful questions: They are open-ended and future-focused.

Open-ended questions allow room for fresh ideas. A closed-ended question like “Should we try Google ads?” may be future-focused, but it puts a single idea on the table for debate. A better question would be “What can we try?”

Future-focused questions enable the team to leave the past behind. If you ask, “Well, what happened when we made cold calls?” you’re back where the MadCat leadership team was, analyzing the past ad nauseum. Ask questions that you don’t already know the answer to!

Another characteristic of powerful questions is that they ask what or how, but rarely why. Why questions often focus on the past and can carry a tinge of blame: “Why did that happen? Why do you think so?” If you want to find out what a colleague is thinking, try a friendlier alternative like “What’s your perspective?” 

Another way powerful questions help you move forward is by challenging current assumptions. Instead of asking, “How can we make our sales processes and procedures more effective and productive?” the MadCat team might ask, “What’s another way to look at sales?” or “What’s missing?” 

When they started focusing their questions forward instead of backward, the MadCat team started to see new possibilities.

They asked each other, “What’s missing?” One answer was, “Focusing on new clients, not just current ones.”

Then they asked, “What’s a way to find new clients?” 

The VP of marketing once again brought up the idea of joining a professional association that served MadCat’s target audience. The team had previously rejected this idea as an unnecessary expense. Now that their minds were more open to future possibilities, they were willing to try it.

The professional association connected MadCat with a whole new pool of potential clients. Within six months, they saw substantial growth — because they asked powerful questions.  

Powerful questions help you focus on the future – what you want to happen, not what already happened. That’s how you and your team can achieve positive momentum.

If I’ve piqued your interest in building positive momentum, join me and Pam Collins of ZenStarr Enterprises for Momentum – Getting It and Keeping It Going on Tuesday, March 9. 

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