Questions Are the Answer: A book review by Bob Morris

Questions Are the Answer: A Breakthrough Approach to Your Most Vexing Problems at Work and in Life
Hal Gregersen
Harper Business (November 2018)

If you want better answers, you must ask better questions

In his predictably brilliant Foreword, Ed Catmull asks: What if “we valued the answers we arrive at mainly because of all the new and better questions they lead us to? Put another way, what if instead of seeing questions as the keys that unlock answers, we saw answers as stepping stones to the next questions? That strikes me as a different mindset — and one that could take the creative efforts of groups much further.”

With all due respect to the importance of listening skills, it is even more important to develop the skill for asking the right questions. In this context, I am reminded of an incident years ago when one of Einstein’s Princeton colleagues gently chided him for asking the same questions on his final examinations every year. “Quite true. Guilty as charged. Each year, the answers are different.” More recently, Peter Drucker observed, “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”

What is “the answer” to which title of Hal Gregerson’s book refers? It is indicated in the book’s subtitle: “Catalytic questions provide A breakthrough approach to solving the most vexing problems at work and in life.” That is, questions that “dissolve barriers — which, in idea generation, usually come in the form of false assumptions — and channel energy down new, more productive pathways.”

Gregersen provides an abundance of information, insights, and counsel that are relevant to almost any organization, whatever its size and nature may be. For example, “One of the themes that runs through the work of every researcher focused on questioning is that not all questions are created equal…For me, the best questions — the ones this book focuses on — are [as indicated] catalytic; that is, they dissolve barriers — which, in idea generation, usually come in the form of false assumptions — and channel energy down new, more productive pathways.” That really is well worth repeating.

Also, Gregersen makes several key points in Chapter 8 when explaining why it is imperative to use better ways to develop better questioners in months and years to come. “Progress in any generation is driven most by the members of that generation who are able to frame and focus on the right questions for their era. The issues that consume our attention today are not ones that captivated our parents and will not be the most riveting ones for our children. The implication is that, as we raise a new generation of questioners, we are also raising a new generation of questions. Some of them will be hard for us to see as better ones, or as important reframings of matters we have already figured out for ourselves.”

These are among the passages that caught my eye, also listed to suggest the scope of Gregersen’s coverage:

o Obtaining Answers (Pages 12-13, 47-49, and 176-177)
o Breakthrough solutions (13-17)
o Positive opportunities (16-20 and 186-190)
o Better questioning (17-20, 40-45, 207-209, and 233-234)
o Open vs. closed questions (20-22 and 38-39)

o Breaking down assumptions (22-25 and 107-108)
o Cultural inhibitions (36-39)
o Growth mindset vs. fixed mindset (47-49)
o Design thinking (51-52 and 182-186)
o Question Burst sessions (67-74 and 96-97)

o Brainstorming (86-87 and 183-184)
o Creating uncertainty (109-112 and 114-115)
o Epiphany moments (118-119, 125-126, and 186-187)
o Surprises (131-136 and 161-163)
o Channeling the energy to ask the right questions (176-181 and 182-192)

o Building a culture of innovation (193-196)
o Extracurricular questions (209-212)
o Questioning skills in the home (225-229)
o Transformative questions (252-261 and 264-267)
o Keystone questions (268-280)

Frankly, I did not know exactly what to expect when I began to read this book, except that it would provide more questions than answers because that is what Hal Gregersen has done throughout his career thus far. He challenges what James O’Toole has so aptly characterized as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” The world today seems more volatile, more uncertain, more complex, and more ambiguous than at any prior time that I can recall.

Now more than ever before, we need to ask much better questions in order to obtain the much better answers that we need when responding to the challenges that await.

* * *

I highly recommend Questions Are the Answer: A Breakthrough Approach to Your Most Vexing Problems at Work and in Life, published by Harper Business (November 2018). I also highly recommend Catmull’s masterpiece, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration.


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