The art of powerful questions: catalyzing insight, innovation, and action

This is a 14 page booklet by David Isaacs Eric E. Vogt, Juanita Brown, available online at

I am fond of questioning. My 2018 resolution was to add MAD questions to each blog post. I also wrote about how to ask better questions a couple of times in this blog.
+ Master your questioning skills
+ How to ask better questions

This booklet is a pretty nice addition to my collection. Below I include my highlights, with my italicized commentary in-lined.

Speaking of questions and collections, you should definitely check this comic. 

Highlights from the book 

The usefulness of the knowledge we acquire and the effectiveness of the actions we take depend on the quality of the questions we ask. Questions open the door to dialogue and discovery. They are an invitation to creativity and breakthrough thinking.
“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”
--Albert Einstein
Many Nobel laureates describe the “Eureka!” moment of their discovery as when the “right” question finally revealed itself—even if it took them considerable time to come up with the final answers. For example, Einstein’s theory of relativity resulted from a question that he had wondered about when still a teenager: “What would the universe look like if I were riding on the end of a light beam at the speed of light?” Einstein regularly practiced this kind of “thought experiment.”

Another Nobel-prize winner, physicist Arno Penzias, when asked what accounted for his success, replied,“I went for the jugular question.”

Even for ordinary folks, asking a question as simple as, “What does all this mean?” or “What can we do that could help shift this situation?” or “What haven’t we thought of that could make a difference?” can have a startling impact on creating new knowledge and insight.

Why Don’t We Ask Better Questions?

If asking good questions is so critical, why don’t most of us spend more of our time and energy on discovering and framing them? One reason may be that much of Western culture, and North American society in particular, focuses on having the “right answer” rather than discovering the “right question.” Our educational system focuses more on memorization and rote answers than on the art of seeking new possibilities.

## It is not better in other cultures, especially Middle East and Eastern cultures are not any better. 

Between our deep attachment to the answer--any answer-- and our anxiety about not knowing, we have inadvertently thwarted our collective capacity for deep creativity and fresh perspectives.

## I think another big reason is that many people are offended by questions. In particular, people in power and insecure people take questions as doubting and undermining of their authority. 

What Makes a Question Powerful?

“Questions can be like a lever you use to pry open the stuck lid on a paint can. If we have a short lever, we can only just crack open the lid on the can. But if we have a longer lever, or a more dynamic question, we can open that can up much wider and really stir things up. If the right question is applied, and it digs deep enough, then we can stir up all the creative solutions.”
“A paradigm shift occurs when a question is asked inside the current paradigm that can only be answered from outside it.”
Marilee Goldberg, The Art Of The Question
The question has to catch people where they are, to meet them where there is the most energy and relevance for them, and then use that energy to go deeper. Action will flow naturally from that energy.

The Architecture of Powerful Questions

There are three dimensions to powerful questions: construction, scope, and assumptions. Each contributes to the quality of learning and knowledge creation that emerges as we engage with others in a generative inquiry.

## There is a sweet point in each dimension. The question should not be too ambitious that it prevents any solution attempts, and not too weak that the solution is not useful. The question should just on the realm of being answered. Questioning is an act of changing the frame, adjusting perspective, shifting the paradigm. The hard part of doing research is to figure out the right questions to ask!

To formulate powerful questions, it’s important to become aware of assumptions and use them appropriately. So, contrast the question, “What did we do wrong and who is responsible?” with “What can we learn from what’s happened and what possibilities do we now see?” The first question assumes error and blame; it is a safe bet that whoever is responding will feel defensive. The second question encourages reflection and is much more likely than the first query to stimulate learning and collaboration among those involved.

In advance of an important meeting or conversation, spend a few minutes with a colleague and write down several questions that are relevant to the topic. Rate them in terms of their power.

## We use questions to prime our thinking in our paper reading group. 
“Questioning breaks open the stagnant, hardened shells of the present, opening up options to be explored.” Fran Peavey
## Here is one trick I use. I take it as an axiom that "There is a better question we haven't asked yet on this topic". Then I ask: What is the best question we can ask here?


Rajesh Babu K said…
I came across your site when I was looking for more material on 'Gray Failure' and found your MAD questions section. That lead me to your 'mad questions' category and this specific post. I came across this paper (by Eric E. Vogt) few years back. Around the same time, I got to work through 'The Art of Problem Posing' by Stephen I. Brown. I could see how these two could be mixed together.

You might find these interesting and useful too:
* Dale Emery's Value Question (
* Dale Emery's Questions to explore problems (
* Gerald M. Weinberg's Are your Lights on? How to figure out what the problem really is
* Kees Dorst's Frame Innovation
* Karim Benammar's Reframing: The art of thinking differently

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