ATD Blog

What Is Old Is New Again: The Power of Asking Catalyzing Questions

Thursday, May 25, 2023

“I’d rather know some of the questions than all of the answers.”—James Thurber

In a recent blog, Kevin Eikenberry asked: “If you could give your leaders one realistic and not completely fictional superpower, what would it be?” His answer: The power of asking more and better questions.

He continued: “Great leaders know they don’t have all the answers. They want and need the input, perspectives, and advice of their teams. And more than just thinking of questions as a tool to gain information, they are a powerful (and perhaps the best) way to engage the team in anything. We all intuitively know that the questioning skills of leaders are important. But until we think of questions as a superpower, we aren’t likely to view the building of this skill as paramount in the development of our leaders.” He continues with ways talent leaders can support a culture of inquiry.

Several years ago, we wrote about the power of using S&T (Stop and Think) Questions. The essence of the stop and think question is simple and what the title implies, like the Socratic method. The question requires one to stop, think critically, and possibly conduct research or collect data to respond accurately.

Even earlier, we wrote about using questions to learn from experience, specifically focusing on the Kolb Learning Cycle as a structured four-phase process for debriefing an experience:

  • Engaging in some event, action, activity, or problem-solving experience. It could be a meeting, simulation, game, case study, project, or lecture. It can be planned or spontaneous.
  • Collecting data about that experience/reflective observation. This is a facilitated discussion with participants to review, analyze, and think about the experience to describe their experience. This is the “what” phase.
  • ·Extracting the data and from it making abstract conceptualizations. This part of the learning cycle aims to look at themes and patterns of behavior and derive conclusions and generalizations by making connections and asking for agreement. This phase draws abstract conclusions about the experience, taking it from a specific behavior or action in the experience to an assumption about how things generally work and the relevance to the results or the “so what.”
  • Applying the new learning. This is the “next steps” or “now what” phase and enables individuals to articulate ways or develop plans to change behaviors based on new insights from the experience, the reflection, and the generalizations. It is at the heart of committing to changing behaviors and critical for learning.

For the last three phases, there are many suggested questions to trigger reflections.

Some classic books on using questions include:

Using questions is extremely important in a collaborative group environment where everyone’s input is important to solving a problem or conundrum. Effective questions focus on purpose (what and why), process (how), and outcome (results/so what?). Using the sentence starter “how might we…” helps bring everyone into the discussion. For the organization to act on the information gained from questions, leaders and managers must actively listen to the answers and turn the data they hear into information useful for decision making.


Understanding the general types of questions and when to ask them is valuable. Many trainers use question types associated with Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning, including those to help in remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. When assessing an organization, using the questions associated with the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence is valuable, especially those in the Organizational Profile. Peter Drucker’s five questions are extremely useful for leaders because they are easy to remember:

  • What is our business/mission?
  • Who is our customer?
  • What does the customer consider value?
  • What have been our results?
  • What is our plan?

Bill Scherkenbach, a colleague of Dr. Edwards Deming, understood that questions are more important than answers and used them extensively to help leaders understand Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge and its power to change an organizational culture. Some questions he proposed include:

  • By what method do you provide a specific aim (purpose) to your organization?
  • How do you improve on that method?
  • How is your aim operationally defined throughout your organization?
  • What are your most important leadership and management questions?
  • By what methods are they currently answered?
  • By what methods do you improve your questions?
  • By what methods do you learn from others?
  • By what methods are the answers studied?
  • How do you help your employees take joy in their work?
  • How do you help your employees improve physically, logically, and emotionally?

While many questions focus on the past and what has already happened, an organizational development (OD) intervention, developed in the 1980s at Case Western Reserve, focuses on using positive questions to change the future by creating the potential to imagine and vocalize a new future. David Cooperrider is credited with co-developing this action-research, change theory questioning process now called “Appreciative Inquiry.” Questions using the methods can help teams achieve their goals. Questions based on this approach include:

1. Questions to Focus Forward (to get away from blame and excuses):

  • What is working?
  • What is going right?
  • What are some successes?
  • What are you most proud of?

2. Questions to Analyze Success:

  • Why are these things successful?
  • What is causing the success?
  • What did you do differently to cause success?

3. Questions to Clarify the Goal:

  • What is the objective?
  • What does the future state look like?

4. Questions to Establish Benefits:

  • What are the benefits in achieving the goal?
  • What are the benefits to our organization?

5. Questions to Plan and Take Action:

  • What can we do to move closer to our goal?
  • Who is going to do what by when?
  • How will we measure our results?

In Gamestorming, the authors state: “Perhaps nothing is more important to exploration and discovery than the art of asking good questions. Questions are the fire-starters: they ignite people’s passions and energy; they create heat; and they illuminate things that were previously obscure” (p. 27). As a precursor to using the game techniques and tools, they provide a tutorial on questioning and differentiate question types including opening, navigating, examining, experimental, and closing.

Just like the ability to use any other tool, using questions effectively is a learned skill that can be continuously enhanced. Seeking out added information and being open to innovative ideas and perspectives from others not only promotes curiosity but provides a practice field for various questions and improving the skill.

So yes, using questions effectively is a current superpower to learn from and engage with others—even when interacting with generative AI apps! And there is a plethora of research and examples to help us improve this superpower skill.

What good questions did you ask today?

About the Author

MJ leads the ATD Forum content arena and serves as the learning subject matter expert for the ATD communities of practice. As the leader of a consortium known as a “skunk works” for connecting, collaborating, and sharing learning, she worked with members to evolve the consortium into a lab environment for advancing the learning practice within the context of work, thus evolving the Forum’s work-learn lab concept. MJ is a skilled and experienced design and performance coach for work teams, as well as a seasoned designer of work-learn experiences with a focus on strategy and program management. She previously held leadership positions at the Defense Acquisition University, including senior instructor, special assistant to the commandant, and director of professional development.

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