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Good Leadership Is About Asking Good Questions

….  especially in the midst of major change, crisis, or uncertainty –  to fast track understanding, gaining valuable insights, solving problems, connecting with others, etc.

Leaders today need to revisit an overlooked skill – Asking questions. In my many years as an executive and advisor, I’ve often seen leaders assume that people look to them for answers. While typically true, it’s also ironic since when you think you have all the answers this suggests you – have no idea how rapidly the world is changing – don’t know what you don’t know – are clueless – are a member of the Peter Principle club of incompetence – and / or have false confidence.

Instead, to be effective, leaders need to ask insightful and inspiring questions to convey a shared interest in exploring to find the answers – and solicit help to move forward. This is frequently not the case since many leaders are nervous about this approach since it may appear they don’t know what they’re doing or realize what is going on. On the contrary, research has shown that expressing curiosity, asking questions and sharing insights is a strong signal to others that you want to learn as well as being open and are trusting. Hopefully they will respond in kind are that people are encouraged to connect to facilitate moving forward. Fundamentally (providing comparable intelligence, competence and interest), this approach brings people together to fast track sparking innovative thinking and successfully solving problems.

Ask Big Questions

For the best outcomes, ask questions that encourage people to contribute, share and come together to make it a good experience.

In addition to facilitating problem resolution, asking good questions also applies to exploring new opportunities –

  • What game-changing opportunity or new service could create much more value – to increase our relevance or generate new revenue streams ?
  • What are emerging new needs of our customers or in the market that could provide the foundation for an entirely new business ?
  • How could we leverage our and the resources of Partners to address a broader range of the needs of our customers, enter new markets, etc. ?
  • How can we move from standardized, mass-market products and services to personalizing our products and services to the specific needs of each customer ?
  • How can we develop supply networks that would be more flexible in responding to unanticipated disruptions in production or logistics ?
  • How could we harness sensor technology to create more visibility into how our customers are using our products and use this information to deliver more value and deepen trust with our customers ?

Focusing questions on new initiatives and big opportunities (rather than existing activities) better positions the organization to innovate for impact and get past any concern that asking questions could be seen as a sign of weakness or vulnerability – since there’s no way anyone could know all the answers. As well, don’t ask pointed questions (that put others on the spot) like “ How can you deliver 10 % higher productivity ? ”, or “ Are you missing anything here ? ”.

Importantly, broader more open ended questions also communicate that you have a sense of ambition, that you want to take the organization beyond where it is today. And you can bolster your credibility by providing evidence of those long-term trends that underlie your question – for example, emerging technologies that are likely to offer new opportunities, or demographic shifts that will create some significant unmet needs of customers.

Involve Others + Be Good at Collaboration

Questions invite collaboration – especially when asked in meetings or general forums. It’s not just you posing a question to internal colleagues, it’s your brand reaching out to learn from consumers, Partners, etc. – and being more open to creating opportunities, synergies, etc. by leveraging the respective knowledge and competencies. Reaching out beyond company or ecosystem to connect with expertise and perspectives from a broader set of more diverse sources help people learn faster and build confidence in their look ahead skills as well as developing a plan, strategy and tactics to meaningfully improve outcomes. And make innovation more rewarding.

For example, Domino’s Pizza was hearing from customers that they did not like their pizza. Unlike many organizations who may have tried to hide this information or work behind the scenes to correct the problem, Domino’s took a different approach. They made public the feedback they were receiving and asked for suggestions on how they could improve the quality of their pies. This open question generated an avalanche of suggestions that proved very helpful in improving their products. But beyond an open innovation success, the impact was even more fundamental – by expressing concern or vulnerability, the company built awareness they’re trying to improve and trust with customers. Here was a company that was willing to acknowledge they had a problem and to ask for help in addressing the problem. If more organizations were willing to ask for help from their customers and other stakeholders when experiencing a problem, they would likely have much greater success in re-building trust and meeting expectations to increase relevance and revenue.

Develop an Entrepreneurial Culture

Since anxiety can run high in volatile or changing times, asking relevant questions you can help people overcome their concerns or fears. It’s well established in the psychology field that coming together with others can reduce anxiety — that’s the idea behind group therapy. To achieve real impact it’s important to overcome feelings of uncertainty or being overwhelmed. Thus by helping people focus on short-term initiatives or actions they can take together, your questions can provide a focusing and calming effect during a crisis to fast track moving forward .

By asking questions you also communicate that questioning is important. You’ll inspire people to identify new opportunities and to ask for help when they need it. These behaviors lead to a culture of learning, which is critical since organizations that will thrive in the future are those that encourage everyone to learn faster to rapidly expand business opportunities and deliver meaningful value. This is essential to better position the organization to avoid being a casualty of change and the increasing turnover in the Fortune 500 list (as indicated in other CAIL innovation articles and the blog).

This will be especially true to encourage exploration with the generation of new insights and answers to your questions – rather than simply expecting complete answers and nothing less. This approach encourages people to try and make small moves initially to facilitate increasing awareness and excitement about the possibilities – since participants can quickly learn and begin to see progress. As answers to your question occur (as a result of experiments or research, for example), share them to encourage further thought, even if they are not ground breaking. This contributes to building curiosity and confidence that shows questions are a proactive approach to fast track learning by working through unknowns and ambiguity with new insights and options to achieve goals.


Leaders who ask good questions better position their organization for success in seizing new opportunities and addressing challenges — and building a culture that makes innovation more rewarding by applying this mindset into the future.


Jan 12, 2021  –   By  CAIL and  John Hagel III who recently retired from Deloitte where he founded and led the Center for the Edge, a research center based in Silicon Valley.