Stop giving answers… ask some powerful questions instead

powerful questionsScenario: a team member runs into an impediment. Comes to the team lead or the scrum master, and asks “What should I do?”

Multiple-choice options for the TL/SM’s reply:

  1. “I’ll take care of it for you.”
  2. “Go talk to Ms. SME.”
  3. “How should I know?”
  4. “What do you think you should do next?”

Most leaders are predisposed to #1 or #2 – since leaders are supposed to be smart as well as “call the shots.” So, of course, they must know and give “the right answer”…

Edgar Schein, in his book Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling frames the leader’s problem well:

Our culture emphasizes that leaders must be wiser, set direction, and articulate values, all of which predisposes them to tell rather than ask.

However every time a leader tells someone what to do – gives out “the answer” – that person, as well as their team, is robbed not only of the opportunity to learn and grow their level of engagement, but their sense of ownership, trust, and self-confidence as well.

For teams to reach consistent high levels of performance, it is vital that leaders find another way. While it’s fine to acknowledge intent (“Yeah, I can see you want to get unblocked there so the team can make their sprint goal”)… it just isn’t a good thing in the long run to give detailed instructions.

By resisting the urge to provide a solution and instead asking a question or two, the leader builds an environment where the team has to think through and solve emergent problems themselves.

What do powerful questions look like in practice?

The concept is simple: instead of giving answers to the ask “What should I do?”  the leader responds with questions. And then leaves space for a response. (Don’t be like the Ben Stein character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)

One very simple way (derived from David Marquet’s excellent book Turn this Ship Around) to respond to “What should I do?” is to ask:

  • “What would you do if you were me?”

Another way is to help the asker to fast forward a bit:

  • “Image it’s x days from now (end of the sprint)…what would you wish you had done today?”

Yet another way, if the issue is BIG and a bit overwhelming, ask about a piece of the decision:

  • “How might you break that down into smaller problems?”

In the coaching world, there a dozens of additional approaches to “just asking questions.” In all cases, the questions are open-ended, and do not provide the “solution” embedded within them. They all invite discovery, clarity and the opportunity for empowerment.

A Toolbox of Powerful Questions

From Coaches Training Institute, Deb Preuss, Agile Coaching Institute

  • What else?
  • What is at risk?
  • What is important about that?
  • What might ‘help’ look like?
  • What would a simpler way look like?
  • What’s the worst/best that could happen
  • What would an experiment look like?
  • What part is confusing/surprising/annoying?
  • What’s already working that you can build on?
  • What other angles can you think of?
  • How does it look to you?
  • How do you really want it to be?
  • What is stopping you?
  • If you got it, what would you have?
  • In the bigger scheme of things, how important is this?
  • In the beginning, how did you want it to be?
  • What is the lesson from that?
  • What’s the worst part for you?
  • When is it time for action?
  • What is your prediction?
  • What part is not yet clear?
  • What is stopping you?
  • Whose opinion matters on this topic?
  • What have you tried so far?

Powerful Questions for Agile Teams by Lyssa Adkins

Co-Active Coaching (2nd ed.) © 2007 by Laura Whitworth, Karen Kimsey-House, Henry Kimsey-House, and Phillip Sandahl. Derivative work, Powerful Questions for Agile Teams © 2008 by Lyssa Adkins.

Scenario

If you hear (from the team or your own mouth or that voice in your head…) Try instead one of these powerful questions…
The team has been in conversation for a while and you think they need to hear a specific team member’s opinion. What’s your opinion?

What do you make of it?

What is possible here?

What is the part that is not yet clear?

What else?

The team is diving into solution details and you think they should stay in the “visioning” state longer. What are other options?

What is here that you want to explore?

What other angles can you think of?

What is just one more possibility?

The team has decided on a solution but isn’t moving into action.  What do we need to do to get started?

Is this a time for action?

If your life depended on taking action, what would you do?

If you had free choice in the matter, what would you do?

A team member is rehashing a story of something that happened in the past. Why does this keep coming up?

What is the essence of that?

What do you make of that?

A team member is unsure about a course of action. What do you need to be sure about this?

What will this get you?

What is your prediction?

The team keeps coming around to the same conversation. Why are we talking about this again?

What seems to be the main obstacle?

What concerns you the most about…?

The team is evaluating options. Is this a viable option?

What is the opportunity here? What is the challenge?

What is your assessment?

The team is stuck. How do we get past this?

How else could a person handle this?

If you could do anything you wanted, what would you do?

 

Some recent additions to my tool kit….

Rebel Questions

From Kelly, Lois; Medina, Carmen; Cameron, Debra. Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within (Kindle Locations 2024–2027).

  • What’s beneath what’s going on here?
  • What has foiled previous efforts like this one? What can you learn from those?
  • Should you continue to try to advance this idea? What might happen if you let it go?
  • What approaches would make a difference in getting this idea back on track?
  • Are you making assumptions that just aren’t true?
  • Who else could help make this idea happen? Who could you talk with to get some fresh perspectives?

Curiosity Question Types

From Ester Derby, 7 Rules for Positive Productive Change, p123, (Question type: useful for)

Context-free: understanding the problem space

  • What problem does this situation cause?
  • What environment is this product likely to encounter?

Open: inviting exploration

  • What would a better outcome look like?

Closed: confirming specific information

  • Has this happened more than once?

Scenario: describing a situation

  • Tell me about a time when…

Who: revealing other relevant points of view

  • Who gets involved when this issue arises?
  • Who else has noticed this?
  • Who else is affected by this issue?

What: revealing events and considerations.

  • Why do you notice first?
  • What happens next?
  • What factors are involved?

When: understand sequences and circumstances

  • When does this event occur?
  • When do you see the first indications?
  • When do things come to a head?

Where: learning about implications across the system

  • Where else in the organization is this an issue?

How: learning about the way things happen

  • How do you address this when it comes up?
  • How do other people respond?

Why without why: understanding the why without making people feel defensive; revealing reasons, workarounds, and chains of events leading to the current state.

  • How did this come to be?
  • What was the thinking behind that decision?
  • Can you help me understand this?

Micro Shifts — Congruence Check

From Ester Derby, 7 Rules for Positive Productive Change,

Self

  • What is going on for you?
  • What are your needs and capabilities related to this situation?
  • What do you want to happen?

Other

  • What do you know about what is going on for the other people involved?
  • What do you know about their needs and capabilities related to this situation?
  • What might be a desirable outcome for them?
  • What is the context they work in?
  • What are the demands of their context?

Shared

  • What is your shared context?
  • What is in the negative space of this change?
  • What is the downside, and who might experience that downside?
  • What are the upsides?

Tell Me What You Need to Hear so That You Stop Worrying

From Dr Leandro Herrero’s “Daily Thoughts” blog

I love this non-traditional approach to building trust and not assuming what is going on internally for the person one is coaching/supporting/serving:

I know of a brilliant medical doctor who, in front of a worried patient, perhaps with some imaginary worries, perhaps real ones, says: ‘Tell me what you need to hear so that you stop worrying’.

Before you think that this is just a blind and dishonest way to please, see how she continues:

‘Not that I may be able to satisfy you, but I need to know what I could tell you that would help you to calm’.

And later on, she is likely to end: ‘let me worry about A and B, you worry about X and Y’. X and Y being the things the patient may have full control over. Worried is now distributed!

A Ha Level Practice

Once a team has made it through shu and is dancing in ha, there’s another level of practice for coaches and the teams they serve.

With complex emergent systems, there’s often no single, “right” path. Often the best thing is for the coach to do is just sit there, observe the chaos for a bit, and then interject an oblique question. This approach helps creative knowledge workers overcome blocks or assumed constraints by encouraging lateral thinking. Read more about oblique strategies here.

Empower Emancipate your team

The next time in your role as a leader you are asked: “What should I do?”

…Pause… and consider: “What can I do to help my team do its best work?”

Wouldn’t it be to:

  • Release their full power and potential
  • Build more open communication channels
  • Create an environment filled with more trust, and more collaboration.

… you can realize all of that… if just don’t tell ’em what to do…

Read more

31 Powerful Questions from Co-Active Coaching

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