1 Simple Strategy to Design Smart Questions

Leaders look through three lenses when they ask smart questions. One lens turns to the past and one focuses on the present. The third lens focuses on the future. Your challenge…

You don’t have time for smart questions about the past or future when the house is burning down.

You don't have time for smart questions about the future when the house is burning down. Image of a firefighter.

Smart questions:

How do we fix this? (Present)

What’s important right now? (Present)

What led up to this? (Past) You ask about past behaviors so you don’t repeat mistakes.

What do we want? (Future) You ask about the future to establish priorities in the present. Perhaps you should let something burn.  

3 lenses of smart questions:

#1. Status updates turn to the past. “What happened?”

#2. You turn toward the present when you ask, “What are your current challenges?”

#3. Questions about the future center on desire and vision, “Where do we want to go?”

Smart questions don’t begin with verbs:

The following question starters make a mockery of curiosity.

  1. Wouldn’t you…?
  2. Couldn’t you…?
  3. Shouldn’t we…?
  4. Don’t you think…?
  5. Isn’t it a good idea to…?

Questions that begin with verbs search for agreement. Smart questions open minds. Dumb questions seek conformity.

Leading questions are a tedious waste of words.

Leading questions are a tedious waste of words. Image of a man yawning.

1 simple strategy to design smart questions:

Practice using ‘what’ at the beginning of questions.

Don’t worry about any other types of questions until ‘what-questions’ feel natural.

Don’t ask the boss, “How did you become the boss?” Instead ask, “What were some tipping points on your leadership journey?”

Don’t say:

  1. How….?
  2. When….?
  3. Why….?
  4. Don’t you think….?
  5. Wouldn’t it be true….?
  6. Do you agree?

Note: simple issues can be addressed with verbs. “Would you like to have lunch?” Either/or questions can begin with verbs. “Do you like red or black?”

What do dumb questions do?

What makes questions useful?

Still curious:

Questions Proactive People Ask

The Book of Beautiful Questions (Warren Berger)

Asking Powerful Questions (ri.gov)