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Catalyzing Insight, Innovation, and Action

by Eric E. Vogt, Juanita Brown, and David Isaacs


THE ART OF POWERFUL QUESTIONS: Catalyzing Insight, Innovation, and Action

by Eric E.Vogt, Juanita Brown, and David Isaacs; illustrations by Nancy Margulies

Design and layout by Nancy Daugherty

Copyright © 2003 by Eric E.Vogt, Juanita Brown, and David Isaacs

All rights reserved.

ISBN 0-9724716-1-8

T Printed on recycled paper.

Printed in the United States of America.
First edition. First printing September 2003.

Published by: Produced and Distributed by:

Whole Systems Associates Pegasus Communications, Inc.
166 Homestead Boulevard One Moody Street
Mill Valley, CA 94941 Waltham, MA 02453
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Catalyzing Insight, Innovation, and Action

by Eric E. Vogt, Juanita Brown, and David Isaacs

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on over time, led to significant advances in the field of
the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining physics. Many years later, an empirical demonstration
the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper ques- showed that light from distant stars actually curved as
tion, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” it passed through the gravitational force of our sun.
Einstein’s graduate students rushed to him as he was
walking through the Princeton campus and

W hen was the last time you sat through a meeting

and said to yourself,“This is a complete waste of
time!”? Was it yesterday, or even just a few hours ago?
exclaimed, “Dr. Einstein, light really does bend!”
Einstein looked at them quizzically and said, “Of
course!” He had come to this conclusion through
Why did that gathering feel so tedious? Perhaps it’s exploring the question in his own thought experi-
because the leaders posed the wrong questions at the ment years before.
start of the session. Or, worse yet, maybe they didn’t ask Another Nobel-prize winner, physicist Arno
any engaging questions, and as a result, the meeting Penzias, when asked what accounted for his success,
consisted of boring reports-outs or other forms of one- replied,“I went for the jugular question.” Still practic-
way communication that failed to ing his questioning discipline today,
engage people’s interest or curiosity. Penzias recently commented at a Fast
The usefulness of the knowledge Company Conference, “Change starts
we acquire and the effectiveness of the with the individual. So the first thing I do
actions we take depend on the quality “I WENT FOR each morning is ask myself, ‘Why do I
of the questions we ask. Questions THE JUGULAR strongly believe what I believe?’
open the door to dialogue and discov- QUESTION.” Constantly examine your own assump-
ery. They are an invitation to creativity tions.” It’s this type of self-questioning
and breakthrough thinking. Questions ARNO PENZIAS, that keeps creativity alive.
can lead to movement and action on NOBEL LAUREATE In other key examples of the impor-
key issues; by generating creative tance of powerful questions, a query by
insights, they can ignite change. James Watson and Francis Crick, “What
Consider the possibility that every- might DNA look like in a 3D form?” led to
thing we know today about our world the discovery of the double helix and for-
emerged because people were curious.They formulat- ever altered the scientific landscape. During the Tylenol
ed a question or series of questions about something crisis in the early 1980s, considering the question,
that sparked their interest or deeply concerned them, “What is the most ethical action we might take?”
which lead them to learn something new. Many Nobel enabled Johnson & Johnson to restore consumer trust
laureates describe the “Eureka!” moment of their dis- and become a leader in corporate responsibility. And
covery as when the “right” question finally revealed asking, “Where can I get a good hamburger on the
itself—even if it took them considerable time to come road?” motivated Ray Kroc to create McDonald’s, the
up with the final answers. For example, Einstein’s the- fast-food chain that became an international icon. Even
ory of relativity resulted from a question that he had for ordinary folks, asking a question as simple as,“What
wondered about when still a teenager: “What would does all this mean?”or “What can we do that could help
the universe look like if I were riding on the end of a shift this situation?” or “What haven’t we thought of
light beam at the speed of light?” Einstein regularly that could make a difference?” can have a startling
practiced this kind of “thought experiment,” which, impact on creating new knowledge and insight.


Why Don’t We Ask Better Questions? as a global community, we need these skills now more
If asking good questions is so critical, why don’t most than ever.
of us spend more of our time and energy on discover- Are there organizations that do place a high value
ing and framing them? One reason may be that much on questions? Consider this: In Germany, the job title
of Western culture, and North American society in par- Direktor Grundsatzfragen translates as “Director of
ticular, focuses on having the “right answer” rather Fundamental Questions.”As a German colleague said:
than discovering the “right question.” Our educational “Yes, there’s a job title of Direktor Grundsatz-
system focuses more on memorization and rote fragen. Some of the larger German companies
answers than on the art of seeking new possibilities. have an entire department of Grundsatz-
We are rarely asked to discover compelling questions, fragen. These are the people who are always
nor are we taught why we should ask such questions thinking about what the next questions will
in the first place. Quizzes, examinations, and aptitude be. Of course, these people are only in the
tests all reinforce the value of correct answers. Is it German companies headquartered in Germany,
any wonder that most of us are uncomfortable with such as Daimler, Bayer, Siemens, or SAP. If the
not knowing? German company is acquired by a U.S. compa-
The aversion in our culture to asking creative ny,they usually eliminate the Grundsatzfragen
questions is linked to an emphasis on finding quick positions.”
fixes and an attachment to black/white, either/or
thinking. In addition, the rapid pace of our lives and The German understanding and appreciation of
work doesn’t often provide us with opportunities to Grundsatzfragen may stem from a culture that high-
participate in reflective conversations in which we ly values philosophy and the ongoing questioning of
can explore catalytic questions and innovative possi- priorities and the meaning of life. Even today, this
bilities before reaching key decisions. These factors, focus is reflected in some unique aspects of high-
coupled with a prevailing belief that “real work” con- school education. In the German Gymnasium, from
sists primarily of detailed analysis, immediate deci- the ages of 14 to 17, students are typically assigned to
sions, and decisive action, contradict the perspective study groups with 30 of their peers. In the words of
that effective “knowledge work” consists of asking one graduate, “We work intensely together in every
profound questions and hosting wide-ranging strate- subject, and then in the second year, we meet Goethe
gic conversations on issues of substance. (the famous 19th-century German philosopher), and
The reward systems in our organizations further we question our entire world for two years. We
reinforce this dilemma. Leaders believe that they are emerge with a greater appreciation for the power of
being paid for fixing problems rather than for foster- questions and the power of conversation.”
ing breakthrough thinking. Between our deep attach- As we enter an era in which systemic issues often
ment to the answer—any answer—and our anxiety lie at the root of critical challenges, in which diverse
about not knowing, we have inadvertently thwarted perspectives are required for sustainable solutions,
our collective capacity for deep creativity and fresh and in which cause-and-effect relationships are not
perspectives. Unfortunately, given the unprecedented immediately apparent, the capacity to raise penetrat-
challenges we face both in our own organizations and ing questions that challenge current operating


Who Question Outcome

Watson and Crick “What might DNA look like in 3D form?” Discovery of the double helix

James Burke, CEO, “What is the most ethical action we might take?” Restoration of consumer
Johnson & Johnson confidence

Ray Kroc “Where can I get a good hamburger on the road?” Creation of McDonald’s


assumptions will be key to creating positive futures. a compelling question. Here are some of their
As Einstein said, “The problems we have cannot be reflections:
solved at the same level of thinking that created Finn Voldtofte (Denmark): The question has to catch
them.” And in her book The Art of the Question, people where they are, to meet them where there
Marilee Goldberg adds,“A paradigm shift occurs when is the most energy and relevance for them, and
a question is asked inside the current paradigm that then use that energy to go deeper. Action will
can only be answered from outside it.” It’s this kind of flow naturally from that energy.
paradigm shift, based on powerful questions, that may Felipe Herzenborn (Mexico):The question also needs
be necessary to create truly innovative solutions to to be simple and clear and penetrating. It’s like a
our most pressing concerns. laser beam. A good question invites and chal-
lenges you to reflect at a deeper level—to find the
What Makes a Question Powerful? knowledge or wisdom that’s already there
In a wonderfully evocative description, Fran Peavey, a beneath the surface.
pioneer in the use of strategic ques- Verna Allee (U.S.): To me, the most
tions, observes: energizing questions are those that
“Questions can be like a lever you “A PARADIGM SHIFT involve people’s values, hopes, and
use to pry open the stuck lid on a ideals—questions that relate to
paint can. . . . If we have a short something that’s larger than them,
lever, we can only just crack open where they can connect and con-
the lid on the can. But if we have a INSIDE THE CURRENT tribute. People don’t have a lot of
longer lever, or a more dynamic PARADIGM THAT CAN energy around questions that are
question, we can open that can up ONLY BE ANSWERED only about removing pain.
much wider and really stir things FROM OUTSIDE IT.” David Isaacs (U.S.): Even though it’s
up. . . . If the right question is useful to acknowledge pain, I think
applied, and it digs deep enough, it’s also important to shift the ques-
then we can stir up all the tion away from a problem focus or
creative solutions.” fix-it focus to a possibility focus.
There’s always a subtle feeling of dis-
While you may not immediately empowerment in a problem,a feeling
know the characteristics of a powerful question, it’s that all the doors are shut.“We’ve got
actually quite easy to recognize one. For instance, if you a problem . . . oh no! Not another problem!”There’s
were an Olympic judge scoring the power of questions a weariness and stuckness about it. Simply asking,
on a scale from one to ten (with ten being the highest), “What’s the possibility we see in this situation?”can
how would you rate the following queries? make a big difference.
1. What time is it? Toke Moller (Denmark): Here’s an example of that
2. Did you take a shower? approach. I was working with a local school to
3. What possibilities exist that we haven’t frame a possibility-oriented question. We asked
thought of yet? teachers, students, parents, and administrators,
4. What does it mean to be ethical? “What could a good school also be?” This way of
posing the question helped people to see their
We have tested questions such as these in several school in a different light. It resulted in some amaz-
different cultures. In the process, we’ve discovered ing new ideas. I’m quite sure they would not have
that, despite cultural differences, people quite consis- been as innovative if the question had focused only
tently rate questions one and two as being less power- on fixing problems.
ful, and questions three and four as being more power- Carlos Mota (Mexico): It’s a real art to find as well as to
ful. Clearly, powerful questions are ones that transcend shape the right question for your situation. Once a
many boundaries. friend told me about a time she was being inter-
Not long ago, we hosted a conversation with a viewed. The interviewer said, “We’re just going to
group of international colleagues about what makes ask you one question: What’s the question we


should be asking?” Sometimes the most important rowing the possibilities we can consider. Is it a yes/no
thing to do is to help the people themselves shape question? Is it an either/or question? Does it begin
the questions in the most powerful way, since they with an interrogative, such as Who,What, or How?
know their own situation the best of anyone.
Thus, a powerful question: WHEN WHERE WHICH
• generates curiosity in the listener WHY HOW?
• stimulates reflective conversation
• is thought-provoking Just for fun, try placing these words in a pyramid
• surfaces underlying assumptions of lower to higher power. Don’t think too much; use
• invites creativity and new possibilities your intuition.
• generates energy and forward movement More Powerful
• channels attention and focuses inquiry
• stays with participants
• touches a deep meaning
• evokes more questions
Less Powerful
A powerful question also has the capacity to “trav-
el well”—to spread beyond the place where it began When asked, most people rank these words from
into larger networks of conversation throughout an more powerful to less powerful as follows:
organization or a community. Questions that travel well
are often the key to large-scale change. As we’ll explore More Powerful
below, how such queries are crafted can make a differ-
ence in their capacity to move a system toward innova-
tive futures. WHY,
The Architecture of Powerful Questions WHAT
As shown at the start of this volume, powerful ques- WHO, WHEN, WHERE
tions can dramatically improve the quality of insight,
innovation, and action in our organizations, in our
communities, and in our lives.Therefore, understand-
ing the basic architecture of formulating powerful Less Powerful
questions is a key skill in today’s knowledge economy.
There are three dimensions to powerful questions: By using the words toward the top of the pyra-
construction, scope, and assumptions. Each con- mid, we can make many of our questions more robust.
tributes to the quality of learning and knowledge cre- For example, consider the following sequence:
ation that emerges as we engage with others in a gen- • Are you satisfied with our working
erative inquiry. relationship?
• When have you been most satisfied with our
working relationship?
• What is it about our working relationship that
Assumptions you find most satisfying?
• Why might it be that that our working
relationship has had its ups and downs?

THE FIRST DIMENSION: As you move from the simple “yes/no” question at
The Construction of a Question the beginning toward the “why” question at the end,
The linguistic construction of a question can make a you’ll notice that the queries tend to stimulate more
critical difference in either opening our minds or nar- reflective thinking and a deeper level of conversation.


That’s what we mean by a powerful question—one expand in scope.As you work to make your questions
that provokes thoughtful exploration and evokes cre- powerful, tailor and clarify the scope as precisely as
ative thinking. possible to keep them within the realistic boundaries
However, a note of caution: Unless a “why” ques- and needs of the situation you are working with.Avoid
tion is carefully crafted, it can easily evoke a defensive stretching the scope of your question too far. For
response, as people try to justify their answer rather example, compare the following question to the ones
than proceed in a spirit of inquiry. For instance, the above:
questions, “Why can’t you ever tell me exactly what • How can we best manage the economy?
you are thinking?” or “Why did you do it that way?”
can cause someone to defend a given position or While extremely interesting, this query is clearly
rationalize some past decision, rather than open new outside the scope of most people’s capacity to take
possibilities. In contrast, when a “why” question stems effective action, at least in the short term. In many sit-
from genuine curiosity, such as “I wonder why that uations, this would be a less strategic question than
happened?” then the inquiry has the potential to cre- one for which those involved had the capacity to
ate useful insights. make a more immediate difference.
Just because a question is situated near the top of
the pyramid does not necessarily mean that it is more THE THIRD DIMENSION:
important or more relevant than its counterparts at the The Assumptions Within Questions
bottom. Depending on your goals, a “yes/no” question Because of the nature of language, almost all of the
can be extremely important (particularly if you are clos- questions we pose have assumptions built into them,
ing a large sale!). either explicit or implicit.
Likewise, a question These assumptions may
that gets at the facts “A VITAL QUESTION, A CREATIVE QUESTION, or may not be shared by
of who, when, and RIVETS OUR ATTENTION. ALL THE CREATIVE the group involved in the
where can often be exploration; for instance
crucial, such as in a the question, “How
legal case. However, QUESTION. KNOWLEDGE EMERGES IN RESPONSE should we create a bilin-
when you want to TO THESE COMPELLING QUESTIONS. THEY OPEN gual educational system
open the space for US TO NEW WORLDS.” in California?” assumes
creativity and break- that those involved in the
through thinking, exploration have agreed
questions construct- that being bilingual is an
ed around the words important capacity for
at the top of the pyramid will have more strategic lever- the state’s students. However, some powerful ques-
age than those that use the words at the bottom. tions challenge everyone’s existing assumptions. For
example, ask yourself what assumptions the following
THE SECOND DIMENSION: question might challenge: “How might we eliminate
The Scope of a Question the border between the U.S. and Mexico?”
It’s important not only to be aware of how the words To formulate powerful questions, it’s important to
we choose influence the effectiveness of our query, become aware of assumptions and use them appro-
but also to match the scope of a question to our priately. So, contrast the question, “What did we do
needs.Take a look at the following three questions: wrong and who is responsible?” with “What can we
• How can we best manage our work group? learn from what’s happened and what possibilities do
• How can we best manage our company? we now see?” The first question assumes error and
• How can we best manage our supply chain? blame; it is a safe bet that whoever is responding will
feel defensive.The second question encourages reflec-
In this example, the questions progressively tion and is much more likely than the first query to
broaden the domain of inquiry as they consider larg- stimulate learning and collaboration among those
er and larger aspects of the system; that is, they involved.


It’s often helpful to examine a question for any exploration. Just a few practice sessions will greatly
unconscious beliefs it may introduce to the situation. enhance your ability to engage in productive conver-
You can do so by simply asking your team, “What sations stimulated by dynamic questions.
assumptions or beliefs are we holding that are key to
the conversation we are having here?” and “How Using Powerful Questions in Organizations
would we come at this if we held an entirely different There are more and more examples of how the disci-
belief system than the one we have?” Each of these plined use of compelling questions is making a differ-
questions invites an exploration into both conscious ence in organizational life. These changes often hap-
and unconscious assumptions and opens up the pen in surprising ways, opening new avenues that
space for new possibilities to reveal themselves. people never considered before.
By surfacing or altering assumptions, we can shift HP “for the World.” Sometimes something as
the context of a strategic inquiry and create new simple as changing a preposition in a sentence can
opportunities for innovation. Compare the have a dramatic impact on how an organiza-
following two questions: tion conceives of its mission and role.
• How can we compete with the Consider how a small shift in the con-
Chinese? struction of a question led to major
• How can we collaborate with changes in the scope and context
the Chinese? of strategic inquiry at Hewlett-
Packard, resulting in effective
The second question changes the innovation and targeted action.
context by challenging our traditional busi- The director of HP Labs wondered
ness paradigm and the assumptions that why the organization was not con-
underlie it.As a result, it opens up a new line sidered the best industrial research
of exploration and set of subsequent questions. laboratory in the world. As he thought
The art of reframing questions in this way has about it, he realized that he did not know
important implications for not only shifting our what that designation really meant. He charged
assumptions, but also creating new possibilities for Barbara Waugh, a key staff member, with coor-
constructive action. dinating the effort to respond to the question,
By understanding and consciously considering “What does being the best industrial research
the three dimensions of powerful questions, we lab in the world mean?” Instead of looking for
can increase the power of the questions we ask answers outside the company, Barbara
and, as a result, increase our ability to generate encouraged the director to share his core
insights that help shape the future.As with any question with all HP Lab employees
new skill, the best teacher is experience, and around the world.
the best coach is a thoughtful listener. We To that end, Waugh initiated a
encourage you to experiment with global network of conversations
increasing the power of your questions around that question, using the
and see what impact you have. company’s technology infrastructure along with face-
For example, in advance of an important meeting to-face gatherings to support the dialogues. Just by
or conversation, spend a few minutes with a col- exploring the practical implications of the question in
league and write down several questions that are rel- a disciplined way, the Lab began to see productivity
evant to the topic. Rate them in terms of their power. gains. But one day, an HP Lab engineer came into
Referring to the three dimensions outlined above, see Barbara’s office and said, “That question is okay, but
if you can spot why certain questions are more com- what would really energize me and get me up in the
pelling than others. Experiment with changing the morning would be asking, ‘How can we be the best
construction and scope, to get a feel for how doing so industrial research lab for the world?’”
changes the direction of the inquiry. Be sure to exam- That one small shift changed the entire game by
ine the assumptions that are embedded in your ques- scaling up the meaning of and shifting the assump-
tions and check to see if they will help or hinder your tions embedded in the original question. It profound-


ly altered the context of the inquiry—to become the times they had participated in a community experi-
best for the world as the larger context for becoming ence that really worked, using queries such as,“What
the best in the world. This question allowed that positive experience to hap-
obviously “traveled well”—it was no pen? What kinds of activities were tak-
longer just the Lab’s question, but ing place? How did you fit into that?”As
something that many others at HP members shared what they knew from
began to ask themselves as well. their own best community experiences,
Employees at HP Labs and through- “THE QUESTION they began to see the analogies to busi-
out the whole company responded NEVER FAILED US.” ness life. They posed follow-up ques-
to this new focus with a tremendous tions, such as,“How does a community
surge of collective energy. deal with adversity and adapting to
Once they reworded the original change? What happens with members
question, Barbara and her colleagues who don’t uphold the community’s
could change the scope of related standards?”
questions depending on the situa- As the conversations evolved,
tion. For example, shifting the scope important values that people really
downward meant focusing on “What does HP for the
World mean for me? What does it mean in my life, in HOW CAN I FRAME BETTER
my own work?” HP employees could also scale up the QUESTIONS?
scope by asking, “What does HP for the World mean
for my work group? For my department? For HP as a Here are some questions you might ask yourself as
company? And what might it mean for the world you begin to explore the art and architecture of
itself?” powerful questions. They are based on pioneering
HP’s E-Inclusion effort, a major project to enable work with questions being done by the Public
Conversations Project, a group that helps create
the world’s poor to enter the new economy while
constructive dialogue on divisive public issues.
providing critical medical and other information to
communities in the third world, stemmed in large ■ Is this question relevant to the real life and real
measure from the HP for the World exploration. The work of the people who will be exploring it?
question has now traveled far beyond the company: ■ Is this a genuine question—a question to which
“What does it mean for us to be ‘for the world’?” was I/we really don’t know the answer?
a key question explored at a State of the World Forum ■ What “work” do I want this question to do? That
with a group of more than 1,000 global leaders from is, what kind of conversation, meanings, and feel-
every continent. ings do I imagine this question will evoke in those
Creating a Sales “Community.” Another case who will be exploring it?
in which a catalytic question empowered leaders in ■ Is this question likely to invite fresh thinking/
new ways occurred in the sales organization of a feeling? Is it familiar enough to be recognizable
major U.S. corporation. Mike Pfeil, the area director of and relevant—and different enough to call for-
sales, wondered how a community, rather than a tra- ward a new response?
ditional company, might deal with the challenges it ■ What assumptions or beliefs are embedded in the
confronted. As a learning experiment, he began to way this question is constructed?
host conversations with employees from all levels in ■ Is this question likely to generate hope,
his organization to explore the meaning of communi- imagination, engagement, creative action, and
ty at work and how they might apply community new possibilities or is it likely to increase a focus
principles to enhance performance. on past problems and obstacles?
To depart from the group’s traditional focus on ■ Does this question leave room for new and
problems, the sales director framed questions that different questions to be raised as the initial
shifted the context within which workers normally question is explored?
look at their organization. He asked people to examine Adapted from Sally Ann Roth
their best experiences of community and to reflect on Public Conversations Project c. 1998


cared about started to come forward—values like From these examples, it’s clear that improving the
learning, mutual respect, contribution, and sharing quality of the questions you ask and creating a frame-
with others. Another simple but powerful question work of engagement that encourages their explo-
emerged from those early dialogues:“How can we cre- ration can create business value. Because learning to
ate a community at work that enables each person to engage thoughtful questions can lead to insight, inno-
contribute our best, inspires us to keep learning, and vation, and action, doing so will become an essential
produces valued results?”This simple strategic capability for leaders of
shift of lens led other leaders in the organizations who want to create sus-
company to look how it functioned tainable results in the face of both
within the larger communities in “QUESTIONING short- and longer-term challenges and
which it operates.The learnings from BREAKS OPEN THE opportunities.
this project informed subsequent STAGNANT, HARDENED
work in the area of corporate respon- SHELLS OF THE Fostering Strategic Inquiry
sibility and in the creation of mission Beyond building the capacity of individ-
goals that include the perspectives of ual employees to ask powerful ques-
both internal and external stake- tions, an organization can design
holders in creating the company’s EXPLORED.” processes that use such queries to
future. FRAN PEAVEY enhance the emergence of knowledge
The local leader who launched creation and strategic thinking. As the
this effort is now a corporate vice chairman and CEO of a major multina-
president. In looking back on his expe- tional corporation says, “Discovering
rience with engaging powerful questions to shift the strategic questions is like panning for gold.You have to
context for exploring business realities, he shared the care about finding it, you have to be curious, and you
following: have to create an anticipation of discovering gold, even
“As we learned more, the meaning of the though none of us may know ahead of time where
question continued to evolve. We asked our- we’ll find it. You head toward the general territory
selves, “How can we go out and plant this where you think the gold may be located, with your
seed? How do we frame it as we bring other best tools, your experience, and your instincts. And
people into the conversation?” The question then you begin a disciplined search for the gold.”We’ve
always worked in stimulating the dialogue. partnered with this leader to create a set of tools for
Sometimes as leaders it’s important not to col- fostering strategic inquiry and working with powerful
lectively work on what the answer is but to questions in the service of positive futures called the
work on what the question is.That was a big “Game Plan” process. The following steps may not
insight for me as we did this work. The ques- apply to all situations and they may not always play out
tion never failed us.” in the same sequence. However, the Game Plan sug-
gests ways that organizations can create both formal
Improving Questions at Pfizer. In another and informal processes to support individuals as well as
recent case, professionals at Pfizer, the world- teams in discovering the “gold” for themselves.
renowned pharmaceutical firm, are experimenting
with a systematic method of improving the quality of The Game Plan Process
their questions.Through a custom-designed workshop, The steps in the Game Plan can be used both as a
marketing and finance professionals in Pfizer’s process discipline by individuals looking at a particular
European business unit have been learning to articulate situation, as well as by functional and cross-functional
powerful questions.These executives have discovered groups and leadership teams charged with the
that meetings have more energy and creative ideas responsibility for key decisions regarding future
flow more quickly when they place attention on for- courses of action. The Game Plan can also involve
mulating catalytic questions. With this discipline in diverse stakeholders to provide important perspec-
place, new ideas are more easily finding their way into tives both on the current situation and on possible
key products and services. future actions.


the relationships among them. Begin to clarify the “big
questions” that the initial clusters reveal. Frame these
as clear and concise queries, not as problems.
■ Assess Your Current Situation Something fundamental changes when people begin
■ Discover the “Big Questions” to ask questions together—they go beyond the nor-
■ Create Images of Possibility mal stale debate about problems that passes for strat-
■ Evolve Workable Strategies egy in many organizations.
Create Images of Possibility. Ask yourself,
“What would our situation look like or be like if the
Assess Your Current Situation. Get a feel for ‘big questions’ were answered?” Creating vivid images
the larger context in which you are operating. Scan the of possibility differs from pie-in-the-sky visioning,
internal and external business and organizational envi- especially if people with a variety of perspectives
ronments that may affect the future of the system or have participated in the earlier stages of your analysis.
project you are working with. This situation analysis This part of the conversation can also provide clues
might include the assessment of critical results data, for refining or reframing your big questions as well as
meetings with key stakeholders, and the mapping of inventing creative strategies. Developing scenarios—
your strengths, opportunities, and threats. It might also stories of the future based on different ways your big
involve looking for “signals”—inter- questions might be answered—can
nal and external events, develop- also be useful. These often reveal
ments, and trends that can affect the new territory and opportunities for
future of your situation. Like trackers “STRATEGIC action that are grounded in real life.
in the mountains, look for both obvi- QUESTIONS CREATE Evolve Workable Strategies.
ous and subtle indicators that point A RESONANT FIELD Workable strategies begin to emerge
to storms as well as sunny skies. in response to compelling questions
Allow your curiosity and imagination and to the images of possibility that
OWN THINKING IS these questions evoke. In a sense,
to take the lead as you begin to iden-
tify the many questions that the MAGNIFIED, such strategies are the “big
broader landscape within which CLARIFIED, AND NEW answers”—the key initiatives you
you’re operating reveals. MOTION CAN BE invent to address your “big ques-
It will be challenging, but CREATED.” tions.” Once you clarify key initia-
important, to frame your findings as tives, you can formulate and imple-
FRAN PEAVEY, STRATEGIC ment specific action plans.
questions rather than as problems
or concerns—questions that end QUESTIONING Of course, the cycle is never
with a question mark, not with a complete. You need continuous
period or an exclamation point. To “sensing”based on relevant business
help in designing these queries, ask and organizational data, ongoing
yourself, “How does A affect C and conversations with internal and
what questions does that suggest? If X were at play external stakeholders, informal conversations among
here, what question would we be asking? What’s the employees, and feedback from the organizational
real question underneath all this data?” environment. This input enables you to continually
Discover the “Big Questions.” Once you think reassess the landscape you’re operating in—revealing
you’ve posed most of the relevant questions (and new questions for exploration.
there may be many of them), look for patterns and The innovative leader with whom we developed
themes.This is not a mechanical process, even though the Game Plan process has shared this tool with the
it should be disciplined and systematic. You are on a entire organization. People from throughout the com-
treasure hunt, seeking the core questions—usually pany have found that it provides a way to discover
three to five—that, if answered, would make the most questions that matter to the future of individual units
difference to the future of the project or situation you and to the firm as a whole.The company has also used
are exploring. Cluster related questions, and consider the Game Plan as part of refining the corporation’s


How Can Leaders Engage Powerful
SYSTEM? ASSESSING YOUR For all organizations, in today’s turbulent times, engag-
ORGANIZATION’S CAPABILITIES ing people’s best thinking about complex issues with-
out easy answers will be the key to creating the futures
■ To what degree do leaders in your organization we want rather than being forced to live with the
foster an environment in which discovering the “big futures we get. Leaders will need to develop capacity in
questions” is encouraged as much as coming up the design of “inquiring systems” in order to learn,
with workable solutions? adapt, and create new knowledge to meet emerging
■ Does your organization have rewards or incentives opportunities and challenges in the more fluid organi-
for members to work across functional boundaries zational structures of the future. For example, the lead-
to find challenging questions that create common ership challenges of the next 20 years are likely to
focus and forward movement for knowledge revolve around the art of engaging and energizing net-
creation? works rather than solely managing hierarchies as in the
■ Do your leadership development programs contain past. Successful leaders will be those who see organiza-
as much of a focus on the art and architecture of tions as living networks of conversation and collective
framing powerful questions as they do on tech- meaning-making through which members create new
niques for solving problems? knowledge and bring forth the future.They will under-
stand how to operate in networks that are both internal
■ Do your organization’s strategic planning
and external to their organization.
processes include structured ways to discover
In particular, we believe the following core capa-
the “big questions” that, if answered, would have
bilities, rarely taught in today’s MBA or corporate lead-
real strategic leverage?
ership programs, will help define leadership excel-
■ What enabling tools or technologies does your
lence in a networked world where knowledge and
organization employ to “seed” itself with strategic
learning are keys to success:
questions that “travel well” and catalyze learning
Engaging Strategic Questions. How many lead-
conversations both within and across functions?
ers today know how to frame strategic questions that
■ Does your organization use collaborative tech- open the space for thinking about possibilities rather
nology tools to enable people on the frontlines to than solving problems? How many leaders are com-
ask each other questions related to their daily fortable with not knowing and can constructively
work (i.e. customer service, equipment mainte- help others bring forth their collective knowledge?
nance) and receive help with these questions from How many leaders can engage their workers in dis-
colleagues in other locations? covering the “big questions” that lie at the heart of
■ Do senior leaders in your organization see the their organization’s future?
process of strategy evolution as one that engages In a volatile and uncertain environment, one of the
multiple voices and perspectives in networks of strongest steps leaders can take is to assist their organ-
conversation? izations in discovering the right questions at the right
time. One of their key responsibilities is creating infra-
structures for dialogue and engagement that encourage
mission and values in the midst of a volatile and chang- others at all levels to develop insightful questions and
ing external climate. By moving from a problem orien- to search for innovative paths forward. Leaders also
tation toward a more rigorous and disciplined focus on need to consider reward systems that provide incen-
essential questions, the organization is slowly shifting tives for members to work across organizational bound-
from a “fix-it” mode to an inquiry model for business aries to discover those challenging lines of inquiry that
and organizational strategy evolution.This company has create common focus and new knowledge.
found that maintaining a rigorous focus on “questions Convening and Hosting Learning Conver-
that matter” and hosting strategic conversations on the sations. A core aspect of the leader’s new work
organization’s “big questions” is a core competence for involves creating multiple opportunities for learning
leaders at all levels. conversations around challenging questions.


However, authentic conversation is less likely to occur
in a climate of fear, mistrust, and hierarchical control. QUESTIONING
When the human mind and heart are fully engaged in
■ Stimulates creativity
authentic conversation and listening for core ques-
■ Motivates fresh thinking
tions, new knowledge often begins to surface. Thus,
■ Surfaces underlying assumptions
the ability to facilitate working conversations that
■ Focuses intention, attention, and energy
enhance trust and reduce fear is an important leader-
■ Opens the door to change
ship capability.
■ Leads us into the future
To succeed in this pursuit, it’s essential for leaders
to strengthen their skills in the use of dialogue and
other engagement approaches that deepen mutual Supporting Appreciative Inquiry. Opening
inquiry and foster collective intelligence.These capa- spaces of possibility in our organizations requires a
bilities include: shift in leadership orientation from focusing primari-
• Creating a climate of discovery ly on what is not working and how to fix it, to also dis-
• Suspending premature judgment covering and appreciating what is working and how
• Exploring underlying assumptions and beliefs to leverage it.Appreciative Inquiry (AI), developed by
• Listening for connections between ideas David Cooperrider and his colleagues at Case Western
• Encouraging diverse perspectives University, is a process for leveraging emerging possi-
• Honoring everyone’s contributions bilities rather than just fixing past mistakes. When
• Articulating shared understanding used in a disciplined way, this kind of inquiry stimu-
• Harvesting and sharing collective discoveries lates lively conversations that use the best of what is
as the foundation for what might be.
These skills are especially important in situations Leaders who ask,“What’s possible here and who
in which there are no simple answers and finding cre- cares?” have a much easier time gaining the coopera-
ative paths forward can make a positive difference. tion and best thinking of their constituents than those
Including Diverse Perspectives. Leaders must who ask,“What’s wrong here and who is to blame?” In
become connectors—of both assessing the results of more than a
people and ideas. Diverse voices decade of research and practice in
and new perspectives that aren’t the area of Appreciative Inquiry,
limited by traditional boundaries “A QUESTION NOT ASKED Cooperrider has stated unequivocal-
of function, hierarchy, discipline, ly that “the most important insight
technology, tenure, and geograph- we have learned with AI to date is
ic region play an increasingly MARILEE GOLDBERG, that human systems grow toward
important role in a company’s THE ART OF THE QUESTION what they persistently ask questions
strategizing.As Gary Hamel of the about.” By asking positive questions,
London School of Economics organizations have the opportunity
points out, “Strategizing depends to grow in new directions and tap
on creating a rich and complex web of conversations innovative sources of knowledge, vitality, and energy.
that cuts across previously isolated pockets of knowl- Fostering Shared Meaning. We make meaning
edge and creates new and unexpected combinations of our experiences through stories, images, and
of insight.” metaphors. To tap into this pool of shared meaning,
The connections among these diverse voices and which is the ground from which both powerful ques-
perspectives allow employees to fruitfully explore tions and innovative solutions emerge, network leaders
critical strategic questions. Building and encouraging need to put time and attention into framing common
personal relationships through networks of collabora- language and developing shared images and metaphors.
tive conversations across traditional boundaries helps They can do so by constructing compelling scenarios—
critical strategic questions travel well. In this way, stories of the future—that provide a context for work-
workers enhance their collective intelligence and ing on today’s “big questions,” as in the case of the Game
their capacity to nurture creative futures together. Plan process described earlier. In addition, leaders must



Here is a series of generative questions that we and other colleagues have found useful to stimulate new knowl-
edge and creative thinking in a wide variety of situations around the world. Look at these questions to stimulate
your own thinking about questions related to your own specific situation. Play. Use your imagination.
Questions for Focusing Collective Attention ■ What’s missing from this picture so far? What is it
on Your Situation we’re not seeing? What do we need more clarity
■ What question, if answered, could make the about?
most difference to the future of (your specific ■ What’s been your/our major learning, insight, or
situation)? discover so far?
■ What’s important to you about (your specific ■ What’s the next level of thinking we need to do?
situation) and why do you care? ■ If there was one thing that hasn’t yet been said in
■ What draws you/us to this inquiry? order to reach a deeper level of understanding/
■ What’s our intention here? What’s the deeper pur- clarity, what would that be?
pose (the big “why”) that is really worthy of our
best effort? Questions That Create Forward Movement
■ What opportunities can you see in (your specific ■ What would it take to create change on this
situation)? issue?
■ What do we know so far/still need to learn about ■ What could happen that would enable you/us to
(your specific situation)? feel fully engaged and energized about (your
■ What are the dilemmas/opportunities in (your specific situation)?
specific situation)? ■ What’s possible here and who cares? (rather than
■ What assumptions do we need to test or “What’s wrong here and who’s responsible?”)
challenge here in thinking about (your specific ■ What needs our immediate attention going
situation)? forward?
■ What would someone who had a very different ■ If our success was completely guaranteed, what
set of beliefs than we do say about (your specific bold steps might we choose?
situation)? ■ How can we support each other in taking the next
steps? What unique contribution can we each
Questions for Connecting Ideas and make?
Finding Deeper Insight ■ What challenges might come our way and how
■ What’s taking shape? What are you hearing under- might we meet them?
neath the variety of opinions being expressed? ■ What conversation, if begun today, could ripple out
What’s in the center of the table? in a way that created new possibilities for the
■ What’s emerging here for you? What new future of (your situation)?
connections are you making? ■ What seed might we plant together today that
■ What had real meaning for you from what you’ve could make the most difference to the future of
heard? What surprised you? What challenged you? (your situation)?

incorporate time for systemwide reflection in order to these key strategic questions are often lost because
enable members to share insights and emerging ques- few of today’s leaders have been trained to notice,
tions. Collective reflection provides opportunities for honor, and utilize the social fabric of learning that
the shared meaning-making that is essential in times of occurs through informal “communities of practice”
turbulence and change. that exist throughout the organization.A community of
Nurturing Communities of Practice. Many of practice is made of up people who share a common
the most provocative questions that are vital to an interest and who work together to expand their indi-
organization’s future are first discovered on the front vidual and collective capacity to solve problems over
lines, in the middle of the action of everyday life. But time.


Nurturing these learning networks and honoring Co-Evolving the Future
the questions they care about is another core aspect It is quite easy to learn the basics of crafting power-
of the leader’s new work. It is important to under- ful questions. However, once you understand the
stand how these communities deal with the ques- importance of inquiry, it’s hard to turn back. As your
tions and learning needs that arise in the course of questions become broader and deeper than before, so
the daily life of the organization. These understand- does your experience of life.There is no telling where
ings can provide clues about how the knowledge that a powerful question might lead you. Transformative
resides in such communities might be engaged in the conversations can result from posing a simple ques-
service of critical strategic questions. Leaders who tion such as,“What questions are we not asking our-
take communities of practice into account as impor- selves about the situation in the Middle East?”
tant strategic assets help assure that new work Tantalizing possibilities emerge from the simple act
processes or organizational structures do not destroy of changing an article from “in” to “for,” as in the HP
the fabric of collective knowledge that is woven into example. Profound systemic change can emerge from
these informal groups. creating a process discipline such as the Game Plan
Using Collaborative Technologies. Intranet for discovering and acting on the “big questions”
and groupware technologies are now making it possi- within a business setting.
ble for widely dispersed work groups to participate in For organizations that need collaborative learning
learning conversations and team projects across time and breakthrough thinking in order to create a sustain-
and space. As these tools become even more widely able future,asking “questions that matter”and engaging
available, the notion of “network leadership” will diverse constituencies in learning conversations are a
expand to include supporting widespread online con- core process for value creation. Because questions are
versations where members throughout the organiza- inherently related to action, they are at the heart of an
tion can contribute their own questions and best organization’s capacity to mobilize the resources
thinking to critical strategic issues.The HP case shows required to create a positive future. Seeing the organi-
how important enabling technology infrastructures are zation as a dynamic network of conversations through
for strategic innovation. Several forward-looking which the enterprise develops encourages members at
companies, including Hallmark, Kodak, Discover every level to search for questions related to real work
Card, and General Motors, are now using an innova- that can catalyze collective energy and momentum.For
tive online conversational technology, Communispace all of us, thoughtful participation in discovering and
(, to listen to their cus- exploring powerful questions can make a difference—
tomers’ concerns and questions at a deep level and to our team, to our organization, and to the larger com-
generate insights about new products at a faster rate munities of which we are a part.
than was previously possible. Living systems evolve by developing a coherent
Such collaborative tools will be a critical factor in identity, creating connections in complex webs of rela-
how well strategic questions can travel both within tionships, and distributing information widely through-
the organization and among customers and other out the organization.At the same time, human systems
stakeholders who are key to success.These technolo- naturally evolve toward the questions that they ask.
gies of engagement create possibilities for individuals Seeing the ways in which the art and architecture of
and groups to connect with each other and to the powerful questions can help an organization create its
larger whole in ways that were previously unimagin- path into the future, and utilizing process principles,
able. Leaders who are not skilled in their use or who tools, and technologies that support this evolution, is
do not recognize their strategic importance and sup- everyone’s job. For it is only in this way that organiza-
port their use throughout their organizations will be tions are able to cultivate both the knowledge required
at a significant disadvantage. to thrive economically today as well as the wisdom
needed to ensure a sustainable future.

Copyright © 2003 by Eric E.Vogt, Juanita Brown, and David Isaacs


For Further Exploration provides software and
Brown, Juanita. The World Café: Living Knowledge services to support creative work conversations and
Through Conversations That Matter (Ph.D. disserta- large-scale corporate communities.
tion, The Fielding Institute; available through Whole is a high-trust community of
Systems Associates at 415-381-3368) experienced practitioners in large organizations explor-
Brown, Juanita et. al. The World Café: A Resource ing innovations in learning and human performance.
Guide for Hosting Conversations That Matter is a global resource for
(Whole Systems Associates, 2002; available at hosting conversations around questions that matter in both for-profit and nonprofit settings.
Goldberg, Marilee. The Art of the Question (John
Wiley and Sons, 1997)
Leeds, Dorothy. The Seven Powers of Questions: Secrets
to Successful Communication in Life and Work
(Berkley Publishing Group, 2000)
Peavey, Fran. “Strategic Questioning” in By Life’s
Grace: Musings on the Essence of Social Change
(New Society Publishers, 1994; more information is
available at About the Authors
Juanita Brown (, Ph.D.,
Ray, Michael. Creativity in Organizations (Stanford
collaborates with senior leaders to create strategic dia-
University Press, 1990)
logue forums focused on critical organizational and
Strachan, Dorothy. Questions That Work: A Resource societal issues.
for Facilitators (ST Press, Ottowa, Canada, 2001)
David Isaacs ( is president
Vogt, Eric E. The Nature of Work in 2010 (Aspen of Clearing Communications, an organizational and
Institute, Northern Telecom Journal, 1995) communications strategy company working with cor-
. The Art and Architecture of Powerful porate leaders in the U.S. and abroad.
Questions (MicroMentor Corporate Learning Journal, Eric E. Vogt ( operates as a
1994, available through catalyst for innovation and accelerated change with
. Learning out of Context in Learning the global corporate members of InterClass, a high-
Organizations: Developing Cultures for Tomorrow’s trust network of experienced practitioners at the
Workplace (Productivity Press, 1995) intersection of human performance and business
Vogt, Eric E. and Kate O’Keefe. The Joy of Leadership:
Recipes for Developing Tomorrow’s Leaders (InterClass
Press, to be published January 2004)


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