The Questions to Directives Ratio:

How many open-ended, idea-chasing questions do you ask every day?

Do you ask more questions than you issue directives or provide answers?

Recently, I worked with a group of coaching clients to explore the important topic of curiosity as a leadership attribute and questioning as a behavior.

At the start of the work, most individuals assumed their ratio of questions-to-directives/answers would be high. It was their belief they were curious and deft with the use of provocative questions about customers, markets, competitors, processes and so forth. One manager offered, “It’s my job to help them think about the possibilities, not provide the answers.

Imagine this manager’s surprise when through his logging and tracking efforts, it turned out his directives and answers significantly outnumbered his questions.

The results were consistent for my managers across the board—the questions to answers ratio was tilted heavily in favor of answers.

I did this for myself some years ago and was disappointed to learn that I had a natural propensity to opine and answer rather than stimulate thinking through questions. Moving the ratio in the right direction became a developmental exercise for me as it is for my coaching clients.

And here’s why I believe this is so important.

Questions are the Seeds of Ideas and Innovations

In a world drunk on the speed of change and filled with uncertainty, the right questions provoke thinking and in many cases give-way to actions, experiments, and ideas that provoke more questions and beget more ideas.

And you set the tone for curiosity on your team. Your curiosity is contagious!

Questions free people to think and to speculate and to follow threads in pursuit of strengthening some aspect of the business.

In my own experience, the most effective leaders I’ve encountered are masters at asking questions that promote critical thinking. They have their own opinions in many cases, yet, they understand employing a leader-hold-back approach supports the development of curiosity and creativity across the group.

What Is Your Questions-to-Directives Ratio?

For the next few days, keep a log of the number of times you ask open-ended, exploratory questions (“Did you finish that work?” doesn’t count!) versus issuing answers or directives. If your ratio is skewed toward the questions, great, keep it up. If not, here are some question prompters to put to work as part of your developmental activity.

7 Questions to Stimulate Curiosity on Your Team

1. “What if?”

I love this simple, two-word preface to a mind-bending question.

  • “What if we develop a new product that eats our old one in the marketplace. Will it eat the competitor’s as well?”
  • “What if we changed this process to empower our employees to make decisions directly with customers without seeking approval from a manager?
  • “What if we changed our view of who our real competition is in the marketplace?”

2. “What do you know that is new?”

The consultant Ram Charan describes this questioning habit of former GE Chairman and CEO, Jack Welch. Instead of a friendly greeting upon first encountering a person, Welch offered, “What do you know that’s new?” and was serious about hearing answers.

I coopted this question for my use and found that it stimulated the observational habits of my team members since they understood I was genuinely looking for something new.

3. “What do we need to know to make this decision?”

A favorite, for the holistic thinking it promotes—especially in group settings. Most decision-making processes are fraught with peril, including incomplete data, ample opinions and entire servings of biases.

This simple question challenges groups and individuals to think around and through a problem and develop a broader or more precise set of data points essential for making an informed choice.

4. “What does this mean for us/our customers?”

I use this liberally in situations where changes in the external environment or industry or competitor announcements send everyone into panic mode.

5. “How would you approach this situation if you framed it as an opportunity instead of a problem?”

This question makes the doomsayers crazy because it forces them out of their foxholes into the realm of possibilities.

6. “What are the trigger events in faraway markets and technologies that will change everything?

I love this one in strategy settings where it’s imperative to move beyond the four-wall and inside-out thinking that traps so many groups.

7. “What are the real burdens our customers hire our products to remove?”

In a world where we are conditioned to focus on features, rethinking the headaches your offerings are resolving for customers is a great way to rethink your innovation efforts.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Start asking more open-ended, thought and idea-provoking questions and you’ll find the number of ideas people and teams generate on a distinct upslope. Of course, then there’s the part of your job that’s about helping people bring ideas to life. Nonetheless, for the moment, focus on asking more and directing less and see where it takes you. Remember, your curiosity is contagious.

Art's Signature