Everybody in a business should ask questions every day – so why are we so poor at it?

Our inability to pose the right questions reduces our capacity for creativity and critical thinking, say Jennifer Sundberg and Pippa Begg

In Gainesville, Florida in 1965, Dewayne Douglas suspected something strange was happening to the college football team he coached, the Gators. No matter how much water players drank, they almost never needed the bathroom during the half-time break. He knew they were sweating, but surely not that much.  

Why weren’t they urinating more? Douglas couldn’t let his question go, so he asked a kidney specialist at the University of Florida, Dr Robert Cade, who decided to investigate. His experiments revealed that players were losing electrolytes as well as water. To keep cool in the intense Florida heat, their bodies had no choice but to sweat. But, to prevent the loss of even more electrolytes, they put urinating on hold, taking away their urge to pee so they could cling on to every last drop of water. And all of this was affecting the players’ performance and their health. 

Cade’s methodical efforts to solve this problem, exposed by Douglas’s initial question, resulted in the hugely successful sports drink Gatorade and kickstarted a multibillion-dollar industry.

Questions are the spark and the fuel of creativity, critical thinking and reasoning and they’re vital for life-changing lightbulb moments like these. But it isn’t enough to ask the odd curious question or come up with one great idea every 60 years. These days, the fast eat the slow. Businesses need to tap into their organisation’s collective brainpower to find a steady supply of fresh ideas and breakthrough insights – not just for innovation but for marginal gains too. To do this, you need everyone in the business – from the boardroom to the shopfloor – asking questions all the time. The problem is, we’re not as good at it as we think we are. 

Why are we so bad at asking questions?

We all start off as prodigious questioners. Research by Harvard shows that children bombard their caregivers with up to 100 questions a day between the ages of two and five, as they try to make sense of the world around them. But as we get older, something strange happens. As we learn more, we ask less. By the age of 11 most children have stopped asking questions altogether. Our innate curiosity withers away. 

“There is what I call an answer orientation that permeates education, professional life and society at large,” explains Dr Lani Watson, a University of Oxford academic who researches questions and questioning.

Because we value answers, we lose our ability to ask questions, which in turn reduces our capacity for creativity and critical thinking. If we don’t ask questions like: ‘Why aren’t players urinating more?’ we’ve no hope of sparking game-changing ideas like Gatorade.

But that doesn’t mean we should resign ourselves to a question-less life or pass the responsibility to the minority of adults who, somehow, retain their childhood inquisitiveness. We can get our questioning mojo back.

What’s wrong with my questions? 

The first step to relearning how to ask questions is to know a good one when you see one. And nobody knows this better than Rob Whiteman. In 2011, as the new head of the UK Border Agency, he had inherited a huge backlog of immigration cases and a political hot potato. The scrutiny intensified when he was called, a few months in, to give evidence to a House of Commons select committee. 

When he retold the story to us years later, Whiteman recalled the heat of the cameras and the sweat beading on his brow as the MPs fired their questions at him. “They had prepared over 60 closed and carefully worded questions for me, each intended to uncover more backlogs and reveal new problems. They went through them methodically and at speed… each desperate to be the one to deliver the killer blow.”

The MPs’ clever questions no doubt helped them score some political points. But during that three-hour grilling, they got no closer to understanding what the real problem was or how it could be fixed.

Looking back, Whiteman wondered if they’d have achieved more with a different approach. “What they never asked me was: ‘What’s going on? What concerns you?’ which would have given them so much more. If they’d asked me what was wrong, I was duty bound to tell them.”

If, like the MPs, you use questions like weapons, that’s all they’ll be. But if you’re looking for questions as tools for better thinking – to help you surface game-changing insights and fresh ideas – you need to stop over engineering them to score points. You need to keep it simple. After years spent asking our clients what questions were on their minds and helping them to work out which drove the most insight, we came to one conclusion: that the best questions are the simplest ones. They’re the questions that are often so blindingly obvious that we neglect to ask them, either because we assume we already know the answer or because we don’t want to look stupid by admitting we don’t. They’re the questions that, if unasked, leave us with blind spots or lead us to judgements built on flawed foundations. Like: ‘What happened?’ or ‘Why?’ or ‘So what?’

How do you turn questioning into a habit?

Now you know what makes a good question, you need to make asking them a habit – an easy yet unavoidable part of people’s working lives. Fortunately, our daily routines are full of opportunities to do this. They lie in the activities that every business is run on, like quarterly business reviews and annual planning cycles. 

Most of the time, people start preparing for these meetings and ceremonies by jumping straight into the weeds. Questions are the last thing on their mind as they pull every imaginable cut of data together. Once they’ve stitched it all together, it’s up to the person on the other side of the table to work out what it all means and why it matters.

But if you want them to do more of the thinking they need to start instead with a list of questions – the simple but powerful sort that will help them to pull signal from noise and turn it into actionable insight. Setting these questions out as subheadings in reports or meeting agendas makes them hard to avoid and creates an expectation: ‘This is how we do things around here.’ 

Leaders can package questions up into set plays to help their teams cut to insight more quickly. In our work we call them ‘question driven insight’ (QDI) plays.

Like a quarterback barking out a coded signal on the football field (‘Green 19, Green 19, set hut!’), you select the right set of questions for the task, be it a monthly performance review or preparing a business case for your boss to sign off on, from a bank of preloaded ‘plays’. You then frame the meeting, email, report or slide deck, and the thinking that goes into it, around those questions. 

For example, if you’re preparing for a regular performance update, you could use a QDI play like this:

  1. What are we trying to achieve?

  2. What’s gone well and what has not?

  3. What are the key risks and opportunities?

  4. Given all of this, what should we stop doing/start doing/do differently?

  5. Are we confident we’ll achieve our aims?

These can each lead to further questions, but starting with the most obvious and important ones gives your thinking a solid foundation and helpful guard rails. It helps you cover all the bases and tackle the tough questions head on and stimulates your creativity by asking you to think about doing things differently.

You can see a similar approach in a wide variety of organisations and contexts. Take the British Army, for example. Since 2001, they’ve used a seven-question framework, the Combat Estimate, to help commanders rapidly formulate plans, even in the most difficult circumstances. Or Amazon, where executives are expected to use frameworks such as the simulated press release (known internally as the PRFAQ) or six-pager to frame their thinking. 

The specific questions you ask will vary with the situation, but the approach should always be the same: keep it simple and make it easy to use, no matter where you sit in the organisation. Before long, asking the right questions becomes something that people do every day. You’ve no way of knowing where the answers will take you, but we bet you’re curious to find out.

Jennifer Sundberg and Pippa Begg are co-CEOs of Board Intelligence and co-authors of Collective Intelligence