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Change Your Questions- Change Your Outcomes

“New opinions often appear first as jokes and fancies, then as blasphemies and treason, then as questions open to discussion, and finally as established truths.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

In a bookstore recently, I perused the books on the shelves and a spotted an intriguing title that jumped out at me: “Change Your Questions- Change Your Life” by Merilee Adams. I didn’t pick up the book but I have been thinking about the implications of that pithy wisdom. In the public sector, my experience is that we rarely question what we do and why we do it. We tend to operate under the inertia of bureaucracy and the legacy of the past. Not asking questions is consistent with some of the lesser qualities of the public sector culture: status quo, risk avoidance, not wanting to be responsible, avoiding extra work and conformity. Not only do we not ask questions, we often respond to the questions of others with hostility, suspicion and defensiveness. Such resistance to questions and questioning inhibits our ability, and the ability of our teams, to grow and improve.

Why? This is the most basic and simple question. When we were teenagers, we asked this question all the time- sometimes to learn and sometimes to challenge. Sometimes it seems that as adults in the workplace, we have stopped asking the question at all. The main reason the question is not asked in the workplace seems that “why?” is perceived as a challenge to authority by supervisors and managers and as a threat to the status quo by co-workers.

As an incorrigible question poser, I have received a consistent type of response to this question: “Don’t rock the boat”, “You don’t have the need to know”, “Just do what you are told”, “Don’t go there”. Rarely has the question been received as a request for information in sincere desire to understand. When an organization or leader tolerates that type of response to the questions of others, it robs the organization opportunities to train and inform its members. It stifles bottom-up insights and input. It robs the organization of an essential tool to measure its performance. It inhibits the improvement of the team’s performance.

Why Not?This question could merely be a variation of “why” or it may propose an alternative course based upon an understanding and knowledge of the “why”. “Why not” encourage team members to question the assumptions their procedures are based upon?

What if…? This is my most favorite question. It explores what might be. It implies that the current practice may not be the only possibility. The question can be a powerful catapult into a creative brainstorming process especially when constraints and obstacles (real or imagined) are temporarily assumed away. As opposed to other questions, “what if?” is constructive and proposes solutions rather than merely being critical.

What could be done differently? When a team is struggling to meet expectations, when the desired outcomes are not being achieved or when the cost of success is too great, this question can trigger a type of introspection that often leads to the discovery of previously unseen or unconsidered practices. While not every answer to this question may be practical or helpful, simply asking and responding to it inevitably changes the paradigm. It changes the team’s thinking and discussion from limitations to possibilities.

There is always more than one way to achieve a goal or outcome; in fact, there are almost always more than two. Rephrasing the question to “What courses of action are available to achieve the goal?” and then identifying at least three of them is a powerful technique for defining and comparing alternatives.

What’s the down side? What is good enough? What is acceptable?These are some of the basic questions that must be asked and answered in comparing alternative proposals. These questions define the standards against which proposals are measured.

How many? How Much? How fast? These questions all presume that there is some type of measurement that is or could be performed to inform answers to the questions. Metrics are not only key to measuring performance and comparing and evaluating alternatives, they are essential to improving performance. These questions are not usually posed by teams that don’t have some means of measuring performance. When these questions are posed to these teams, the response ranges from sheepishness, to defensiveness, to anger. Teams that can comfortably respond to such questions with data are the teams that can objectively evaluate what they do. They are the teams that have something to brag about and the numbers to prove it.

What is the rule? What are the exceptions? In a bureaucratic environment where practices have developed as if every transaction was an exception requiring its own set of rules, the most routine actions can become tremendously and unnecessarily complex. These questions assume that simplicity and consistency are possible in nearly every situation and that exceptions are rare. When complexity is challenged by these questions, the layers of unneeded rules peel away.

What’s your point? And….? Although these questions may seem snarky, they are sometimes valuable to challenge entrenched assumptions or the attitude that there can only be one way and that way is obvious to everyone. The time when anyone or anything is beyond question is the precise time that questions must be asked.

As information is gained and ideas are developed through asking questions, new questions and follow up questions are formed which yield the basis of improving performance and changing outcomes. By asking questions and by fostering a culture that welcomes questioning, leaders empower their teams to conceive new possibilities, create new realities, and change the rules of the game. An old Chinese proverb says “One who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; one who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.”

Scott O. Konopasek has been a public sector manager for 25+ years combined with more than 5 years consulting experience with public entities on organizational effectiveness and transformational change. He is a retired Army officer, has a BA from BYU and an MA in Political Science from the University of Utah.


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Nina Adrianna

I love asking questions too, Scott! Often I find the tone of how the question is asked, is key to it not causing tension. Thanks for the great summary.

Since you’re open to challenges, I’ll pose a couple questions: Is ‘question fatigue’ a possibility? That is, asking too many questions, without putting fwd recommendations for possible solutions? Asking questions is definitely a good way to help change the status quo. But! Answers and solutions to problems are sometimes even trickier than questions, especially making the suggestions. Don’t you find?

Scott O. Konopasek

Nina, thanks for your comments and questions. Yes, “question fatigue” can be an issue but it is more often a defense by those who would prefer not to have any questions at all. I have been in situations where the very first “Why?” or “What if?” is considered one question too many. On the other hand, too many questions can undermine a team’s confidence in it processes or paralyze the team and keep it from functioning as it should.

The purpose of asking questions is to inform and explore potential solutions. You are right, solutions are harder than questions.

Srinidhi Boray

Questions can change, the way questions is asked can be in moderation. However, however one may want to form the question – problem do not go away.

When one forms logical pattern for asking questions, which John Zachman says are driven by fundamental interrogative “who”, “why”, “where”, “what”, “when” etc (such a logical proposition for the problem structure is true in all species of human beings – something also owing to cognitive perception) then the question has an opportunity of being formed in completeness and so the solution also has an opportunity being sought such that it aligns with the problem intimately. Doing so, distortions can be avoided.

Dont fool yourself by sublimating the probing. Asking questions that are incisive and very analytical.

Srinidhi Boray

The question paradox –

In Quantum physics, when trying to verify its validity – several questions were asked.

To each question, the answer seemed correct. This is very well illustrated in the following video


So, what is the conclusion. To every question, the system organized itself such that it was being measured as per the device chosen. System cannot be observed without measuring it. This means questions (they are first instance of observation) needs criteria for measurement.

Questions means it has 3 basic things

“The Observed”

“The Observer” and

“The Observation”

The moment ‘the observer’ changed perception ‘the observed’ manipulated ‘the observations’ and it appeared differently.

Howz that!!! 🙂