June 29, 2017


Article 1.17




If a company (or individual) wants to reinvent its economic value propositions, then management must embrace the art and science of asking better questions (“questionating”). With the growing complexity and speed of change in the business world, yesterday’s solutions will not capture tomorrow’s opportunities. We all have historically rooted and lagging mindsets that both define and confine us, so how do we rethink and reweave them?


Asking veteran experts for quick fix advice that is based on their historical experience will not be a better solution path for us. Our future already exists; it is just unevenly distributed across a lot of leading edge companies and industries about which we may know little. How can we find those scattered pieces, connect and apply them to our specific competitive context? We might:

·          Do a “corporate culture audit to identify company mindset assumptions and money losing activities that must be first unlearned and weeded to free resources for future-oriented investments. (For more on “corporate culture audit” see http://www.merrifieild.com/articles/1_16.asp)

·          Form a team of insiders and part-time outsiders to do “future thinking”.

·          Realize that unless we can questionate all that we have done and all that we might do, we have no chance of escaping our habit of fine-tuning the past. Less than 4% of all mature firms are able to perpetually innovate, because they can first effectively questionate. Why is creating a culture of question asking so difficult?




Although philosophers since Socrates have promoted the power of questions, does our management team believe that questionating is vital for long-term success? Here is a business scenario to consider:

·          Every question can be a potential learning opportunity, especially if we take a little time to craft the right question, for the right time and the right audience delivered in the right spirit.

·          If managers invite others to help them search for better solution paths than “what we are currently doing”, doesn’t this act show: 1) a humility to admit that we don’t have all of the answers for a fast changing world; 2) a willingness to share in the responsibility for learning; 3) a willingness to serve and help others who have to do the implementation instead of dictating to them from our self-referential opinions?

·          Good questions wake people up. Research shows that more neurons making more connections light up when information is packaged as an inviting question instead of a declaration. Higher brain activity, in turn, can prompt new ideas from new mental spaces in our heads. We start to see possible solutions that lie beyond: our comfort zone of knowledge; our desk; our functional (silo) department or profit center. Hoarded information at all levels in the company can start to flow.

·          More teammates with more information start to have better conversations that can, at first, diverge into a broader range of OK ideas before eventually converging into fewer, ever improving good ideas to pursue.

·          Team alignment, morale and collaborative action all start to improve.

·          A higher level of trust and confidence in better solution paths leads to bolder, more committed decisions. More people start to take more and better risks.

·          The firm becomes more flexible and adaptable, because more employees become more independently responsible at taking ownership of solution paths that they helped to craft.

·          The firm starts to generate better, short-term results and more long-term learning, innovation and fresh profit streams.


As an alternative to the scenario above, could a top-down, here’s-what-I-expect-to-happen memo achieve the same thing even if some good starter questions were included? Because engaging-conversations involve lots of spontaneous questions and thinking, interpersonal questionating must pervade the entire process.




Lots of reasons, some abbreviated possibilities are:

·          We are all conditioned by our families, schools and employers to be good students and have the right answers when questioned by authority figures. While growing up, we are, conversely, taught to not ask too many questions, especially intrusive or embarrassing ones. How should we change this societal dance between “tops and bottoms” in our firm?

·          We have had no formal training in how to ask better, more engaging questions. We don’t generally like doing activities at which we are poorly skilled.

·          For lack of training, we will probably ask poor questions. They will be too leading or critical in tone. Poor, disempowering questions don’t get conversations going.

·          Employees would think our new questionating odd and manipulative. Changing the dance between the tops and bottoms in an organization is initially unsettling for all.

·          Many of the employees might be initially embarrassed, because they don’t have any ready answers. Let them off the hook, tell them to relax, think about the question(s), discuss them amongst themselves and come back with some thoughts and more questions tomorrow.

·          As managers, we have fears about what we will hear if we were to invite employees to help us search for better solutions. For starters, could we admit that what we have been doing could be done better? Are we prepared to have people ask us about the facts, assumptions, biases and feelings on which are past decisions and policies are based? Going forward can we admit that we aren’t omniscient and want to become “learners” instead of “instant experts”. These factors are all threatening to our idealized self-image which requires a bit of emperor’s-new-clothes support from our employees.

·          Questionating takes time for reflection and living with the tough questions for awhile. There generally is not enough time in business environments for questionating. Why? How can we change this?

·          But, will the bottoms, in turn, ask good questions of the tops? In a meeting format, peers don’t want to seem ignorant in front of one another. People with smart-sounding, fast answers who are on top of the facts and have novel ways for fine-tuning the past – which everyone readily understands and feels comfortable about – have historically been rewarded.

·          Who will challenge Goupthink where most people blindly follow the leader’s thinking. It’s the questions NOT asked by the one to a few who do see things differently from the team that get all of the management team in trouble. For example, critical questions were not raised persistently enough before the disasters of: the Titanic; the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in ’61; and the blow ups of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia.

·          Who will really follow up on the boss’s questionating request to “tell me if I don’t have any clothes on”? Even new-leaf honchos have their limits as to how rough you can be with their self-image bubble.

·          Questions about investing in future scenarios – to prevent disasters or to seize opportunities – aren’t easily understood and embraced by most managers because the gene pool is statistically wired to deal with immediate problems, not visionary stuff. If we spend resources for things most people can’t see, then we take grief whether we thwart the bad event or it just doesn’t happen. Can you imagine voters’ response to putting in today’s airport security routines six months before 9/11? If we invest in trying to seize an opportunity and miss, we get criticized. If we win, then everyone else will take credit for it too, or it was “lucky”. So, if we aren’t in a death spiral, why not play politics, get along, questionate how to fine-tune the past and let the organization (or nation) self-liquidate after we have retired?




Assuming that questionating is the first hurdle towards becoming an innovative company and that we can find the courage to start, what are some implementation guidelines for a company management team to follow? Here’s a starter list that should be questionated and customized further:  


1.       We are willing to say that: “we don’t know the right, best and ever improving solution path for a changing world” that other employees will have to implement.

2.       Instead of being instant answer “knowers” we aim to be “learners’ who push the wheel of learning with questionating going on throughout the circular process. (For more on “wheel of learning”, “good mistakes” and “failing forward faster” See the slide show “Six Culture Of Innovation Memes.”

3.       We will go past allowing questions and even encouraging them; we will train everyone to have the confidence and ability to proactively ask good questions. Questions will cease to be unusual and threatening; they will, instead, become fun, creative parts of question maps. We will take anthropological satisfaction in unpacking our historical, outdated mental models that are often laced with our personal insecurities and delusions.

4.       By practicing the guidelines involved in “appreciative inquiry” and “nutrient power”, we will ask “empowering questions”. (For more on “appreciative inquiry see this exhibit,. http://www.merrifield.com/exhibits/Appreciative_Inquiry_Exhibit.pdf.

5.       We will budget new amounts of time to focus on the process of asking questions to create question maps for areas in which we are searching for better answers instead of rushing into “right answers”.

6.       We will allow time for teams to get comfortable with one another and time to think about and live with and into questions on question maps. This will allow us to do extra thinking on divergent possibilities to create many good ideas before we start to work to make them great ideas. While this happens, we will converge to ever fewer, ever better possibilities to pursue.

7.       We will accept and reward risk taking; we will praise “good mistakes” and “failing forward faster and better” towards visions that we hold in order to learn as much as we can as fast as we can for the lowest total cost.



©Merrifield Consulting Group, Inc., Article 1.17


D. Bruce Merrifield, Jr.