Better questions give better answers: Brainstorming for transformative change
About 20 years ago I was leading a brainstorming session in one of my MBA classes, and it was like wading through oatmeal. We were talking about something that many organisations struggle with: how to build a culture of equality in a male-dominated environment. Though it was an issue the students cared about, they clearly felt uninspired by the ideas they were generating. After a lot of discussion, the energy level in the room was approaching nil. Glancing at the clock, I resolved to at least give us a starting point for the next session.
“Everyone,” I improvised, “let’s forget about finding answers for today and just come up with some new questions we could be asking about this problem. Let’s see how many we can write down in the time we have left.” The students dutifully started to throw out questions, and I scribbled them on a chalkboard, redirecting anybody who started to suggest an answer. To my surprise, the room was quickly energised. At the end of the session, people left talking excitedly about a few of the questions that had emerged — those that challenged basic assumptions we had been making. For instance: Were there grassroots efforts we could support, rather than handing down rules from the top? And: What could we learn from pockets within our own organisation that had achieved equality, instead of automatically looking elsewhere for best practices? Suddenly, there was much more to discuss, because we had opened up unexpected pathways to potential solutions.
Brainstorming for questions, not answers, wasn’t something I’d tried before. It just occurred to me in that moment, probably because I had recently been reading sociologist Parker Palmer’s early work about creative discovery through open, honest inquiry. But this technique worked so well with the students that I began experimenting with it in consulting engagements, and eventually it evolved into a methodology that I continue to refine. By now I’ve used it with hundreds of clients, including global teams at Chanel, Danone, Disney, EY, Fidelity, Genentech, Salesforce, and dozens of other companies; nonprofit organisations; and individual leaders I’ve coached.
Underlying the approach is a broader recognition that fresh questions often beget novel — even transformative — insights. Consider this example from the field of psychology: Before 1998, virtually all well-trained psychologists focused on attacking the roots of mental disorders and deficits, on the assumption that well-being came down to the absence of those negative conditions. But then Martin Seligman became president of the American Psychological Association, and he reframed things for his colleagues. What if, he asked in a speech at the APA’s annual meeting, well-being is just as driven by the presence of certain positive conditions — keys to flourishing that could be recognised, measured, and cultivated? With that question, the positive psychology movement was born.