A Perfect Question

A Perfect Question

The Idea: Did you ask a good question today?   

Isidor Rabi, Nobel Prize winner in physics, once shared ”My mother made me a scientist. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’ Not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That difference made me a scientist.” 

People who question norms are often minimized, attacked, or shut out of conversations all together. We see it in politics, religious traditions, and in every facet of culture. Those who dare to ask tough questions, uncovering innovative ideas and confronting old paradigms, are rarely admired for this trait. And yet, new questions (not monologues) answer most challenging situations.  The philosopher, Peter Abelard, stated “By doubting we are led to question, by questioning we arrive at the truth.”  

Recently I was moderating a “Customer Acceleration Planning Meeting” with a client and I was reminded of the fact that questions unlock doors.  During our “deep dive” evaluation of the customer’s priorities I noticed that five questions changed the atmosphere of our planning meeting.   

  1. What is too close to us to see anymore? 
  2. Let’s assume we are not the best; where are we vulnerable? 
  3. Where have we lost our distinct advantage? 
  4. Are we playing scared and why? 
  5. What are we not paying attention to that matters more than we think? 

Have you lost the plot?  

Filmmaker, screenwriter, and director Robert Altman once stated, “The role of the director is to create a space where the actors and actresses can be more than they have ever been before, more than they have ever dreamed of being.” The best directors ask questions, uncovering the inner voice of their talent. It always starts with a question: a what, who, or why that forces everyone to return to the plot and understand their role in it.  

Organizations that graciously invest in human capital deliver stock market returns 5 times higher than those of companies that are stingy in their talent investment. The research also uncovered that when organizations face disruptive business challenges, 86 percent of companies that value leadership development programs were able to respond much quicker to threats than organizations who did not prioritize this discipline.  

Organizations equipped to handle turmoil invest in programs that focus development on asking the best questions, a trait most organizations lack. The Bersin Report by Deloitte found that only 30 percent of organizations rate their first-line leaders as highly capable and less than half believe their mid-level leaders are highly capable.  Are we asking enough questions? 

The people I admire the most ask better questions.  In a world drowning in opinions, have you asked enough questions today – of yourself, your team, or your business?

It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.
– Joseph Joubert

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