Change Designs Member LOGIN

Change Designs


Are questions the most powerful tool in innovation?

By Graham Williams and Dr Dorian Haarhoff

Many organizations want to develop a culture which encourages new innovations. Many set up sophisticated innovation processes. But we often forget that there is one simple innovation method which we all use on a daily basis. Questions. This article shows how to use questions as a method for generating innovative ideas.

Why ask questions? understand-the-game

Without questions, lawyers, philosophers, inventors, coaches, trainers, knowledge management developers, management consultants, market researchers, journalists and employment interviewers would be lost.

Without questions, crucial conversations stall, curiosity goes unsatisfied and learning dries up, veils covering the unknown are not lifted.

With only answers and no questions, the salesperson fails to understand and connect, and loses out. Without questions the psychologist or narrative therapist cannot open up new possibilities for their clients, the doctor cannot diagnose.

Without questions in a safe environment, where curiosity is valued, innovative companies lose their competitive edge.

Through questions we can achieve focus, widen our perspectives, deepen and accelerate our learning, solve problems and stimulate good conversations. Questions enable the quest. The quest for data, information, knowledge, understanding and wisdom.

“It is not the answer that enlightens but the question.”


Eugéne Ionesco, playwright and poet.

It’s good that Newton asked “Why did the apple fall?”, Archimedes asked “Why does my bath water rise when I get in?”, de Vinci asked "Could man fly?"

As a picture can be worth a 1000 words, so too can a good question be worth a 1000 answers. Help to lead from chaos to order. Fly like an arrow straight to the heart of the matter.

There was once a small boy who loved banging his drum all dayand every day. He refused to be quiet, no matter what anyone else said or did. Various people were called in to do something, to find the answer to this disruption, to solve the problem. The first told the boy that he would surely, if he continued to make so much noise, perforate his eardrums. The second told him that drum beating was a sacred activity and should be reserved only for special occasions. The third offered the villagers plugs for their ears. Someone gave the boy a book to read. Another suggested meditation exercises. Yet another offered more harmonious musical instruments. Nothing worked. Eventually a wise old woman asked of the boy,"I wonder what is INSIDE the drum?" (Idris Shah)

What questions to ask?

In the Hans Christian Andersen story, a child is the only one to ask what needed to be asked:


Why isn’t the emperor wearing any clothes?”

Text books are full of information about closed and open-ended questions. They cover leading and rhetorical questions, process questions – prompting, clarifying, probing, establishing, trapping, challenging, reflective, and provocative questions. Multiple-choice questions and enquiring “What if?” questions. They offer critique questions such as the “Who says?” and “So what?” combination. Questions that reframe thinking, that surface alternatives.

It's also good to escape from too much business reading, and to read simply for enjoyment. I find as much wisdom, and often learn incidentally, by reading novels. Ed McBain's 87th Precinct mysteries, for example are great for studying probing questioning and loop-back techniques.

For now, just three thoughts:


1. In the workplace.

The Japanese ‘5 Whys? Technique’ of delving deeper in order to uncover the root cause, is worth adopting.

We could reverse Benjamin Franklin as a fun way of illustrating this:

The kingdom was lost (Why?) for want of the war.
The war was lost (Why?) for want of a battle.
The battle was lost (Why?) for want of an army.
An army was lost (Why?) for want of a rider.
A rider was lost (Why?) for want of a horse.
A horse was lost (Why?) for want of a shoe.
A shoe was lost (Why?) For want of a nail.

Cognitive Kinetics (1): goes beyond mind-mapping, and we use it to generate innovation within groups. To a large extent, a successful outcome depends on the strength and flow of the questions used to initiate new thinking.

The Appreciative Inquiry approach, which can also tap into narrative, resonates with the Ionesco quote at the beginning of this article. Instead of asking questions such as 'What is the problem?', 'What is wrong'; the approach is to focus on the positive to tap into solutions: "What is good about what we are doing?' , 'Can we foresee ways in which this can work better?'...

Belasco (2): "Too many of us still believe that it is responsibility to provide answers..."


2. Within relationships.

The Johari Window (developed by Joe Luft and Harry Ingham) is a nice way for people to learn about each other. A window is progressively opened by each person both telling and asking. Receiving and revealing what is known to self/ not known to self, known to others/ not known to others. It addresses facts, feelings and underlying beliefs.

3. Growing yourself.

When spotting one of your own limiting beliefs (“I’m not good at….”, “I can’t……”), a timely intervention along the lines of “Why do I believe this? and “What if it’s not true?” can move you from awareness to a positive change.

When indignant, angry, disillusioned, try switching from “How could she do this to me, say that about me?” to “What can I take from this that has value?

When confronting troublesome situations ask: “What would someone wise do?”

Sometimes you can reverse a question. Instead of “Why do we die?” you can ask, “What would life be like if we did not die?

There are many teachers and advisers selling water by the river. Quiet times alone in reflection and meditation will often allow you to sate your thirst at the same river, gain answers that no one else can give to you.

How should questions be asked?

Egyptian writer and Nobel Prize winner for Literature, Naguib Mahfouz, once said: "You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions". Advice to heed.

The right question can be asked in the wrong way. How often have you been asked “How are you doing?” and know that it is being asked by rote, as part of a standard greeting? When asked with real interest and concern, it becomes a different question. And if you emphasise different words in that four-word question, for example “How are YOU doing?” it projects yet other nuances.

At a presentation, are questions sometimes intended to impress, or convey that the person posing the question disagrees with the speaker? Or are they asked with an open mind, a genuine intent to learn?

In dialogues, and questions within dialogues, there is an exchange of words (facts) and also expressions, body language, voice tone, pitch, speaking pace (feelings). It is not the actual wording of a question nor reply, but the other elements which are more important.

Ask in a way that shows that you are fully engaged and present, have a genuine interest and are looking for a positive outcome. Ask after a connection has been made and trust established.

Questions and listening are natural bedfellows.

So when you’re asked a question listen between the lines for facts and feelings. Respect the other’s question.

Once you’ve asked a question, jump into listening mode. Do this also when a colleague, family member or friend is sharing their thinking. Listen attentively without interfering, without jumping in with answers or questions. This undermines the others ability to do their own thinking, come to their own conclusions. The value of pauses and silences cannot be overstated. A non-verbalised, implied question and interest, conveyed by an encouraging facial expression, eye contact, a raised eyebrow or incline of the head – will often do the trick.

You may of course ask a question like: “What else comes to mind?” so that the others’ thinking flow continues. Sometimes after careful listening you can show the other an uncovered limiting belief, blockage or assumption by asking questions such as: ”If you could...?" or “If you were to...?”

Nancy Kline has lots more to say on this.3

Paul Tillich the theologian says that “Listening is an act of love.”

So too is appropriate silence. Buddha responded with noble silence when asked certain questions to do with life after death, whether the world was eternal...questions that are unanswerable but whose contemplation are of value. We do have the right to remain silent sometimes.

Story telling invites listening and questions, and carries answers - not simply “What happens next?” but also “What does this mean for me?

Here is a story to ponder. It's title is "I have answered the questions."

People approach the new young rabbi in the community with their questions. They come one by one. Why did my child die? Why did my wife run away? Why is there so much hatred and anger in the world? Where can I find work?

The rabbi is not able answer these questions so he approaches his teacher, the great rabbi who says. “I will come and answer the questions”. There is a greatbuzz in the community. On the Saturday morning the synagogue is full of people. The great rabbi arrives. He bows to the Torah, the holy book. Then he bows to the people.

He sits down and says, “Ask your questions”. He listens intensely to the first person’s question and then says, “I won’t answer the questions now. I will wait until everybody has asked their questions”. People look at each other in amazement. How will he remember all the questions from so many people?

One by one people ask their questions. When everybody has spoken there is silence. The rabbi begins to rock his bodybackwards and forwards and begins hum a niggun (a chant to induce a prayerful attitude). The people wonder what the great rabbi is up to and then they begin to hum as well. Then the rabbi stands up and begins to dance. The people begin to dance too. After the humming and the dancing the great rabbi faces the people. There is silence. He bows to them. Then he bows to the Torah. He says, “I have answered your questions and he leaves."

So the question is:

Are our questions sometimes self-serving (to boost our egos, show that we know it all) or are they used to empower others and to foster creative inquiry?

Perhaps we could add to the first verse of Rudyard Kipling’s

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

They serve me because I serve them
(Show how little I know)

Want an easy innovation method. Simply use questions.


1. Cybernovation Technologies and Industries Ltd Users Manual: Thinking with Hexagons 1990
2. Belasco, James A Teaching the Eelephant to Dance Hutchinson Business Books London 1990
3. Kline, Nancy Time to Think Cassell Illustrated, UK. 1999

Graham WilliamsGraham Williams is an author, coach and certified management consultant who has worked all over the world. He is a thought leader for the Institute of Management Consultants in South Africa. Formal disciplines are psychology, economics and business strategy. Graham is a neuro-linguistic practitioner. His website is

Dr Dorian HaarhoffDr Dorian Haarhoff, a former professor of English (Namibia) is a writer, mentor, storyteller and speaker. He believes in the power of stories to create new realities, support change, improve health and build a work community. He is the author of The Writer’s Voice. His website is

Graham and Dorian are authors of The Halo and the Noose and Story Matters @ Work

You may also like:

This will pin this article to the community board for guests or to your own private board for members who are logged in.

Change Designs
provides resources on Leadership,  Strategic Planning, Change Management, OD ... for organizations, teams & individuals.
Use our member guides & tools to solve problems & achieve success at work.

Customer Service

return to top home
RSSRSS feed for new articles and products from Change Designs

© Change Designs 2011. All rights reserved. The reproduction of any content or material contained in this website is expressly reserved to Change Designs CC, under Section 12(7) of the Copyright Act of 1978. Reliance on the information contained in the articles, products and other related content published on this website is done at your own risk and subject to our “terms and conditions”.