eLearning Skills 2030: Asking Great Questions

eLearningSkills 2030: Asking Great Questions
Summary: Asking questions is a key skill. This article examines how to ask the right questions, why this is a critical skill and ways in which to sharpen this ability including by asking more and better questions.

Questions Can Spark Innovation And Better Outcomes

As machines become increasingly more accurate and intelligent, we humans will need to sharpen our cognitive skills. One of your primary responsibilities as a Learning and Development leader is to ensure that you empower the workforce to develop the four sets of skills that are critical to thriving in 2030 [1]. A series of ten articles, "eLearning Skills 2030," explores all these skills to make your job easier. This article, the fifth in the "eLearning Skills 2030" series, explores the art of asking insightful questions, including why this is a critical skill, and how to sharpen it.

Why Is Asking Questions Critical?

Research from Harvard Business Review and MIT Sloan Review shows that asking questions has many benefits, including sparking innovation, increasing understanding, improving communication, promoting collaboration, building coalitions, and developing better leaders [2]. In their seminal book The Innovator’s DNA, Dyer, Gregersen, and Christensen identified questioning as one of the five skills disruptive innovators need to master [3]. During the 1960s, IBM explored licensing or purchasing Xerox’s photocopying process. To evaluate the business opportunity, IBM hired a consulting firm to answer a fundamental question: "how many more copies would people make a year if they had a better, cheaper, and faster way?" That was the wrong question to ask, and it cost IBM the business. A better question would have been, “how might the new Xerox process change when and how people make copies, and what might grow the total number of copies made in future years? [2]"

For design thinking pioneer IDEO, leveraging the power of questions is pivotal to excellent product design [4]. "How might" and "what if" questions are foundational in the human-centered design thinking processes used to imagine, develop, and design new and better products and services. In fact, "how might we" is probably the one question every start-up asks before journeying off to disrupt an existing development. Asking "what if" questions may generate pushback and a sense of discomfort at first, but that is where growth and improvement lie, whether for the organization or the individual. Asking difficult questions forces us to look at contexts and challenges with a different lens and can help generate new ideas that drive never-before-thought-of solutions.

In their Harvard Business Review article, Tom Pohlmann and Neethi Mary Thomas identify four types of questions: clarifying, adjoining, funneling, and elevating [5]. Clarifying questions facilitate better understanding among people. Adjoining questions help us view challenges and contexts from a different perspective. Funneling questions force us to dive deeper into specific topics. Elevating questions allow us to zoom out to the big picture. IDEO CEO Tim Brown underscores that good leaders ask great questions to provide their teams with perspective and points out, “so if you’re thinking and can offer the right kinds of questions, you can help teams look in the right place, offer them the right perspective. And that’s a potent form of leadership [6].” Knowing when to ask the correct type of question is an art that can be learned.

How Can You Sharpen Your Skill Of Asking Great Questions?

More than 2000 years ago, Socrates devised his teaching method not by lecturing but by asking his students questions and helping them find their way to the answer. Asking questions cost Socrates his life, so, as Amy Radin recommends, it is essential to ask the right question in the right tone and for the right audience.

1. Ask The Right Questions

The right question has to fit the context: are you trying to help the team imagine a new solution and think big, or do you need the team to dig deeper and examine and prioritize risks? For example, in times of uncertainty and disruption asking new questions can help illuminate new paths to new solutions. In addition, when you begin a new project with a new team, it is always a good idea to ask a few icebreaker questions to start engaging the team members and helping them to get to know each other. They can share their aspirations, hobbies, or concerns about the new project, which in turn can help build rapport and trust amongst team members.

2. Ask More And Better Questions

Asking better questions is an art and involves type, tone, and framing, among other elements. In terms of style, there are close-ended questions (where the answer can be a simple “yes” or “no”) and open-ended questions (where the response includes more than one word). As a rule of thumb, asking open-ended questions that start with “how,” “why,” or “what” can lead to more expansive answers, elicit follow-up questions, and foster more extended conversations, which may increase your learning and help sharpen your analytical skills.

3. Use The Right Tone

Your tone needs to match the context, and you need to be careful not to make people feel so uncomfortable that they go on the defensive. As such, you must ensure that your tone is positive and friendly so that you can engage people and make them feel comfortable opening up and sharing their ideas. Being clear about why you are asking the particular question is also essential because it will help foster a culture of curiosity and learning which is foundational for creativity, innovation, and better business performance outcomes.

4. Ask A Diverse Audience

The right audience is also critical as it will drive the quality and depth of the responses. You want to go further than your usual audience and aim for diversity of thought and perspective, so your audiences need to be diverse and represent various stakeholder groups. I always like to engage audiences from different verticals as well as from academia to inform the discussion. Strategic benchmarking does a lot of this; asking questions to explore how others in other industries tackled a problem often illuminates new ideas and fresh perspectives.

As the speed and context of change continue to accelerate and vary, as leaders we must sharpen our skill of asking questions because it is a great tool to find new paths and generate new solutions. Additionally, we must inspire and engage the new generation of leaders to learn to ask more and better questions so they can thrive today, in 2030, and beyond.


[1] 4 Must-Have Leadership Skills For 2030

[2] The Power of Asking Pivotal Questions

[3] The Innovator's DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators

[4] The Power of Asking the Right Questions

[5] Relearning the Art of Asking Questions

[6] Tim Brown on Why Leadership is Not About Having All the Answers