MIT Sloan Executive Education innovation@work Blog

Hal Gregersen says questions are the answer

Hal Gregersen at the MIT CFO Summit

Guest post by Elaine Santoyo Goldman

Last month, I had the pleasure of joining hundreds of others professionals at the MIT CFO Summit, where we momentarily found ourselves well outside of our comfort zones thanks to opening speaker, MIT Sloan Executive Education faculty member Hal Gregerson. Just as he had intended.

My table-mate and I stared at each other for an awkward minute, not quite knowing how to handle the activity thrust upon us. “So,” I nervously tittered, “just ask questions? Without any clarifying statements behind them? Uh…”

Earlier, Hal began his keynote session by discussing what it meant to be not just a leader, but more importantly, a problem solver. During his impressive professional and academic career, Hal developed relationships with eclectic groups of innovators and leaders across a variety of industries. What made them great? He discovered that the answer was a question. Actually, it was a lot of questions.

The ability to continuously question everything is probably the most important attribute an effective leader possesses. (Hence the focus of Hal’s new book Questions Are the Answer). Questions help unlock what’s working and what isn’t. They help propel conversations and innovations forward. But to maximize your results, there are a few ground rules:

  • Ask better questions: Obvious, but tricky nonetheless. Using his background in photography as a framework, Hal suggests the best results are achieved when you “compose and wait.” Don’t impatiently dive into finding an immediate solution. Pause to consider other variables that may redirect your focus in exciting new ways.
  • Shut up and listen: You don’t have all the answers – you need collaborative feedback. As a leader, it’s important to create safe spaces for all employees to feel comfortable asking questions. Set the tone by acknowledging you’re not the expert, graciously accepting feedback, and not immediately dismissing ideas.
  • Pain + Reflection = Progress: Placing yourself in situations that allow you to be uncomfortable (pain) and quiet (reflection) are ideal for stimulating new questions and ideas. Embrace the awkwardness!
  • Still blocked? Try Question Bursts: Our natural inclination is to (over) explain a question or a problem. This only guides others down your narrowed mental path, when the objective is to broaden it. Question BurstsTM help avoid this trap. Gather folks, state your goal, set a timer for five minutes, and let people loose with questions. Just questions. No explanations or answers allowed. (Which is where this story began).

The exercise was uncomfortable at first, but as one question was asked, it quickly inspired new questions that fed off each other in ways neither of us had previously considered! What started off as an awkward ice-breaker for all of us in the room, quickly melted into excited chatter and optimism about how to realistically solve the problem. The added benefit? Once in a better emotional space, you’re more receptive to new ideas and problem solving.

However, don’t just reserve questions for sudden dilemmas. Ask questions about why something is working too. This can unlock new insights and proactively spark improvements to maintain a competitive and innovative edge.

Any questions?

Hal Gregerson teaches two programs at MIT Sloan Executive Education: Leadership and the Lens: Reframing the Question to Unlock Insight and Impact and The Innovators DNA: Mastering Five Skills for Disruptive Innovation. A new course based on topics covered in his book, Questions Are The Answer, is also being developed for 2019. Subscribe to our mailing list to receive updates.


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