Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and myQuestion Questioning and Answering life depended on the solution, I would spend the first fifty-five minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

Not surprisingly, Einstein makes a good point. And, so I set out to ask others what they think of that observation. In turn, practicing the philosophy first hand. The dialogue was great. The conversations produced a list of seven common themes. And so, with a number of qualitative research projects on my plate, I set out to be uber-deliberate in using these themes in the formulation of the questions that I would be taking into the field. Correlating the brilliant question criteria to my own facilitation guides did indeed have a positive impact! Here are the seven themes:

What Qualities Make a Question Brilliant?

1. Inspiration to see things in a new light.
For example: Five plus five equals ten; what other numbers can be used to get me to ten?

2. Generates thoughtful willingness to challenge the norm.
Referencing Storm Sandy remains a tangible reference point. What would happen if a critical piece of this process were no longer available?

3. Creates ownership of the solution.
Tell me: What do you suggest we do here?

4. Provides clarity of purpose.
In explaining what someone does, they are forced to account for how the dots connect.

5. Encourages new solutions.
Probe: What are the frustrations in doing it this way? Can that be done in any other way?

6. Asks for an evaluation of limited resources.
If you had the power to change it, what are the consequences of choosing A over B?

7. Open ended enough to solicit the “how, why, and what do you think about this” yet tight enough to provide direction to the thought process.
Imagine yourself painting a picture. Now imagine yourself painting a picture of the golf course where you played last week.

Look Elsewhere for Answers to the Question

In addition to the quest for consistently developing brilliant questions to ask, it always astonishes me how the “ah-ha” moments come from where you least expect them.

I was recently contracted to interview people who could help us learn more about employee overtime as a source of income in today’s economic environment. While speaking to individuals across industries, it was time to dig deeper within a particular function within a particular industry. Employees, HR executives, and department managers all provided lots of interesting insights. It was the conversation with a professional in a completely unrelated industry to the one that I was researching…that the “ah-ha” moment came into place. My facilitation guide took on a new twist, and each time I presented the “ah-ha” question to my interviewees, they lit up in the same way that I did with the implications presented. This was empowering. And, it was fun for all involved.

When in Doubt, Provide Praise

In the exploration phase of a project looking to uncover breakdowns between functional departments, I was presented with an opinion that I did not quite know what to do with. “Great point. No one else has mentioned that,” I said. “Tell me more.” And the floodgates opened!

Do you find yourself asking questions that lead you to great answers?

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning,” said the same man.