For more than 30 years, I’ve been researching the critical point where leadership meets globalization, transformation, and innovation – a mission that’s allowed me to speak firsthand with some of the most renowned leaders of our time. From this research, it became increasingly clear that a leader’s capacity to ask the right questions is critical to challenging the status quo and changing things for the better. During the past year, Clayton Christensen and I interviewed over 50 of the world’s best questioners to better understand how they do what they do. Here are a few insights we have gleaned so far about what it means to be a question-centric leader in a question-centric company.

Great leaders gain the power to transform their business strategies, and in some cases, industries,by uncovering “golden questions” – ones that disrupt the status quo. To guarantee future success in today’s innovate-or-die marketplace, however, they must teach others to do the same.

So how can you create – and encourage – a question-centric culture? Below is a “blueprint” to help leaders inspire and engage their companies with this powerful innovation skill:

Innovative companies begin with inquisitive leaders. Consider Jeff Bezos. As Amazon Founder and CEO, Bezos leverages his ability to ask provocative questions to tackle core innovation projects for his company. He also taps into this power to keep his personal curiosity alive with surprising projects – from the discovery of Apollo 11 rockets on the ocean floor to new media ventures. Questions provide Bezos with “fuel” to keep his business competitive, explore passions close to his heart, and above all, defy the norm. Similarly, for leaders to spearhead the curiosity charge by encouraging employees to question more, they must practice what they preach.

Embed questioning into the future lifeblood of your company. While a leader’s active questioning fosters creativity, it does not guarantee all employees will follow in your footsteps. Senior leaders must encourage and create a “safe innovation space” in order for tomorrow’s frontrunners to carry this creative spirit over the lifetime of a company. Scott Cook, founder of Intuit, and Brad Smith, president and CEO, implement a learn-teach culture to embed a questioning philosophy company wide. As a senior leader, Smith advises that it’s often more effective to speak last or simply ask the question that starts the conversation to help encourage questioning behavior in boardrooms. Intuit leaders also ask senior members “What was your single biggest learning?” at the end of every meeting to generate surprising new insights and to reinforce the effectiveness of this methodology.

 • Redefine the traditional brainstorm. The right question – the kind that stops you in your tracks and challenges you to think differently – isn’t exclusive to senior leaders alone; it may come from your engineers, your customer service reps, or even your admin team. Unfortunately and understandably, employees are too often more focused on delivering the right answers than discovering the right questions. To help all segments of your business see the value of questioning and make it a more integral part of the innovation process, you must help them break the mold of the traditional meeting. Introducing an alternative to the traditional brainstorm such as Catalytic Questioning – essentially a group exercise of pure question talk – can be effective. With Catalytic Questioning you encourage teams to ask nothing but questions around a key challenge, identify the right question, and then brainstorm possible solutions.

Leaders who nurture a question-centric culture don’t just realize a clear competitive advantage today; they ensure their companies are armed for whatever challenges or opportunities lie ahead tomorrow. But this innovation capacity doesn’t happen by chance. Like any skill, leaders must consistently use it – and help others do the same – or lose it. In a world chock-full of change, put your company’s questioning muscles to work now so that future challenges don't turn your company upside down. 

About the Author

Hal Gregersen

Hal Gregersen, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center and Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School

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