The Power of Asking Good Questions

Friday Learning Notes

Roy Steiner
Jun 9, 2017 · 4 min read
Credit: iStock/BraunS

Splendor, Beauty, Glory, Knowledge — these are some of the names of the months in the Baha’i calendar. The Baha’i calendar is comprised of nineteen months of nineteen days which not only mark the passing of time but also add a layer of meaning to our perception of social reality by being named after attributes of divinity.

One of the months is named Questions and as a child I found this most curious.

When I asked my father why Questions was an attribute of the divine, he told me that questions were the lights that illuminate the path of truth and a tool to truly “see with our own eyes and not through the eyes of others.”

As design thinking and lean startup literature tells us, mastering the art of asking questions is essential to creativity and innovation (and of course learning!). In an age of instant information, finding fast answers is getting easier. Asking the right kinds of questions however remains hard.

However, this is a problem we are well equipped to solve. We are all born with innate curiosity and a natural ability to question. A study showed that the average 4-year-old British girl asks her mom a torrent of 390 questions a day. By the time we are adults the number of questions most of us pose in a given day has sadly slowed to a trickle. Why does this happen and how can we reignite our questioning abilities?

Credit: Mark Anderson/

Reflecting on these questions has led me to read a number of recent books on this subject such as “A More Beautiful Question,” and “Humble Inquiry.” Highlighted below are a few interesting ideas that may have relevance to your work and learning.

What’s the difference between Brainstorming and Question-storming?

Too often the tool of brainstorming consists of locking people in a room trying desperately to come up with original ideas even though we know that this pressure and influence from others is not always conducive to the best creative thinking. The Right Question Institute — which specializes in teaching students to tackle problems by generating questions, not solutions — has found that groups of students (including adults) seem to think more freely and creatively using a question storming method which has groups generate questions instead of ideas.

Should mission statements be mission questions?

Mission statements are often taken for granted, ignored, or can come across as arrogant. Most problematically their tone implies that the mission has already been accomplished. In a dynamic world it makes more sense to transform that static statement into an open-ended, fluid mission question. This would convey to the outside world that we we acknowledge the possibility of growth and change.

Consider for example the difference between “We empower people to create a healthier and just society” vs. “How might we effectively empower people to create a healthier and more just society?” Doesn’t the latter imply that we are always trying and we’re willing to open our minds to new ways of accomplishing our goals?

How can we learn the gentle art of asking instead of telling?

All too often when we interact with people we simply tell them what we think they need to know. This shuts them down. To explore an investment, to generate bold new ideas, to develop agility and flexibility, we need to practice humble inquiry which author Edgar Schein defines as “the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not know the answer, of building a relationship based upon curiosity and interest in the other person.”

One of the key goals we have in building a learning culture at Omidyar Network is to foster frank and respectful dialogue. Perhaps a key to enabling these kinds of dialogues is to encourage this art of humble enquiry?

What if job interviews tested one’s ability to ask questions?

One of the best ways to create a culture of inquiry that values learning is to continually add new people who are naturally inquisitive. When we interview people we often make judgements based purely on the answers they give (just as our education system has taught us), which does a poor job of assessing their ability to question, create, and innovate.

What if we asked every person coming to an interview to bring a few questions with them? Seeing how ambitious or open-ended the questions the person brings could reveal more about them than their answers to standard questions.

It is appropriate to end this learning note with a question: Do you feel you effectively use questions to learn and interact with your colleagues?

(feel free to leave questions in the comments below)



Our Friday Learning Notes series is designed to share insights from Omidyar Network’s journey to become a best-in-class learning organization. Grab a cup of coffee and start your own Friday morning learning journey! *warning: side effects of regular reading may include improved mood, upswing in dinner party conversation, and/or increased desire to cultivate learning for social impact

Omidyar Network

A social change venture investing in the creation of more inclusive and equitable societies.

Omidyar Network

A social change venture investing in the creation of more inclusive and equitable societies.

Roy Steiner

Written by

VP of Food@RockefellerFoundation. Director @OmidyarNetwork. Deputy Director @GatesFoundation Scientist by way of @MIT @Cornell. Strategist @McKinsey

Omidyar Network

A social change venture investing in the creation of more inclusive and equitable societies.