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Asking the Right Questions

Socrates There are many in management who analyze data in depth and who pride themselves on their “'left brain' critical analyses.’”  Yet ironically, far too often the data they analyze are selective, limited, and the products of “group think”  (see “The Abilene Paradox”).  When basic foundational premises go unquestioned, the same approaches are re-circulated based on self-reinforcing information. 

Remember what happened to the Emperor when no one dared to ask the obvious question regarding the finery of his presumed “clothes.”  In organizations, leaders might be clad, but the lack of deeper questioning results in failed missions, red ink spreadsheets, tragic human costs, and considerable environmental damage.  (Successful executives at BP, Halliburton, and Transocean didn’t ask many questions regarding the safety of their off-shore oil platforms or contingency plans.  (They certainly hadn’t done scenario planning, which will be addressed in an upcoming blog post).  

One of the key recommendations of the IBM study is, “Question industry practices that seem obvious.  When you think you have the answer, ask ‘Why?’ again.”  The stand-out managers in the report demonstrated the courage and integrity to question even what were considered as “sacred cows” in their organizations. – But why isn’t that the norm?

What happened to our curiosity?

As those who have spent time around young children know, most of us are born with a natural sense of wonder and curiosity about everything in the world around us.  However, as we grew, we were trained to stop asking so many questions and simply accept: “Because that’s the way things are.”  In order to fit in and succeed, we were told we needed to “play by the rules” by going along with things at face value.  As a result, many adults suppressed their curiosity along with the creative thinking to which it is inextricably linked, for fear of paying any number of costs for “making waves.”

Socratic method is an invaluable tool for helping people keep their natural curiosity alive through a) assuming nothing and b) asking questions in an earnest and respectful way.  Preeminent American statesman (and innovator!) Benjamin Franklin clearly had great influence in our young country and abroad, but he said that he never had to argue with anyone in order to get his way.  Just as the master Socrates had, Franklin had so honed the art of inquiry that he was able to apply questions in such a civil and earnest manner that the general result was that others came to see the “errors of their own logic.”   

Socrates Death

Unfortunately, this methodology is no longer taught as part of most American educations.  Some of the “pragmatists” who were influential in the shaping of our American education system believed the
“Three R’s” should be sufficient for the broader population, and that teaching “elite” questioning and critical thinking skills would not be conducive to creating a content and obedient workforce.  And so, Socratic method, that had been central to a Classic Western education and delineated the foundational difference between Western and Eastern thinking, has been lost to most of us.

It can be said, “Be careful of what you wish for.”  Many societal repercussions have resulted from not questioning political leaders, corporate media, and captains of finance. Beyond this dominant cultural ethos, most organizations have been set up within hierarchical models that shut down questioning by subordinates, along with their creative suggestions.  The resulting economic cost has been the lessening of the “Yankee Ingenuity” that used to set Americans apart and all the innovation that it bore. 

Some tools for rekindling the twin arts of Questioning & Creativity:

As the stand-out CEOs found, leaders who want to generate the art of perceptive questioning along with its partner, creative thinking, will find that a prerequisite is that they must foster environmental cultures that continuously support these.

In my training programs, I encourage participants to use a couple of practices called “The Five Why’s” or “The Five-Year-Old-Consultant,” and “Second Right Answers.”  And to really support a spirit of inquiry in an ongoing manner, I recommend that leaders establish informal “Socrates Cafés,” just as organizations all around the world have done.  These cost no money or significant training to start or maintain, can meet over brown bag lunches weekly or bi-weekly, and they also help to build camaraderie among staff.  To find out more about these, go to: and  

–Okay, who's got some comments or civil questions for these assertions of mine??  😉

Socrates cafe   Six Questions of Socrates

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