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  • Writer's pictureThe Rivers School

Got a Challenge? Try Brainstorming Questions, Not Solutions

In his book A More Beautiful Question, journalist and innovation expert Warren Berger writes, “We’re all hungry today for better answers. But first, we must learn to ask the right questions.” In his research, he discovered that “the most creative, successful people tend to be expert questioners.”

I thought about Berger’s contention this week as I listened to a Curious Mindspodcast featuring Hal Gregersen. Gregersen is executive director of the MIT Leadership Center and author of the book Questions are the Answer: A Breakthrough Approach to Your Most Vexing Problems at Work and in Life. He believes that questioning is so “crucial to building a leader’s innovation capacity — and to making the world a better place.”

In the interview, Gregersen described a powerful technique called Question Burst. This short activity, he says, helps leaders identify “catalytic questions.” These are questions that prompt new ways of thinking about the challenges that we confront.

Here’s how it works.

  • Set the Stage: Choose one or more people you trust and describe a problem you are facing in two minutes or less.

  • Brainstorm Questions: For four minutes, generate as many questions as you can about the challenge at hand. The only rules: don’t waste time answering the question and/or explaining why you are asking the questions. Just write — let your mind wander and explore.

  • Identify a Quest — and Commit to It: Look over your (hopefully long) list of questions and identify the “catalytic questions.” Then choose one or two to act upon and get to work!

(You can read about the process in detail in this Harvard Business Review article written by Gregersen.)

This technique isn’t just for CEOs. In fact, Gregersen offers two stories about how parents have used Question Bursts to strengthen their families. For example, he describes how one father worried about a growing distance with his teenage daughter. When he engaged in a Question Burst, the father realized he had framed the problem the wrong way. As Gregersen recounts, the father said, “At the beginning of the conversation … I was so focused on how to not lose her.… But I was asking the wrong question. I really needed to figure out how to help her grow and flourish …[to] let her find her.” A better question, he concluded, was “How can I help my daughter thrive?”

In middle school, students come to parents and teachers with problems all the time — from time management to navigating social media. As I have mentioned before, we don’t want to rush in to solve problems for them. This robs them of the opportunity to explore options, experiment, take risks, and learn from their experiences. However, we can (and should!) play a vital role in guiding them and in helping them clarify who they want to be, how they want to grow, and what small steps they need to take to reach their goal.

Perhaps the Question Burst exercise — brainstorming questions instead of presenting solutions — can serve as one more tool to help our students take ownership of their development. As Berger writes, “A beautiful question shifts the way we think about something and often sets in motion a process that can result in change.”

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