Questions Are the Answer.

Alexander Osterwalder, co-founder of the Business Model Canvas (BMC) used to design a new business under the lean method, hosted a webinar today interviewing Hal Gregersen, world authority on questioning. His topic is critical to success when building a business model canvas  (BMC) and a founder/entrepreneur attempts to elicit revealing answers from an end-user, potential buyer. The process of interviewing is both an art and a science much like entrepreneurship, but critical to the validation or no-go of a product or service idea.

Two main takeaways were creation of an uncomfortable quiet and use of “catalytic” questions.  For example, Intuit was turned back to innovation by the founder Scott Cook changing from dropping long “to-do” lists on subordinates desks to walking into the person’s office and asking, “what are you wrestling with today”, waiting a pregnant minute for an answer, and then asking, “what can I do to help”.  In Hal Gregersen’s own words:

“As disruptive innovators, from Albert Einstein to Jack Dorsey, put it, “Question everything!” Engage in pure question talk, with one team member writing down each question verbatim. This gives everyone the chance (especially introverts) to see each question, reflect a bit, and then create even better ones. Don’t give preambles to the questions and don’t devote any time or energy to answering them. Just ask. Ask as many questions as you can. Go for at least 50, perhaps 75. But don’t give up when your mind goes blank around question 35. Savor the momentary dead space and continue the search for even better, more provocative questions, which will come with patience and persistence. It usually takes 10 to 20 minutes to exhaust a group’s questioning capacity. Push for exhaustion.

At a recent World Economic Forum workshop, this five-step Catalytic Questioning process took 24 minutes. It rapidly engaged the group, turbocharged a subsequent brainstorming session (conducted right after by Tim Brown from IDEO), and helped identify several intriguing new areas of potential industry disruption. During the debrief, most participants agreed that asking nothing but questions was a surprisingly powerful tool for revealing innovative solutions. They left the session highly energized to become even better question catalysts within their everyday work.

Across the globe, I have seen the same process—and success—occur with thousands of executives and entrepreneurs, including Ahmet Bozer, president of Coca-Cola International, who realized, “if your questioning muscles have atrophied, it’s time to start exercising those muscles.” Catalytic Questioning ensures this essential leadership skill improves over time to unlock even better, more creative solutions. What you discover in this questioning quest might not only surprise you, but may also unearth an entirely new direction for your team, organization, or career.”

Hal wants the questioner to create a condition of awkwardness to embrace silence, working off answers to new questions and “operating on the edge of uncertainty”.  Somehow the questions become the answer!

Hal Gregersen is Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center, a Senior Lecturer in Leadership and Innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management,