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Brain circuits

Do you use a good question mix?

Published 25 August 2021 in Brain circuits • 3 min read

Strong leaders ask a lot of questions and as their role changes the questions they ask need to change as well. But they often don’t. It’s not enough to simply ask open questions, then follow up those questions. Leaders also need to consider the mix of questions they ask so as to avoid various knowledge traps.

Have you ever thought about which questions you ask and which types of questions you use? Have you considered what happens if you don’t ask some questions? Take time out to consider this.

Our research has identified four specific types of questions:

  1.   Productive: These are “now what?” questions. This type of question helps leaders disengage and realize that jumping straight to a solution isn’t appropriate. It also helps to prevent getting frozen in place.
  2.   Analytical: These are “why/how?” questions. They help leaders dig up the root causes of the problem at hand and not just reach for a surface solution, as well as identifying potential solutions that are sufficiently concrete.
  3.   Creative: These are “what else/what if?” questions. These questions help go beyond the obvious answers to look at things from entirely different directions, thereby fueling innovation.
  4.   Sensemaking: This is where leaders ask, “so what?” The question helps leaders understand the validity and reasoning behind conclusions (the substance), as well as helping to evaluate the people side of the effort (interpersonal) and whether things are what they seem.

Underutilizing one or more types of question – a common occurrence among even successful executives – causes blind spots that can lead to an incomplete picture. Although there is no right question mix, asking all types of questions when facing complex decisions is advisable.

It is important to critically assess your results, ask more questions, monitor yourself, and consciously address your blind spots. If there are certain questions you are uncomfortable with, try to start using them in low-stakes situations to build your confidence.

The good news is executives who evaluate their question mix get a better sense of their preference, a great starting point to remove any potential blind spots.

If you want to know more about how to improve your question mix and your problem-solving skills in general, sign up for the upcoming Complex Problem Solving program starting on 13 September.


Arnaud Chevallier

Professor of Strategy at IMD

Arnaud Chevallier is Professor of Strategy at IMD. Arnaud’s research, teaching, and consulting on strategic thinking bridges disciplines to provide concrete tools to improve decision-making and corporate problem solving. Arnaud’s work prepares executives for the strategic challenges organizations face in today’s dynamic global marketplace.

Frédéric Dalsace

Professor of Marketing and Strategy at IMD

Prior to IMD, Frédéric spent 16 years as a Professor at HEC Paris, where he held the Social Business / Enterprise and Poverty Chair presided by Nobel Laureate Prof. Muhammad Yunus. Prior to his academic life, he accumulated more than 10 years of experience in the business world, both with industrial companies (Michelin and CarnaudMetalbox), and as a strategy consultant with McKinsey & Company. He is Co-Program Director of the Leading Customer – Centric Strategies program.


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