This past Wednesday was our first day of school, and as always I began my Introduction to Business class having students color. As students walk into class, they have in front of them a coloring sheet (art masterpieces) and a box of crayons. I enter the room a few minutes late, and there they sit, staring at the sheet of paper and the crayons. I invite them to begin coloring, let them do so for about 10-12 minutes, then begin the discussion.
This year, when the coloring was finished, I simply put up one word on the screen - WHY? The first class (7:30 AM...a hardy bunch of students) immediately asked "why what?" I did not answer the question for them, but they decided that the question they were to answer (they had been directed to write down the answer on a piece of paper) was "why did Dean Christian have us color?" They actually figured out the question that was in my mind, and after they wrote answers, shared answers in groups and we discussed the answers in class, there was a lot we learned about business - and life - from coloring in class (you can ask me about that later).
I went through the same procedure in the second class period (beginning promptly at 8:30 AM) and this time the class (40 students strong) did not ask "why what?" but immediately began writing down their answers on the piece of paper in front of them. I smiled to myself, wondering what would become of this. I asked them to get in groups of four, determine which was the question they were answering, and to determined their groups answer. What a difference! The questions ranged from "why color" to "why college" to "why business" to "why not." The dialogue was phenomenal as the class explored the meta question of why each individual would approach the WHY question differently.
So here was my take away...how many times do we as leaders (teachers, parents, bosses, etc) control the conversation just because we get to ask the question? Do I ask a specific question because it is important to me? Do I ask a specific question because I assume it is important to others? Do I ask a specific question because I want a group to consider my agenda? Do I ask a specific question because I haven't yet thought of another question to ask? I teach my classes that the smartest person in the room is the one with the most questions...maybe I should teach that the most powerful person in the room is the one who gets to ask the questions.
Asking questions is important because it can move a group forward. Sometimes the first question is merely a launching pad for what will follow. People often ask questions because they genuinely do not know what to do next. So imagine for a moment what it would be like, as a leader, to leave the questions up to the group, where they get to set the agenda for the meeting, the class, the day, or even the organization. What I watched happen with the second group of students is that they began to own the discussion - and I think that happened because they owned the questions.
I believe that within any given situation there are a variety of questions to be asked, all of which are important to the dialogue that will follow (I almost typed the word "answer" rather than "dialogue" - that would have been a mistake since the dialogue is more important than the answer...at least in most situations). Our role as leaders is to create the space that gives people the freedom to ask and explore different questions...meaningful questions...real questions...personal questions...deep questions. And I believe that the more we do that, the better the questions will be as time goes on...and the better the dialogue will be that follows the questions...and that the answers arrived at will provide the organization a better platform with which to move ahead.