Good Questions are Key to Good Collaboration

Ever wonder why you couldn’t come up with the great question you heard someone else ask at a big conference or in a collaborative meeting? In addition, what made it such a great question? This post explores what makes a good question and the purpose of questions.

David Stork provides characteristics of good questions in his TED talk on asking good questions (see David claims that the most important characteristic of a good question is that it leads to new questions rather than to an immediate solution. In addition, David finds that good questions also have the right level of abstraction, are clearly stated so unambiguous, are extremal, go to the heart of a topic, have a solution that must exist, need a solution method that exists, and call for improved solution methods will likely be useful in other areas. David saw questions as a way to go from what you know to what you don’t know. David also provides techniques to be able to ask good questions such as the following:

  • Isolate the components of the system
  • Consider all attributes and combinations of attributes
  • Explore white spaces (missing aspects)
  • Consider extremal cases
  • How does X depend on Y?
  • How to measure
  • Transitions from state 1 to state 2
  • Invert
  • Who, what, why, where, when
  • Analogies
  • Different languages (math, code, natural language,and so on)
  • Put on different disciplinary hats

While David’s perspective is intellectual questions, his talk could be summarized as follows: the purpose of a good questions is to direct our effort in a worthwhile direction and generate new knowledge.

Rachael Herrscher in her TED talk on asking the right questions (see has a more general perspective across our personal and professional lives. Rachael gathered information about how to ask the right questions from her network across 10 different professions. A common theme from her findings was that questions are used to get information needed to inform desired action or behavior and that listening is a key component to being able to ask the right questions. Rachael talks about questions as a way to get information towards a worthwhile purpose. Examples she presented of worthwhile purposes included advocating for a person in need, adding value in the workplace, unleashing creativity towards a challenge, showing love, showing care, and to get educated about the world around us. In Racheal’s examples that demonstrated the achievement of a worthwhile purpose, there was a relationship of trust between the person asking the questions and the person receiving the answers. Therefore, when the question and answer process was collaborative, a worthwhile purpose was achieved.

Michael Stevens combines the art of asking intriguing questions with the creativity of providing an authentic answer to the question while educating the listener on as many STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) concepts as possible in an interesting and relevant way (see For example, the title of Michael’s TED talk is “how much does a video weigh?” The question seems preposterous. You are wondering how he can possibly answer this question so you are drawn right in to see the answer. Michael asks questions that seem like they can’t possibly be answered as bait for humans – you are captivated and keep going back to see what Michale is going to ask next as long as he honestly and authentically answers the question. By definition you will learn something because you didn’t think the question could be answered to begin with. Michael uses fun questions as a way to educate the general public on scientific concepts. Michael’s questions enable him to ask and answer more questions about science which is what he really cares about: educating people about science. As Michael succeeds at answering his intriguing questions honestly and authentically, trust is built between him and his followers. His followers become willing participants in a collaborative process of learning – if they don’t understand or question something that Michael says in his answer to a question, then they research it on their own to enhance the learning process.

Phil McKinney uses what he calls ‘killer questions’ as a method to solve problems and develop new products and services in the workplace. In an excerpt from Chapter 1 of Phil’s book, Beyond the Obvious, Phil says the following about why questions are important (

‘As adults we use our education and past experiences to solve the problems we face rather than relying on questions. It’s these historical assumptions of what works that prevents organizations from generating new ideas. After all, you can’t change your core beliefs about your organization or industry unless you change something in your perspective about your business, industry, your customers or yourself. Think of it this way; if you want to start generating new output you first need new input. And the only way to get new input is to either find new sources of information and inspiration or find new ways of looking at the same existing information you’ve been looking at for years. There are many ways to generate new input, but the most effective is to learn to ask the kinds of questions that can lead you to a real discovery. This is true both of the kinds of questions you ask other people, and the ones you pose to yourself. It’s also true both in the straightforward semantic sense (you need to be able to use words in order to phrase an effective question) and in the larger philosophical sense (you need to know how, why and when to ask the right kinds of questions).’

From these examples, questions are very powerful. Good questions can do many things including direct our efforts in worthwhile directions, generate new knowledge, get information towards a worthwhile purpose, educate, solve problems, and lead to a new discovery. In short, questions are a way to provide something new and useful to us. New and useful is the definition of creativity. The overall purpose of questions, therefore, is to catalyze creativity. Creativity brings me back to collaboration.

Collaboration is when two or more people are committed to and engaged in working together towards a worthy goal. Collaboration happens because more than one person is needed to be able to accomplish a goal. This means something needs to be created through the collaborative interaction in order to be able to accomplish the goal. Collaboration does not occur without creativity, and creativity is catalyzed by asking good questions. Collaboration harnesses the power of human connection to tackle any challenge. Contact Valerie at 412-742-9675 or for help or to learn more.