What makes a powerful question powerful?

Last week I hosted with friends a two-day public program called The Art of Organisational Innovation, Change & Learning. By all accounts it was a wonderful success with all who attended saying that it was a wonderful affirming experience of the importance of also undertaking the ‘innovation within’ so as to best hold the space for innovation, change and learning within a community group, organisation, or society as a whole. 


It continues to amaze me the wonder and energy that emerges when groups of people come together in authentic and personally meaningful ways in order to explore and address real life issues and opportunities.

There was however, a moment in the program that was ‘slightly off’ where I felt that the collective energy of the group did not reach its potential. It was on the morning of the first and was, I think, the result of a question that was asked as part of a World Cafe process. Given, the group had had only come together for the first time about 90 minutes earlier and the question posed was the first of three in the World Cafe. But, the three hosts of the cafe all felt that it that the question did not fully hit the mark for the group. The question posed was, “What is it about innovation and change that makes it such a compelling topic now?

At first glance, the question relates directly to the program’s core focus (organisational innovation, change & learning). So what happened for the group in trying to enter into the exploration of this question at the time it was posed? The shift in energy came again with the remaining two questions of the World Cafe, which worked a treat! The remaining two questions posed where “What lies beneath our current focus on innovation and change, what is really calling for our attention now?” and then “Who do I need to be and what wise action do I need to take to navigate the challenges facing me now?”

As I consider each of the three questions posed in our World cafe, I am left with the question: “What makes a powerful question powerful?”

In considering this question, there are two sources I draw upon. The first is by Eric E. Vogt, Juanita Brown, and David Isaacs (Juanita and David are the founders of The World Cafe process) called The Art of Powerful Questions: Catalysing Insight, Innovation, and Action. The short book provides a wonderful account of the three key components of the architecture of a powerful question, namely:

  1. The construction of the question – for example, ‘why’ questions are have a more powerful construction than questions that simply elicit a yes/no response;
  2. The scope of the question - how expansive the question’s focus is (e.g., team, organisation, industry, etc) with a more powerful question testing the boundaries of a group’s scope whilst also being contained enough to allow the respondent(s) to take effective action in the immediate term; and
  3. The assumption within the questions – does the question make assumptions about the respondent’s beliefs about the topic, or does it intentionally challenge those assumptions?

As I think about these three elements in relation to the first question posed in our World Cafe, I now realise in hindsight that we may have misread component three (the assumptions inherent in the question) as it relates to our question. As I reflect upon the larger two-day program, I came to realise that the group’s true need in being together was not innovation ‘out there’ but rather the exploration of innovation, change & learning within each person. This was also evidenced by the group’s engagement with the final two questions of the World Cafe, which focused more on the ‘inner world’ of innovation and change.

And this leads me to my second source for how to construct a powerful question, a wonderful book by Peter Block called Community: The Structure Of Belonging. This book is amazing. In its pages, Peter outlines his three components of a powerful question:

  1. Ambiguity – a powerful question is ambiguous and at its core is unanswerable;
  2. Personal – a powerful question invites the respondent to look within himself or herself in order to consider the question and how they might best repond to it; and
  3. Anxiety Raising – a powerful question creates an inner tension or incongruence within the respondent whereby the person needs to own something about himself or herself and/or the situation in order respond (in other words, the question is a call to the respondent to be authentic).

These three components outlined by Peter also help me to understand what is was about our first World Cafe question that was “slightly off”. Upon reflection, the question posed did not encompass these three components adequately enough. By comparison, the final two questions of the World Cafe did.

And this gets me to my own reflections of what I am learning makes a powerful question powerful. As I ask myself the question, “What have been the most impacting, challenging and nourishing questions I have been asked?” I notice some common themes. I offer these themes to you now.

For me, a powerful question …

  • ‘Travels’ beyond the time of asking.
  • Is able to be ‘read’ at multiple levels and in multiple ways.
  • Travels beyond the situation.
  • Entices the respondent ‘onto the balcony’ in considering a situation, relationship or himself/herself.
  • Is simple (i.e., the less words in the question the better).
  • Seeks the truth.
  • Invites the respondent to explore ‘just beyond …’
  • Is affirmative.
  • Generates more questions than it answers.
  • Is simultaneously reflective and a call to action.
  • Is inclusive of all that are being asked to respond to it.

Finally, I am learning that what makes a powerful question powerful is where it is positioned in sequence to the other questions that precede or proceed it. For example, if we had asked the third question (“Who do I need to be and what wise action do I need to take to navigate the challenges facing me now?”) first in our World Cafe I am not sure it would have been as powerful as it was for the group. In this way, the timing of the question must be appropriate – the individual and/or group must be ready to respond to it in order for hearts, minds and spirits to open up and come together as one in its exploration.

Thank you to the group last week for helping me to learn more of the power of asking powerful question and the magic of being a part of a conversation that really matters.