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Catalytic Questions: How to Reframe Questions to Achieve Breakthrough Solutions

Q&A with Hal Gregersen by Karen Christensen

Questions are the ‘frame’ into which answers fall. By changing the frame, you dramatically change the range of possible solutions.

How do you define a ‘catalytic question’?

Like a catalyst in a chemical process, some questions knock down barriers, open up new spaces and send energy down more productive pathways. In this case, though, the barriers are often mental ones — assumptions that have become outdated or mindsets that have framed a problem in a certain way. If your eyes widen a bit when a question comes at you, that’s a sign that it’s catalytic.

Mine did, for example, when I heard about how Andreas Heineke founded Dialogue in the Dark, an amazing experience in which sighted people are plunged into darkness and led through complex settings by guides who are expert in helping them — because they are blind. People trying to place others with disabilities in jobs always ask, ‘What can they do well enough despite the deficits they have?’ Andreas switched that around to ask, ‘How could the job take advantage of this person’s relative strengths?’

Flawed mental models do not naturally present themselves to people. How can we uncover them?

I asked Jeff Wilke, a top executive at Amazon, this very question, and he had an interesting response. One way, he says, is to develop some discipline around the activity of raising questions that poke at those models that might not be as stable as you are treating them. My way of getting people to that point is to have them do a Question Burst, which is focused on drumming up better questions than the ones you’ve been asking about a problem. 

You advise leaders to slow down their ‘rush to rightness’. Why is that so important?

One of the things we value most in a leader is decisiveness, and as a result, there is strong pressure to push forward with a plan without pausing to consider, ‘Are we missing something here?’ The irony is that, if the time has come when something fundamental about an enterprise has to be reconsidered—perhaps it’s an inflection point in the industry’s lifecycle, or some new technology is brewing on the periphery that will pose a mortal threat—the top executive has to see it. Only someone in a powerful leadership position can present the case for change to an organization and mobilize it to act. And yet, unwittingly, we have created settings that actually insulate most executives from the changing realities they need to be attuned to. That’s why chief executives need to make a concerted effort to be their organizations’ ‘chief questioners’.

What habits can we develop to start asking more catalytic questions?

I would boil it down to three things. First, we have to dial back our certitude and spend more time in a condition of ‘sensing that we are missing something’. Second, we have to get up and out of our comfortable offices and routines and encounter the world of the weird and the challenging. And third, we have to switch out of ‘transmitting mode’ and spend a little more time in ‘receiving mode’. When we’re in conditions of feeling wrong, being uncomfortable and keeping quiet, those are the times when our heads fill with questions. If you want to ask more catalytic questions, you need to raise more questions in general. Then, pay attention to the ones that really challenge your mental models. 


Hal Gregersen is Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Centre and a Senior Lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. His latest book is Questions Are the Answer: A Breakthrough Approach to Your Most Vexing Problems at Work and in Life (HarperCollins, 2018).


Further Reading:

  • Behind Every Breakthrough is a Better Question by Hal Gregersen, available in the Winter 2019 issue or individually as a PDF. 


This article appeared in the Winter 2019 issue. Published by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Rotman Management explores themes of interest to leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs.

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