Powerful Questions Exercise

This is one of my favourite exercises to share at unconferences. Powerful Questions is a really useful skill for everyone in a creative, problem-solving organisation, from entry-level developers to members of the leadership team. Doing it together raises awareness about communication styles, and sends a message that participation is wanted! Once a group develops a simple shared vocabulary around question styles, they can go on to practice together and help one another to discuss more constructively!

The reason I teach it is this: an agile mindset is not enough, we must be able to spot old-paradigm habits and consciously replace them with more fitting ways of working. As we shift from authoritarian to collaborative work models, old habits can undermine our best intentions, especially when we’re under stress – which, ironically, is when true collaboration could really make a difference.

This hands-on team exercise slows down our thinking long enough to observe what happens when we ask different types of questions, and to imagine how we might do it better. It takes from 30-60 minutes (up to 2 hours with dojo) with the longer versions having a bigger impact, in my opinion.

Exercise overview:
  1. Present the concept of Powerful Questions and the pyramid diagram.
  2. Instruct participants how to do the exercise.
  3. Hand out the cards and run the exercise (see below)
  4. Extend the exercise if there is time (instructions below)
  5. Debrief as a group (instructions below) .
  6. Optional: run a Coaching Dojo to practice the new skill in real life
  • Be prepared to draw the pyramid diagram or show a slide of it.
  • Prepare the cards: participants can work in groups of 2-6 people (ideally, 4 per group). Each group will get a set of cards with 12 questions. Print the cards or hand-write them on index cards.
    Available in English, French, German, Polish, Dutch.
  • Have materials ready for each group to draw their own pyramid diagram, or provide a ready-made drawing to each group. (Use my printable a6 cards if you like).
  • Bring two blank index cards and one marker per small group, for the Extended exercise (described below).
  • Group work at tables is preferable, but in less formal settings I’ve also seen them work on chairs, sofas, windows or the floor.
Exercise Steps:

1. Present the concept of Powerful Questions

Remember, this is about questions that catalyse insight and innovation and move people to action.

You only need 5 or 10 minutes to explain. See the Art of Powerful Questions article on my Powerful Questions Resource List if you want inspiration. That article is the source of the pyramid diagram, which I draw as I explain:

Engage participapants in your talk by asking questions that get them thinking, like: “What are examples of weak questions?” “Why do we use them?” (Note down what they say. Expect things like: politeness, control, safety, habit, laziness… )

2. Instruct participants how to do the exercise.

  • Participants will work in groups of 2-6 people. Each group will get the same set of 12 questions. (In a multilingual group, tables can be organized for card sets in different languages).
  • Have people move into to their working groups. If there is time, have participants draw their own triangle diagram based on yours, for each table. The act of collaborating and drawing builds engagement with the concepts. For shorter sessions, I provide the pyramid diagram to each group.
  • Instruction for using the cards (which you have not handed out yet): “The task is to organise the cards into one row, from most powerful questions (at the top) to least powerful (at the bottom). Yes, just ONE row!”
  • Set a clear timebox for this first step. 5 to 10 minutes to start.
  • Make clear: what’s important are the conversations as they work. They should listen for what their conversations reveal about the power of questions. “Get curious!”

3. Hand out the cards and run the exercise.

  • hand out one set of cards to each group. In multilingual groups, same-language groups can work together with cards in their language.
  • Circulate, and if there isn’t enough discussion, encourage people to share what they are thinking rather than just looking for agreement. Some questions to ask:
    • what kind of question is that?
    • what assumptions inform your thinking?
    • how does context influence the power of this question?
  • Encourage them to make ONE row of cards. This forces them to surface differences of opinion, makes assumptions visible, and increases learning.
  • Remind them again, if needed, that what’s important is the conversation.
  • When time is up, if conversation is still quite lively, add another timebox if needed.
  • Tip: if a group finishes fast, and has really discussed, give them the first Extended instruction (below) to keep their energy up.

4. Extend the exercise, if there is time

  • hand out 2 blank cards and a marker in each group.
  • give these instructions:
    • “use the rules of Powerful Questions to improve the weakest question you found, and write the improved question on the blank card.”
    • “then, do the same for the most ambiguous question” (i.e. difficult to classify or confusing).
  • typically, groups work at different speeds on this – set a time box (5 minutes?) and stop even if everyone has not finished.

5. Debrief as a whole group

  • Ask open questions and encourage people to share:
    • what surprised you about that exercise?
    • what complicated your discussions?
    • how does context affect the power of questions?
  • Keep it brief – rather than lots of discussion, it’s better to practice with a dojo if you can (next step).
  • Summarise with: Any question is only powerful IN CONTEXT! And remember that “Why?” requires a context of safety, otherwise it becomes a weak question, and provokes defensiveness, which blocks creativity. Build safety before using Why!
  • Share this tip: A question has two components. Pay attention to both:
    • the question that is asked by the sender
    • the question as it landswith the receiver.
      • Remember, it’s easy to back up and try again if the question lands wrong. If you have time, let them practice asking a weak question like “Who broke the teapot?” and then backing up to try a better one. It’s less awkward after they’ve done it once!
  • Close with some reminders and encouragement:
    • at first, they are likely to spot themselves asking weak questions – this is fine. (I am still learning, too!)
    • Over time they will progress to formulating better questions in real time.
    • Until then, it’s a good idea to have a few questions prepared in advance for an important event, like a retrospective.
    • AND: be prepared to throw any question out the window, if it falls flat, and make up a new one! In a pinch, invoke the wisdom of the team with: “What question should I ask now?” (No, seriously!)

6. Optional: Coaching Dojo

  • Run a “no fixing” coaching dojo, where the objective is to help the seeker move forward without trying to fix their problem. This requires about 10 minutes per round, so if the event is short, let people know that not everyone will get a turn at all the roles.
  • Instructions: Rachel Davies invented the format at an AgileCoachCamp, and others have refined it, for example: Michael Sahota.
  • If you don’t have time for a dojo, at least let people discuss in pairs how they want to start applying this at work.
At the end

provide resources for those curious to learn more and practice:

  • provide a link to my online resources list: bit.ly/PQresources
  • you can hand out Powerful Questions / No Fixing cards as a reminder. Order them in my online store at bit.ly/DebsPrintShop
    (Bonus: they have the PQresources bitly printed on them!)
  • or hand out my printable Powerful Questions quiz (with resource list).
  • or provide a self-coaching guide full of powerful questions to practice with at home. My free e-book is available on my homepage abiggergame.today
About the exercise:

The 12 question cards came from an exercise designed by my colleague Carlton Nettleton in the US, which he developed based on an exercise I taught at the first AgileCoachCamp. Which is proof that when you give something to this community, it will come back to you multiplied :-)
Enjoy, and pass it on!

content © 2016 Deborah Preuss, unless otherwise indicated.

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