So what do you think about Catalytic Questioning?” This was the question I was asked by Helen during a strategy visualization workshop last week.

Helen, a Divisional MD for a blue-chip, was referring to an article written by Hal Gregersen (a highly respected lecturer at MIT) on his approach to problem-solving called ‘Catalytic Questioning‘.

The 5 Step Approach:

The thrust of the Hal Gregersen approach can be summarised in the following 5 steps:

Step 1: Get a group of people together, find a whiteboard/flip-chart and clear your minds of biased thinking before starting the questioning process – oh and this is best achieved standing up.

Step 2: Pick a problem that your group cares about intellectually and emotionally. Pursue problems (or opportunities) that the group will not easily answer.

Step 3: Focus on asking questions only – persist with scanning for as many questions as you can achieve in a pre-agreed amount of time. Ensure all the questions are captured in a long-list.

Step 4: Select the top 3 or 4 questions from your long-list that have the most potential for disrupting the status quo.

Step 5: Get to work solving your short-list.

Different Questions Lead To Different Outcomes

To better understand the thinking behind Helen’s question, I asked Helen “why do you ask?”

Helen explained that during the last two days (strategy visualization workshop) she had come to realize that she was spending too much time ‘doing’ and nowhere near enough time ‘thinking’ – both on her own and with her senior team. She had read the Hal Gregersen article and wondered if this was an approach she could use in future.

My response was, “yes – but in the right circumstances”, I then added two accompanying pieces of advice that I thought might be useful to share in this post…

(1) POO is the secret ingredient…

That is Purpose, Objectives and Outcomes! Translated these means prepare your workshop with a clear laser focus on outcomes. This includes:

(i) Being clear what you wish to achieve as an outcome of the workshop – ‘different questions lead to different outcomes’;

(ii) Being clear what follow-through activity you wish to achieve as a consequence of the workshop;

(iii) Being clear who will consume (read) the workshop thinking immediately after the workshop; and

(iv) Being clear what you expect your team to do with the thinking – including being very clear what you want them to achieve as a consequence of the workshop (aka follow-through).

Once you understand what items (i) to (iv) look like, you are in a better position to start thinking about who and how many people to invite. Not every workshop needs to achieve a consensus agreement immediately; the collaborative journey of exploration proves itself immensely valuable.

Too many Chefs or too many Cooks will erode the quality of the output thinking. A balanced blend of participants will ensure breadth and depth to your ideation output – and (ideally) with appropriate senior sponsorship in place you will gain the required commitment to future action.

In a business environment, the workshop invitation list might translate to a varying mix of senior sponsors, key influencers, key operations people, subject matter experts, technical wizards and agnostic users. The agnostic users are too often not invited because they are great at throwing grenades when they don’t agree – they challenge the thinking. But from extensive experience, its the agnostic user who regularly asks the disruptive question (often starting with ‘why’ or ‘how’) – they often hold the thinking to account, grounded in a good measure of pragmatism.

(2) It’s the right conditions stupid…

Hal Gregersen touched on some of the conditions in Step 1 (above)… my advice to Helen went further. Time is an immensely valuable commodity for senior executives, and organizations in one form or another all possess transactional cultures where business priorities and to-do lists drive the agenda of the day. Expectations for decision-making have gone from “get it done soon” to “get it done now” – the way-of-thinking-and-working is now wired to jump to conclusions rather than asking more good questions.

The enlightened executives make space for quality thinking time, whilst also understanding that the ‘Thinking Time’ must lead to follow-through action and value creation.

“In a business context, thinking that does not lead to follow-through is a waste of time”

When seeking follow-through action from an ideation workshop, how you capture the thinking really matters. It is important to capture the thinking in a way that makes the thinking accessible to the right people, readily available when required and captured in a user-friendly format. Put another way, it must be captured in a format specifically designed to promote, support and enable follow-through action. In a business context, thinking that does not lead to follow-through is a waste of time, money and effort.

But to achieve follow-through, the right conditions need to be in place. Boiled down this translates to the following summary list:

Involve The Right People: We have touched on getting the right people involved already. A balanced blend of participants will ensure breadth and depth of the ideation process. With the right people present, the thinking is plain and simply better!

Right Expectation & Focus Set: Prior to workshop commencement, all participants must be crystal clear what the workshop is targeted to achieve, why they have been invited (their role and contribution), and what the next step activity will be after the workshop.

Right Environment: The workshop room must be fit for purpose. This means:

  • Spacious open room that allows people to stand and move around easily. Prior to the workshop starting it is a good idea to set-up work areas for the group to transition smoothly between activities. With the work areas already prepared, momentum between activities is maintained, distractions are limited and the thinking will effectively build as the day progresses;
  • Great wall space for optimal capture of ideas. This means whiteboards or flip charts on hand. Or preferably plenty of flat uninterrupted wall space around the whole room for unrestricted visual capture and exploration of the thinking (either covered in magic whiteboard or dry marker friendly surfaces); and
  • Well, thought-out room layout producing a knowledge-rich space that promotes collaboration and inspires creativity – leading to break-through thinking and group genius.

Right Capture: Producing a visual framework for the capture of ideas encourages participation, collaboration and engagement. It also promotes group memory and break-through thinking. All capture should be designed with follow-through action in mind.

Final Thought… circling back to Helen’s initial question on catalytic questioning. In principle, I agree with Hal Gregersen’s 5-step approach. However, in the real world, executives are constantly under pressure to establish or maintain credibility. To me, all creative thinking/workshop events must generate outcomes that lead to meaningful follow-through. No one has time to navel gaze, you will not be thanked by your colleagues if they are stepping away from important work ‘just to be disruptive’. But being disruptive with clear intent and purpose? …that’s a different matter.

When I read Hal Gregersen’s article for the first time, whilst agreeing with the direction of travel that the article took me, I could not help thinking that the article might have benefited with bit more POO.