Monday, January 10, 2011

Questions at Work

From a toddler’s opening question, “whassat?” to the life-changing questions of Nobel Laureates, questions open doors to discovery. They engage interest, fire up thinking, solve problems, and invite creativity. The lack of rich questions in classrooms is bemoaned, but we also hear of the value of inquiry-based learning in schools and museums as well as inspiring examples of powerful questions in strategy and stories.

But really good questions are not easy to come by. So having found what I think is a really good question, I’m inclined to share it. Here’s the question in its “all-purpose” form:

What can this attractive option accomplish - that needs to be accomplished - that this other equally attractive option cannot?

Several years ago I was working with a museum that, like many, had added programs, partnerships, and initiatives over time without letting go of anything. Commitments accumulated while resources stayed the same and then shrank. I first developed a value matrix for staff to assess programs, initiatives, and partnerships according to mission (hi/lo) or contribution (hi/lo time, income, or identity). This proved to be a challenging starting point since it required significant groundwork that was unrealistic in our time-frame.

In looking for another approach, I landed on what I hoped would be a question that could leverage staff knowledge and empower them to make choices aligned with priorities. When I wrote the question on the white board, staff relaxed and a few light bulbs went on. For starters, the question itself presumed the activities were valued, a critical factor in a willingness to engage in thoughtful exploration. Staff began to probe assumptions, compare activities and differentiate among them, and eventually prioritize commitments.

Constructing the question required a few passes and trials that helped me understand its virtues. First, the question is explored in the context of a larger purpose. Specifying the overarching idea clarifies what is important: a community’s need, desired impact, project goal, specific time frame, or set of resources. Applying this larger consideration not only deepens an understanding of what is important, but also helps clarify what advances it.

Second the larger context serves as a constant against which two valued options are assessed and subsequently sorted. The expanse between roomy ideas on the one hand and specific activities on the other produces a tension that shifts perspectives and creates movement towards adaptation and change.

This all-purpose question with the potential to be more specific generates subsequent questions. An exercise might explore in what ways this program (initiative, activity, etc.) accomplishes something that is needed. The result might be a list of approaches, strategies, or benefits that are more congruent with the purpose or are more effective. When the question shifts to how a particular program could be improved to accomplish more, those promising approaches are put to work.

It’s great that this question has the potential to bring a discerning perspective to choices and contribute to new, shared ways of planning and decision-making. Ultimately, however, its greatest virtue is that it gets at what not to do, what to do less of, and what to discard. Every museum has this need.

These qualities helped the question succeed at its intended task. Over the years, I have also found that this question travels well and, in any case, is more mobile than a value matrix. The question works at multiple scales, in a variety of settings and situations, and for an individual or for a group. I have used the following versions of the question to open up stubborn situations, jump start thinking, and plan my own work.
·      What can this meeting accomplish for staff (or trustees) with many demands on their time that another way of working together cannot?
·      In what ways will this potential trustee’s skills, experience, and commitment help the board accomplish its goals for the museum that this other trustee would not?
·      How could a family-based community engagement strategy advance our goal of being a recognized convener in the community around children’s well-being that offering training and information resources to educators and community workers could not?
·      What can our museum accomplish to help our community be more resilient that another museum or organization is not able to accomplish?

I hope you try out the question and let me know how it works for you. I know there are also other questions that work. If you have a question that helps you discover what other very good questions cannot, please let me know.

1 comment:

  1. I just read John Durel's article, "No Mission, No Money, No Money No Mission" in the Journal of Museum Education (Vol 35, No 2). He presents a strategic thinking process that engages solidly with the question presented here. Check out the article ( and visit John's website ( for more of his thinking.