If you’ve been reading The Savvy Director blog for a while, then you know that, at DirectorPrep, we are obsessed with questions.
One reason for that is because asking questions helps us to fulfill our fiduciary duty as board directors. Through our questions, we inform ourselves about the subject matter at hand and satisfy ourselves about what is in the organization’s best interests.
Of equal importance, the right questions – asked in the right way at the right time – are a great tool to help drive our organizations forward.
“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would use the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask.” – Albert Einstein
But let’s face it, not all questions are created equal. Today, I want to focus on a particularly powerful type of question – known as the catalytic question – and how savvy directors can use this technique in the boardroom.
First, what’s the purpose of all those questions in the boardroom?
The obvious purpose for asking questions is … to get answers. Yet, in the boardroom, directors ask questions for many different, and less obvious, reasons. Here are a few.
Certain types of questions are better suited to some purposes than others. For instance, consider open and closed questions. Closed questions lead to a brief answer such as yes, no, a specific piece of information, or a choice among options. Open questions leave room for longer answers that can go in unexpected directions.
There’s a tendency to consider closed questions as a bad thing. But closed questions can contribute to our shared understanding by providing new information and confirming existing information. So, if the purpose of a question is to establish facts or clarify information, a closed question may be the way to go.
However, for most of the purposes listed above, an open question would be a better tool, making sure to frame them carefully so they don’t become leading questions or loaded questions - questions that appear open but point towards a certain answer because they contain an assumption or a judgment.
“Questions have impact even before they are answered. They can close a door or turn on a light. They can intensify conflict or deepen mutual understanding.” - Laura Chasin, American philanthropist
A catalytic question is a specific kind of open question, one that invites creativity and exploration, and does not depend largely on data and logic to answer. They are best suited to purposes such as challenging assumptions, generating ideas, or envisioning the future.
The term catalytic question derives from the word catalysis, which refers to the process of increasing the rate of a chemical reaction by adding a substance known as a catalyst.
Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center, describes a catalytic question in this way:
“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.”
Catalytic questions are ideal when you want to encourage further thought, deeper reflection, sharper insight, innovation and action. They are powerful tools for generative thinking, which involves inventive ways to produce ideas and tackle habits of thinking that hold us back from making good strategic decisions.
With catalytic questions, you can accomplish some or all of the following:
When savvy directors want to achieve that kind of outcome in the boardroom, they frame their questions to be catalytic. Catalytic questions don’t come about by accident. They require deliberate effort. Consider the following examples:
Let’s say, for example, that our board is discussing the problem of a shrinking market share in an increasingly competitive market. We could ask closed questions such as “Are our products good value?” and “Do we provide good customer service?” But the responses wouldn’t get us very far.
We would definitely have a more productive discussion with open questions like “Who are our most valuable customers?” or “What is our best-selling product?”
But to encourage new insights, we could deliberately reframe our questions to encourage generative thinking – questions such as:
"I got to the top because I always had the right answers, and suddenly I discovered that it's not about the answers. It's about asking the right questions." – Hal Gregersen
Strategic planning sessions are a great place to try out a few catalytic questions. I did just that at a recent session and it worked like gangbusters. I came to the meeting with a few prepared questions and waited for the right time to use them. The discussion moved to a deeper level, possibilities seemed to open up, and my fellow directors became more engaged.
If you’re a DirectorPrep member (click here to find out more), you can use the DirectorPrep Questions App to find many great catalytic questions that will encourage generative thinking in your boardroom.
Just search on the word catalytic or click on the tag Catalytic Questions. Use these questions to get your own creative juices going, or try them out on your fellow board members when the situation calls for generating curiosity and inviting new ways of thinking.
Leave a comment below to get in on the conversation.
Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of DirectorPrep.com – an online hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help prepare for your next board meeting.
Share Your Insight: How have you used catalytic questions in your boardroom discussions?