The Power of Catalytic Questions

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 Purpose of Questions

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.

  • To establish facts - ensuring everyone has the same information.
  • To clarify information - ensuring everyone interprets the information in the same way.
  • To deepen understanding - probing deeply to ensure everyone has a thorough understanding before important decisions are made.
  • To challenge assumptions - bringing tacit assumptions to the surface. (See our earlier blog on this topic, Don’t Believe Everything You Think.)
  • To reframe an issue - providing a way forward when the board is stuck.
  • To generate ideas - opening up discussion and allowing different perspectives to emerge.
  • To make choices - selecting from a number of available options.
  • To commit to the board’s vision, mission and values - re-visiting the fundamentals during a board retreat or strategic planning session.
  • To envision the future - helping people think more deeply about the future.

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

 

Using Catalytic Questions

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:

  • Generating curiosity among listeners.
  • Stimulating reflective conversation.
  • Provoking new ways of thinking.
  • Surfacing underlying assumptions.
  • Inviting creativity and new possibilities.
  • Generating energy and forward movement.
  • Channeling attention and focusing inquiry.
  • Staying with participants over time.
  • Touching a deep meaning.
  • Evoking even more questions.

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:

  • Instead of “What is the problem and how will we solve it?” a catalytic version would be “What is the future we want to create and for whom?”
  • Instead of “How can we prevent the problem from hurting us in the future” a catalytic version would be “What will be possible once our problems are solved?”
  • Instead of “Who is the target audience this effort intends to address?” a catalytic version would be “Who will be affected by the actions we take? Who else cares about the results we are seeking?”
  • Instead of “Where will the money come from?” a more catalytic version would be “What real resources do we need? Who already has what we need?”

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:

  • “What did we do to grow our business in the first place?”
  • “What type of product does the market prefer?”
  • “How is employee morale impacting our customer service”?
  • “How is our digital presence supporting our business?”

"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.

 

Your takeaways:

  • Asking questions helps board directors fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities and drive their organizations forward.
  • Questions serve many different purposes, beyond just getting answers. Different types of questions are best-suited for different purposes.
  • Catalytic questions drive generative thinking, which gives rise to deeper thinking, innovative problem solving and novel ideas.
  • You can help your board surface assumptions and invite creativity by reframing questions to be catalytic.

 

Resources:

 

Leave a comment below to get in on the conversation.

Thank you.

Scott

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?

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