Want to become a great facilitator? For anyone facilitating their own meetings or conducting customer or partner interviews, I highly recommend Warren Berger’s book, A More Beautiful Question, the power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas.
As a Customer Advisory Board (CAB) and Partner Advisory Board (PAB) strategist and facilitator for the past 20 years, it has always been clear to me that those executives who are willing to question their own assumptions and possibilities end up encouraging more insightful and inspiring Advisory Board discussions.
Whether you are interviewing Advisory Board members, conducting a win/loss analysis, or writing the next customer satisfaction survey, Warren Berger’s book is a must-read. Here are a few takeaways that I find highly relevant to today’s business climate.
What is a “beautiful question”?
Berger defines a beautiful question as one that is ambitious yet actionable. It has the power to shift the way we think about something. The questioner’s journey tends to follow this order: Why? What if? How?
The pandemic is only the latest unanticipated change agent that challenges us to rethink everything: With all that’s changing in the world and our customers’ lives, what business are we really in? What do we (as a business) need to do to stay relevant to our customers?
Berger offers us that we are in the “age of adaptation” – the need to constantly adapt to a new reality. The problem is not just rapid change. It’s also the sheer volume of information rushing at us from all directions and many sources. Without a filtering device, we can’t separate what’s relevant and reliable from what’s not. Context becomes critical. This is why customer and partner interviews, in all their forms, are so incredibly important right now!
The link between questioning & innovation
While the boss may be quick to say, “of course, we value questioning”, few companies actually encourage it in any substantive way. There is no training on how to devise proper questions nor how to ask them. Old entrenched practices continue where people try to solve problems by answering the wrong question (or the safe question). This is because questioning is seen as “inefficient” by business leaders who are so anxious to act, to do, they feel they don’t have time to question what they are actually doing. And those brave enough to ask “why?” frequently perceive (often correctly) that questioning can be hazardous to one’s career. If you want to innovate, you must be willing to ask some good, hard, thought-provoking questions. In planning for your next advisory board meeting, a great facilitator will help executive teams diffuse internal tension by creating a safe environment for exploring questions.
There is a real art to asking questions
Some people may think that the value of my service as a CAB strategist and facilitator is seen only at the actual meeting. That’s actually the smallest part. The most value I provide is in helping executive teams wrestle with their real questions: What do you want to learn? And, how are you prepared to act on what you learn? These are weighty questions that take time to filter.
When you think about it, our frame of reference for questions/answers links back to school. In my own experience, I can remember teachers monopolizing the right to question in classrooms. They used questions to check up on students, rather than spark interest. In fact, questions were apt to leave the student feeling exposed rather than inspired. So, if teachers are meant to be authoritative, then teachers are going to want to cut off questioning that might reveal what they don’t know. (If you are nodding your head thinking this relates to your work environment, you are not alone.)
My job is to help executives get comfortable with the discomfort of asking a question to which they don’t know the answer. Authority does not rest on knowing answers. Leadership comes from being willing to explore what you think you know as well as what you don’t. This is where a great facilitator can help because they are unbiased. It is also easier for a facilitator to ask a seemingly naive question that no one in the group is comfortable asking.
The process of asking questions
Berger offers a great methodology for questioning. Here’s how I have adapted it for my Advisory Board planning projects:
- Encourage executives to step back from today’s reactive environment. Take a deep breath. Think about possibilities.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions others (competitors, partners, vendors, employees) don’t. Notice what others miss.
- Challenge your assumptions about the market, your customers, and your partners.
- Ask questions about context to get a deeper appreciation of the problems your customers are trying to solve.
- Be willing to question the questions you are asking. (Are these the right questions? Why are we asking these questions?)
- Take ownership of the specific questions you ask. (That way you’ll be more likely to act on what you learn.)
The power of listening
Listening informs questioning. Berger writes that one of the keys to becoming a great facilitator and questioner is to stop reflexively asking so many thoughtless questions and pay attention. Contextual inquiry requires executives to step out of their comfort zone. It’s one thing to ponder questions in your room; it’s another to go out there are actually talk with people.
Great facilitators know how to ask a question then listen carefully. They don’t worry about defending or arguing a position.
Becoming a better facilitator & questioner
These are just a few of the many insights Berger offers in his book. His writing style is easy to follow, and the stories he shares about innovators and business leaders offer readers teachable moments. I’ve been facilitating business meetings my entire career, and I’ve discovered new elements I did not know before. His book is a great addition to any business leader’s library — especially those who want to strengthen their facilitation skills.
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With a specialty in Customer Advisory Boards and Partner Advisory Councils, Mike Gospe is a professional facilitator with 20 years of advisory board leadership experience. He’s helped some of today’s most innovative companies deliver more than 150 world-class advisory board meetings. He leads KickStart Alliance‘s Advisory Board practice. Check out more of his best practices articles and videos on his CAB Resource Center. Contact Mike