Don’t ask a question unless you already know the answer.

Have you heard that before? The paternalism in that quote makes my blood boil. I remember my wife and I were once part of a Bible study led by one of our pastors. When he’d ask a question, he’d dutifully faciltiate discussion, adeptly drawing in every participant… but then he always concluded with his own authoritative comment. As we began to realize that he was the only one with the right answer, our discussions became forced and clipped. Becky and I soon found a reason to stop participating in that group.

I’ve blogged before about the power of a question, quoting Ron Heifetz’s great line, “One may lead perhaps with no more than a question in hand.” In The Leadership Jump, Jimmy Long pointed out that a “well-structured question” can draw emerging leaders into the creative and leadership process. It goes back to control. If you want the outcome to be exactly as you expect, then do all the work yourself. If you want a better result, with a strong developmental bent, then you have to work more as an art director.

When I worked with graphic designers, I would present the question or challenge but withhold my own possible answers until I saw what others came up with. I didn’t want my “authoritative” answer to steer or limit the creative potential of my staff. Offering creative freedom often resulted in an unpredictable but even more creative end product than I could have imagined. More often than not I ended up tucking away my own feeble attempt to answer the question!

Of course, there’s also the risk that your team’s creative ideas just won’t work. There’s a tension that you learn to manage between involving others and drawing out their best versus the fact that you have ultimate responsibility for the end product. I’ve had to make some tough calls as an art director and as a manager to take control back and change the direction. I’ve done it poorly, and I’ve done it well. On a few occasions, I’ve been able to do it in such a way that the team can still share ownership, by steering the project and keeping my staff engaged in the new direction. Usually it involved vulnerability and accepting blame.

So what are some great questions to ask? I’ll suggest a few this week, but I’d love to hear your questions as well.

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