By Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg
Published April 9, 2021
I’m a big fan of a method called questionstorming. The method provides a super simple way to get new perspectives on a problem in about 5 minutes, and requires almost zero preparation.
In brief, questionstorming is like brainstorming, only instead of generating ideas, you are looking to generate questions. It is particularly useful in the early stages of a project, when the questions are typically more important than the answers. As one of the early reframing thinkers put it:
“Often in great discoveries the most important thing is that a certain question is found.”– Max Wertheimer (1945)
The method has been around for a while; Jon Roland is often credited with formalizing it back in 1985 under the slightly unwieldy name ‘questorming’. Among the more recent contributions, I recommend fellow reframing thinker Hal Gregersen’s advice on how to use it for in-person meetings (he prefers the term ‘question bursts’). But in my experience, where questionstorming really shines is in virtual meetings – which this guide is focused on.
To see how it works, imagine your company’s employee engagement scores are plummeting. You are on a Zoom call with 15 colleagues, and want to get their input on the problem. Here’s how to do it.
Explain the process
Start by introducing the method to the group. Say something like, “I’d like to use something called questionstorming to get your perspectives on the problem. It’ll take about 5 minutes, and the point is to hear everyone’s thoughts up front, so we can make sure we don’t overlook something important.”
Here’s a slide you can show:
Make it clear that you won’t try to answer the questions at this point; it is all about gathering the group’s insights. Then, guide them through the three steps:
1. State the problem
Ask the problem owner to explain the problem – but limit their time to 2 minutes or less.
Avoid going into detail; the point is to provide just enough context for people to react. The influential mathematician George Polya put it well:
“If you go into detail you may lose yourself in details.”– George Polya, How to Solve It (1945)
If the problem owner is a long-winded type, consider preparing them in advance and/or use a timer.
2. Use the chat to gather input
Next, ask everybody to write their questions and reactions in the chat field, working individually. Say you’re looking to surface different perspectives rather than agreement – and that their input doesn’t have to be in the form of a question, all reactions are welcome. Ask the problem owner to read along (silently) and be prepared to share a high-level reaction afterwards.
Protip: I strongly recommend playing music while people write – silence can feel weird on calls, and may lead people to stop the process early. You can simply play a song on your phone and hold it up to the microphone. (Maybe don’t go with Norwegian Death Metal if you work in a conservative company.)
The chat part should take about 2 minutes, but you can prolong it a bit if there’s a lot of comments coming in. (Also, be prepared that you won’t see any comments for the first 15-20 seconds or so – people need a bit of time to write them.)
3. React to the input
Once the time is up, give the problem owner one minute to share a quick reaction. This might mean highlighting a trend or a comment that really stood out – or it can be as simple as saying “Thanks for your great input – we’re going to review this carefully.” The point is simply to round off the process and acknowledge the group’s input.
You should make sure to save the chat so the problem owner can review it later (Zoom and Teams both have a chat export function). This goes especially for bigger groups, as you won’t have time to read all the incoming comments.
If your entire meeting is dedicated to talking about the problem, you may want to start analyzing the comments together with the group. But importantly, that’s not necessarily required – or even typical for how the method is used.
Most of the people I work with use questionstorming to gather diverse perspectives early in the process, and only that. In a sense, questionstorming allows you to quickly ‘brute force’ the reframing of a problem. This is especially helpful in situations when you don’t have time to educate the group about reframing up front.
As such, the first time you try it, I recommend that you only allocate about 8 minutes to it in total, before moving on to the next agenda item. Set aside 2 minutes to introduce the method, and 5-6 minutes to run it. Again, make it clear to people that the intent is not to discuss the problem (yet). The aim is to identify blind spots and surface unasked questions.
If you do decide to process the questions together with the group, Hal Gregersen has written a very helpful guide in his HBR article “Better Brainstorming”. But in my experience, 90 percent of the value is created simply through the act of surfacing the questions – and that takes a lot less time, which means you can use it on many more problems.
Go test it out in your next meeting – and keep it short and simple. If you are like the leaders I’ve worked with, questionstorming will soon become a regularly used tool in your virtual meetings.