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Any Questions?

Questions have superpowers. Whether in management committees, business reviews, classrooms, M&A due diligence sessions, or earnings calls, questions significantly impact the quality of the exchange of information. Furthermore, by conveying interest, asking questions helps people connect. Finally, questions have the potential to spur creativity and innovation.

                                                             

Unfortunately, many people never ask questions or ask too few of them. It is a sign of immaturity that only appears as individuals grow older.

 

Psychologists attribute this reluctance to ask questions to several factors. Unlike children, adults tend to be afraid of exposing their lack of knowledge by asking ‘dumb’ questions. They may also not be interested in gaining fresh perspectives since new knowledge may unsettle existing beliefs. And by asking questions, they may be concerned about the contents or tone appearing critical, especially in a multicultural environment. I would add that cynics may wonder why ask questions since nobody seems to know anything, even in Davos.

 

Whatever the reasons, individuals tend to revert to the following tactics: not asking questions altogether; asking ‘polite’ and innocuous questions to avoid looking incompetent, surfacing any new information, or offending the person to whom they are addressed; or using questions rhetorically to make statements, including for self-promotion. None of this makes the world a better place.

 

The bar to ask relevant questions is not that high. In The Art of Asking Great Questions(2020), the authors advise on the most effective techniques to ask questions. They advocate using open-ended, concise questions with a clear context and a casual tone. They highlight the importance of ‘reading the room’ and suggest that follow-up questions, however simple, are the secret to fruitful exchanges.

 

Moreover, in his excellent TedTalk, Mike Vaughan explains how his firm found out that the most critical feature of top performers is their ability to ask ‘questions […] that inspire creativity, […] lead to profound ideas, and, most importantly, spur people into action.’ A profound question can spark a discovery process and make a difference. Insight-in, insight-out.

 

Asking questions represents not only an intellectual and social asset but also a technological one. In the field of artificial intelligence, it is commonly referred to as prompt engineering.’ This technique involves formulating questions or prompts to elicit the desired information or response from a machine-learning model considering relevance, accuracy, and style. From this perspective, prompt engineering is a key to productivity and innovation. Asking questions in a human-to-human context or prompting an AI machine requires similar skills. The latter is, however, naturally more codified, as explained here.

 

In a world where knowledge is readily accessible but too often pre-packaged and pre-cooked, curiosity, engagement, and the ability to frame the right questions to a human or a machine are becoming a significant source of competitive advantage. It is a skill to hone to unleash human superpowers.

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