5 mins

Encouraging a culture of asking high-quality questions can unlock doors and raise the bar for your whole engineering organization.

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing” - Albert Einstein

The ability to question effectively is a critical tool for leaders, particularly in technical domains. 

Leaders are often seen as the ones with all the answers. For some there still is the fear of appearing incompetent or unprepared if they don’t have all the answers. 

Yet, in our rapidly evolving digital landscape, information  now flows in close to real-time and is easily accessible to all levels of an organization. This means it’s less  a question of what you know, but distinguishing what’s important to know and act on. 

Steve Jobs and the GUI

In the early 1980s, Xerox Corporation had amassed some of the best technical minds in the industry at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), where it  churned out revolutionary inventions, including the first graphical user interface (GUI), the concept of “what you see is what you get” programming, and Ethernet.

However, Xerox failed to capitalize on these inventions commercially. The company was so fixated on its successful photocopier business that it failed to see the potential of its other innovations. 

This is the case all around us today, where many ideas fail to realize their potential due to stifled curiosity. This was not the case for a young Steve Jobs, cofounder of Apple, on a visit to PARC. While he was touring the facility and being shown many of these inventions, he could not help himself when he saw the GUI, famously asking, “Why aren’t you doing anything with this? This is the greatest thing. This is revolutionary!”

Apple went on to incorporate the GUI in its Lisa and Macintosh computers, setting a new standard for usability in the industry. This example of Jobs leaning into his curiosity and his willingness to challenge the status quo show the power of leaders asking questions. 

What is a high-quality question?

In a world with so many options and the proliferation of information, the ability to cut through the noise is a premium quality of good leaders. This is where high-quality questions come in.

A high-quality question  helps get to the root of the problem. It digs deep to what’s important to pay attention to. It helps amplify the signal in the middle of information noise. It sheds light on blindspots. 

The anatomy of a high quality question includes being:

  • Purposeful: It has a clear goal or intention to seek new information or challenge current belief.
  • Open-ended: Promotes discussion and exploration while avoiding “yes” or “no” answers.
  • Clear: Simple, straightforward and avoids jargon. It’s easy to understand and not intended to impress.
  • Thought-provoking: Encourages deep thinking and introspection.The goal is not to impress but to nudge towards blindspots.
  • Relevant: Fits the context or topic at hand, not distracting away from the essential.
  • Specific: While being open-ended it is precise to help drive focus.

A mnemonic to remember these points is Pick Our Cats To Run Straight. As simple as it may seem, Steve Jobs' question at PARC met most if not all of these criteria.

A low quality question, on the other hand, adds to the noise. It’s often lacking in purpose, jargon filled, too broad, leading or irrelevant to the topic.

Why are high-quality questions important?

Asking high-quality questions can lead to significant shifts in thinking, helping you guide conversations, unlock innovative solutions, and drive success.Thoughtful questions can clarify confusion, simplify complexity, and guide decision-making. 

Such questions are powerful tools for learning and growth. In revealing gaps in our knowledge, we create opportunities to explore uncharted territories and discover innovative solutions. It's the willingness to accept the uncertainty that drives progress.

Questions in general are not exclusively for beginners, either. As technical leaders mature, their exposure to the breadth of their industry's complexities should trigger more profound, targeted inquiries. Through these questions, they remain at the forefront of their fields.

Promoting a culture that fosters asking questions

Despite the ample advantages, it can be difficult to challenge the status quo and ask questions that may be uncomfortable or unpopular. What practical steps can you take to leverage this valuable tool?

First, if you’re uncertain about asking questions that differ from established conventions in your company or team, here are some ways you can bolster your confidence.  

  • Embrace a growth mindset: This will allow you to recognize that questions are essential to the learning process and that it's okay not to know everything. There's always more to learn and asking questions is a way to expand your skills and understanding.
  • Be curious: Approach problems with an open mind and a willingness to explore new ideas and perspectives. Ask questions that challenge assumptions and push boundaries.
  • Practice active listening: Listen to others' perspectives and ask questions demonstrating your engagement and interest in their ideas. Use reflective listening techniques to ensure that you understand their perspective accurately.

It is important to stress the role of technical leaders in fostering an environment conducive to high-quality questioning. This process includes encouraging team members to seek feedback and fostering a culture of open communication.

As an engineering leader, you do this by creating a psychologically safe space for asking questions. Make it clear that asking questions is encouraged and valued and that there are no “stupid” questions. Encourage open dialogue and make it clear that everyone's input is essential.

In fostering this culture, leaders need to exercise judgment. Not every question aids progress; questions should be purposeful and thoughtful. Always think back to what constitutes a high-quality question.

On reflection

The story of Xerox and Apple serves as a powerful lesson for engineering leaders. It underscores the importance of questioning the status quo and leaning into your curiosity. 

As engineering leaders, embracing high-quality questions can provide the added benefit of enhancing communication, collaboration, and problem-solving, ultimately driving innovation. In a world where curiosity is the engine of progress, the power of asking the right questions cannot be overstated. The time to start asking better questions is now.