We all know the power of the open-ended question. Ones that lead to fuller responses and create the foundation for discussion and true dialogue. But leaders also need to practice the art of the open-ended answer. Responses that create space for people to connect to their own contexts and explore options. Too often leaders feel pressure to provide THE answer and move on – encouraging a little inquiry can be powerful.
I am using the word inquiry – with an I – very specifically. Although in the US enquiry and inquiry are used interchangeably and mean exactly the same, there is an important nuance in British English. To make enquiries to generically question - whereas an inquiry has the added sense of uncovering a truth. Inquiries are used to get to the bottom of things, to find solutions and to unearth what is hidden. Inquiries are seldom satisfied with closed answers. They demand more than the transfer of information instead nurturing deep engagement with a topic or an issue.
Facilitating and encouraging inquiry adds value in many different aspects of leadership. From professional learning and development scenarios where it leads to deeper engagement, better retention and increased application of new behaviours, to change management and transformation. The great power of inquiry is to provide the space in which individuals can connect new information or ways of being to their own purpose and context. It moves them from the ‘What’ of knowledge transfer to the ‘How’ of incorporating information, and ‘Why’ of making a commitment. The applications of inquiry to coaching and breakthrough achievements are also clear. It creates the space in which individuals can take a fresh look at issues and commit to creating new possibilities.
But many leaders fear these more open-ended and fluid situations. Modern business life conditions us all to expect leaders to respond to questions with definitive answers. It’s difficult to imagine the Prime Minister at the dispatch box answering PMQs with an inquiry as to the Leader of the Opposition’s point of view! And there are times when definite, fact-based answers are required. But leaders should not feel the need to always have an answer. Becoming more comfortable with being uncomfortable, being willing to acknowledge that you don’t know and to engage in an open-ended process of discovery and creation will often lead to better outcomes.
It takes courage to engage in the messy conversations that stem from honest inquiry. It means using inquiry to really listen into your own context and to that of those in your team. It means being willing to live in uncertainty whilst new potential solutions of points of view are co-created. It requires that leaders create ‘clearings’ in which new thinking, opinions and evidence can be rigorously explored.
But the rewards are great. By allowing the ‘unconcealing’ of fresh perspectives, and through being committed to the process of inquiry, rather than being committed to ‘an answer’, leaders empower teams to create innovative approaches. At times of profound and rapid change, when answers are not to be found in what worked before, the new spaces for action created by inquiries can deliver the greatest successes.
Today’s leaders and organisations are constantly looking for more agile and effective ways of working to meet the demands of fast-evolving markets. The traditional Control, Order, Predict (COP) structures are giving way to more flexible and responsive Acknowledge, Create and Empower (ACE) approaches. Inquiry can play a significant role in this shift. It is not an excuse for not being on top of your brief, nor is it a method of deflecting difficult questions. And there will always be times when the leader must have the answer. But a good leader will use the power of inquiry and encourage their teams and reports to do the same as a way of empowering, building engagement and co-creating innovative solutions. Deploying the open-ended answer at the right point can create space for breakthrough performance.