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Five smarter questions

Brain Circuits

Five types of questions for better strategic decision-making

Published 19 April 2024 in Brain Circuits • 3 min read

When facing uncertainty, effective leaders ask smart questions. But what does this mean? Through extensive research and collaboration with executives, we’ve identified five types of questions for better straategic decision-making.

Our research reveals that strategic questions can be grouped into five domains: investigative, speculative, productive, interpretive, and subjective. Each unlocks a different aspect of the decision-making process. Together, they can help you tackle key issues that are all too easy to overlook.

Here’s a brief rundown of the types of questions that make up our framework and how to formulate them:

1. Investigative: what’s known?
First, clarify your purpose as you face a problem or opportunity. What do you want to achieve? What do you need to learn to get there? Successive “Why?” and “How?” questions can help you dig deeper to generate nonobvious information.
2. Speculative: what if?
Next, consider your problem or opportunity more broadly. Ask things like “What if…?” and “What else…?” to reframe an issue or explore more creative solutions.
3. Productive: now what?
Inquire about the availability of talent, capabilities, time, and other resources for proposed solutions. For example: “How can we get it done?” and “How will we measure progress?” Such questions can help you identify key metrics and milestones – along with possible bottlenecks – to align your people and projects and keep your plans on track.
4. Interpretive: so, what…?
Push yourself to continually redefine the core issue with sensemaking questions that enable synthesis, such as, “What is this problem really about?” Here, follow up on questions posed in the (1) investigative, (2) speculative, and (3) productive domains (listed above) to draw out the implications of ideas and observations.
5. Subjective: what’s unsaid?
Finally, investigate personal reservations, frustrations, tensions, and hidden agendas that could push decision-making off course. If you neglect this subjective domain of questioning, a proposed solution could be undone by emotional reactions, even when your analysis, insights, and plans are sound.
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Keep these five domains in mind. Consider addressing them in group meetings. In high-stress situations, it may be hard to cover all five kinds of questions, but awareness and involvement of more team members can help.

To reveal potential blind spots or over-reliance in your own question mix, we’ve developed a new tool: the leader’s question mix.

Authors

Arnaud Chevallier

Professor of Strategy at IMD

Arnaud Chevallier is Professor of Strategy at IMD, Director of the Global Management Foundations program, and Co-Director of the Complex Problem Solving program. His research, teaching, and consulting on strategic thinking bridges disciplines to provide concrete tools to improve decision making and corporate problem solving. He has written two books: Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving and Solvable: A Simple Solution to Complex Problems, co-authored with Albrecht Enders.

Frédéric Dalsace

Frédéric Dalsace

Professor of Marketing and Strategy at IMD

Frédéric Dalsace focuses on B2B issues sustainability, inclusive business models, and alleviating poverty. Prior to IMD, he spent 16 years as a Professor at HEC Paris where he held the Social Business / Enterprise and Poverty Chair presided by Nobel Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus. Prior to his academic life, Frédéric accumulated more than 10 years of experience in the business world, both with industrial companies (Michelin and CarnaudMetalbox) and as a strategy consultant with McKinsey & Company. At IMD he is Co-Program Director of the Leading Customer – Centric Strategies program.

Jean-Louis Barsoux - IMD Professor

Jean-Louis Barsoux

Research Professor at IMD

Jean-Louis Barsoux helps organizations, teams, and individuals change and reinvent themselves. He was educated in France and the UK, and holds a PhD in comparative management from Loughborough University in England. His doctorate provided the foundation for the book French Management: Elitism in Action (with Peter Lawrence) and a Harvard Business Review article entitled The Making of French Managers.

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