FEATURE BETTER BRAINSTORMING
64 HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW MARCH–APRIL 2018
Focus on questions,
not answers, for
BY HAL GREGERSEN
MARCH–APRIL 2018 HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW 65
FEATURE BETTER BRAINSTORMING
Great innovators have
always known that the key
to unlocking a better answer
is to ask a better question—
one that challenges deeply
held assumptions. Yet
most people don’t do that,
even when brainstorming,
because it doesn’t come
naturally. As a result, they
tend to feel stuck in their
search for fresh ideas.
By brainstorming for
questions instead of
answers, you can create
a safe space for deeper
exploration and morepowerful problem solving.
This brief exercise in
reframing—which helps you
avoid destructive group
dynamics and biases that
can thwart breakthrough
promising new angles and
66 HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW MARCH–APRIL 2018
bout 20 years ago I was leading a brainstorming session in one of my MBA classes, and it was like wading through oatmeal. We were talking about something that many organizations struggle with: how
to build a culture of equality in a male-dominated
environment. Though it was an issue the students
cared about, they clearly felt uninspired by the
ideas they were generating. After a lot of discussion,
the energy level in the room was approaching nil.
Glancing at the clock, I resolved to at least give us a
starting point for the next session.
“Everyone,” I improvised, “let’s forget about finding answers for today and just come up with some
new questions we could be asking about this problem.
Let’s see how many we can write down in the time we
have left.” The students dutifully started to throw out
questions, and I scribbled them on a chalkboard, redirecting anybody who started to suggest an answer. To
my surprise, the room was quickly energized. At the
end of the session, people left talking excitedly about
a few of the questions that had emerged—those that
challenged basic assumptions we had been making.
For instance: Were there grassroots efforts we could
support, rather than handing down rules from the
top? And: What could we learn from pockets within
our own organization that had achieved equality,
instead of automatically looking elsewhere for best
practices? Suddenly, there was much more to discuss,
because we had opened up unexpected pathways to
Brainstorming for questions, not answers, wasn’t
something I’d tried before. It just occurred to me in that
moment, probably because I had recently been reading sociologist Parker Palmer’s early work about creative discovery through open, honest inquiry. But this
technique worked so well with the students that I began experimenting with it in consulting engagements,
and eventually it evolved into a methodology that I
continue to refine. By now I’ve used it with hundreds
of clients, including global teams at Chanel, Danone,
Disney, EY, Fidelity, Genentech, Salesforce, and dozens of other companies; nonprofit organizations; and
individual leaders I’ve coached.
Underlying the approach is a broader recognition
that fresh questions often beget novel—even transformative—insights. Consider this example from the
field of psychology: Before 1998 virtually all welltrained psychologists focused on attacking the roots
of mental disorders and deficits, on the assumption
that well-being came down to the absence of those
negative conditions. But then Martin Seligman
became president of the American Psychological
Association, and he reframed things for his colleagues. What if, he asked in a speech at the APA’s
annual meeting, well-being is just as driven by the
presence of certain positive conditions—keys to flourishing that could be recognized, measured, and cultivated? With that question, the positive psychology
movement was born.
Brainstorming for questions
rather than answers makes it easier
to push past cognitive biases and
venture into uncharted territory.
We’ve seen this dynamic in academic studies—in social psychologist Adam Galinsky’s research
on the power of reframing during
times of transition, for instance.
Yet lingering in a questioning
mode doesn’t come naturally to
most people, because we’re conditioned from an early age to just
keep the answers coming.
The methodology I’ve developed is essentially a process for recasting problems in
valuable new ways. It helps people adopt a more creative habit of thinking and, when they’re looking for
breakthroughs, gives them a sense of control. There’s
actually something they can do other than sit and
wait for a bolt from the blue. Here, I’ll describe how
and why this approach works. You can use it anytime
you (in a group or individually) are feeling stuck or
trying to imagine new possibilities. And if you make
it a regular practice in your organization, it can foster
a stronger culture of collective problem solving and
WHAT PROCESS SHOULD WE FOLLOW?
Over the years I have tested variations of this brainstorming process—I now call it a “question burst”—
and collected and analyzed participant data and feedback to gauge what works best. I’ve experimented
with different group sizes, time allotments, and numbers of questions; impromptu versus scheduled sessions; various modes of capturing ideas; and greater
and lesser amounts of coaching (on, for example, what
constitutes a “good” question and how to make creative leaps in thinking). I’ve done temperature checks
in sessions and conducted surveys after them, looking
for the effects of each variation. Over time the question burst has settled into a standard format, which
consists of three steps:
Set the stage. To begin, select a challenge you care
deeply about. Perhaps you’ve suffered a setback or
you have a vague sense of an intriguing opportunity.
How do you know it’s ripe for a breakthrough question? It’s probably a good candidate if it “makes your
heart beat fast,” as Intuit’s chairman and CEO, Brad
Brainstorming for questions
rather than answers makes it
easier to push past biases and
venture into uncharted territory.
Smith, put it to me. You’ll give it your full attention
and want to engage others in thinking about it.
Invite a few people to help you consider that challenge from fresh angles. Though you can do this exercise on your own, bringing others into the process
will give you access to a wider knowledge base and
help you maintain a constructive mindset. As Ned
Hallowell says in Driven to Distraction at Work (which
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FEATURE BETTER BRAINSTORMING
Often, as I’m outlining the rules for a question
burst, people ask what kinds of questions they
should contribute—or how they can be confident
that a question is a good one for further pursuit.
While I hesitate to be definitive about this, it’s true
that not all questions have equal potential to lead
to novel solutions. To up your odds, keep these
principles in mind:
• Traditional divergent-thinking techniques (for
example, making random associations or taking
on an alternative persona) can help unlock new
questions and, ultimately, new territory.
• Questions are most productive when they are
open versus closed, short versus long, and simple
• Descriptive questions (what’s working? what’s not?
why?) best precede speculative ones (what if?
what might be? why not?).
• Shifting from simple questions that require only
recall to more cognitively complex ones that
demand creative synthesis produces better
• Questions are annoying and distracting when they
don’t spring from a deeply held conviction about
what the group wants to achieve.
• Questions are toxic when they are posed
aggressively, putting people on the spot, casting
unwarranted doubt on their ideas, or cultivating
a culture of fear.
was based on his decades of research on how to sustain productive attention), worry “feasts on a solitary victim.” When you ask others to participate in a
question burst, you’re making yourself vulnerable by
sharing the problem—but you’re also summoning empathy, which fosters idea generation, as we’ve learned
from design thinking. And you engage others in the
cause in a nonthreatening way.
It’s best to include two or three people who have
no direct experience with the problem and whose
cognitive style or worldview is starkly different from
yours. They will come up with surprising, compelling
questions that you would not, because they have no
68 HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW MARCH–APRIL 2018
practiced ways of thinking about the problem and no
investment in the status quo. They’re more likely to
ask third-rail questions and point to elephants in the
room—they don’t know not to.
In traditional brainstorming—the kind that focuses on generating answers—individuals perform
better than groups, on average. That’s because powerful group dynamics such as “social loafing” (coasting on others’ contributions) and social anxiety (fears
about how one’s ideas will be judged) can hinder
original thinking and stifle the voices of introverted
members. But the question burst methodology,
by design, reverses many of those destructive dy
namics by prompting people to depart from their
usual habits of social interaction. For one thing, it
creates a safe space for anyone, including a quieter
person, to offer a different perspective. Because a
question burst doesn’t demand that anyone instantly
assert a point of view, people often feel more comfortable speaking up. The sole focus on questions also
suspends the automatic rush to provide an answer—
and ultimately helps expand the problem space for
Once you’ve gathered your partners for this exercise, give yourself just two minutes to lay out the problem for them. People often believe that their problems
require detailed explanations, but quickly sharing the
challenge forces you to frame it in a high-level way
that doesn’t constrain or direct the questioning. So
just hit the highlights. Try to convey how things would
change for the better if the problem were solved. And
briefly say why you are stuck—why it hasn’t already
This approach helped Odessa, a manager at a
global financial services company, reframe what she
initially viewed as a complex communications challenge: rolling out a new strategy to people performing
different tasks at many levels across many geographies. She prefaced her question burst with a simple
explanation, sharing her hopes for getting everyone
“rowing in the same direction” and her frustration
that one set of messages couldn’t do the job, given
employees’ diverse roles and perspectives. By leaving
it at that, she created room for a line of questioning
that radically altered her understanding. She came to
see this as a leadership challenge, not just an internal
marketing campaign. If she could find a way to trust
others to convey the strategy, she could mobilize a
small army of managers in the field to tailor messages
for maximum local impact.
Before opening the floor to your group, clearly spell
out two critical rules: First, people can contribute only
questions. Those who try to suggest solutions—or respond to others’ questions—will be redirected by you,
the convener of the session. And second, no preambles
or justifications that frame a question will be allowed,
because they’ll guide listeners to see the problem in a
certain way—the very thing you’re trying to avoid.
You’ll also want to do a quick emotion check up
front. As the “owner” of the challenge, take a moment
to reflect on it: Are your feelings about it positive, neutral, or negative? Jot down a few words that capture
your own baseline mood. No need to spend more than
10 seconds on this. You’ll do the same thing again after the session is over. These checks are important because emotions affect creative energy. The exercise’s
objective is not only to spark valuable new questions
but also to provide an emotional boost that will make
you more likely to follow up on them.
Here I should point out that your creative energy will
ebb and flow in the coming days, weeks, and months—
and preparing yourself for that is critical. Transformational ideas start out as exhilarating but turn vexing as
unforeseen snags reveal themselves. Then they settle
into hard work that, with luck, produces moments of
hope that will see the change through. If you expect
that turbulence from the beginning, you’ll be better
able to ride it out later.
Brainstorm the questions. Now set a timer and spend
the next four minutes collectively generating as many
questions as possible about the challenge. As in all
brainstorming, don’t allow pushback on anyone’s contributions. The more surprising and provocative the
questions are, the better.
When working with large enterprises, I often notice
that senior leaders in particular find it excruciatingly
difficult to resist offering answers—even for four minutes—when people start throwing out questions. At
one manufacturing company, for instance, when questions about supply chain issues started bubbling up,
the group’s leader couldn’t help jumping in to display
his knowledge. This impulse is understandable, and
not just for senior executives. In a hierarchy, any manager’s failure to have ready answers may be perceived
as an embarrassing stumble. Questions, especially
counterintuitive ones, make many of us feel so uncomfortable that we hasten to utter any default response
that buys us time to recover. But when we’re feeling
blocked on a problem, answering questions this way
is a waste of time. After all, the reason we’re hung up
is that our go-to answers aren’t getting us anywhere.
In this exercise the emphasis is on quantity. By asking the group to generate as many questions as possible in the time allotted—try for at least 15—you’ll keep
them short, simple, and fresh. Write every question
down verbatim on paper, a laptop, or a tablet instead
of on a whiteboard so that you can capture everything
accurately. And ask group members to keep you honest afterward. Otherwise you might commit unconscious censoring that repels lines of inquiry you don’t
immediately understand or want to hear.
As you’re recording, add your own questions to
the mix. That will often reveal patterns in how you
have habitually framed a problem (and might have
unknowingly perpetuated it).
Is there some magic about precisely four minutes
and 15 questions? No, but the time pressure helps
participants stick to the “questions only” rule. Any
effort spent on answers will mean less chance of
hitting the goal. People will also be more likely to
generate questions that are unburdened by qualifications and assumptions, and they’ll find it easier
to resist explaining why they’re asking any question
that might seem to come from left field. Even better,
studies show that moderate performance pressures
can enhance creative output.
Moreover, perhaps because selective sustained attention places real demands on the human brain, energy often wanes in this exercise after three and a half
minutes, especially for beginners. And as a practical
matter, transcribing dozens of questions can turn into
an onerous task. For both those reasons, it’s better to
use multiple question bursts to reshape, refine, and
ultimately solve a challenge than to cram too much
activity into one longer session.
Once the timer goes off, do a second quick emotional check. How do you feel about the challenge
now? (And how do others in the group feel about it?)
Are you more positive than you were four minutes
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ago? If not, and if the setting allows, maybe rerun the
exercise. Or get some rest and try again tomorrow. Or
try it with some different people. Research has established that creative problem solving flourishes when
people work in positive emotional states. After poring
over survey data from more than 1,500 global leaders,
I’m convinced that part of the power of the question
burst lies in its ability to alter a person’s view of the
challenge, by dislodging—for most—that feeling of
Identify a quest—and commit to it. On your own,
study the questions you jotted down, looking for
those that suggest new pathways. About 80% of the
time, this exercise produces at least one question that
usefully reframes the problem and provides a new angle for solving it. Select a few that intrigue you, strike
you as different from how you’ve been going about
things, or even cause you to feel a bit uncomfortable.
Now try expanding those few into their own sets
of related or follow-on questions. A classic way of
doing this is the “five whys” sequence developed by
Toyota Industries’ founder, Sakichi Toyoda—or the
variation on it suggested by Stanford’s Michael Ray in
The Highest Goal. Ask yourself why the question you
chose seemed important or meaningful. Then ask
why the reason you just gave is important—or why it’s
a sticking point. And so on. By better understanding
why a question really matters and
what obstacles you might face in
addressing it, you deepen your resolve and ability to do something
about it and further broaden the
territory of possible solutions. In
the case of Odessa, the manager
with a strategy to roll out, one
you recruit field leaders to communicate it locally?—provoked other
questions: Why haven’t I done that
in the past? Could I trust others
to do this well? Why do I have a
problem extending that trust?
Finally, commit to pursuing
at least one new pathway you’ve glimpsed—and do
so as a truth seeker. I steal that term from NASA engineer Adam Steltzner’s account of working at the
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where the “right kind of
crazy” people manage to accomplish things like landing a robotic rover on Mars. Set aside considerations of
what might be more comfortable to conclude or easier
to implement, and instead adopt an innovator’s focus
on the “job to be done” and what it will take to get the
problem solved. Devise a near-term action plan: What
concrete actions will you personally take in the next
three weeks to find potential solutions suggested by
your new questions?
After one question burst I helped facilitate, a
chief marketing officer from a multidivisional company resolved to track down some facts. He had been
wrestling with concerns about hypercompetitive
behaviors in his business unit. In a question burst
session he led with others, it dawned on him that he
had been making a big assumption: that the founders
of his division had chosen its unique compensation
scheme to create a culture of internal rivalry. His
to-do list started with getting on their calendars and
asking them about this. Guess what? Not only was
this not a culture they had aimed for, but they were
dismayed to learn it existed. His meetings with them
gave rise to a new emphasis on culture and values in
the unit—and created the context in which the CMO
could intervene and address toxic behaviors. The
point here is that arriving at assumption-challenging
questions is essential but never sufficient. An action
plan and follow-up can clarify the problem and break
open the pathway to change.
HOW CAN WE MAKE IT A HABIT?
I usually recommend doing at least three rounds
of the question burst exercise for a given issue.
Although it’s valuable as a one-off activity, the more
you do it, the deeper you’ll go in your thinking. After
Questioning is an innate
human behavior that’s
actively subverted and
systematically shut down.
70 HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW MARCH–APRIL 2018
the leader of a development team at a global software
company did the exercise repeatedly, she came to the
realization that her original conception of a problem
was “superficial.” Through persistent questioning,
she told me, she “arrived at a much more meaningful
challenge to conquer.”
Even with three rounds, the time investment is
minimal. It’s an efficient path to fresh perspectives
and creativity. The process will also get easier the
more you do it. When people crank up their questioning activity for the first time with this approach,
it feels strange because it’s out of line with established
norms at work and in life. Since childhood, they’ve
been conditioned not to ask questions.
James T. Dillon, an education professor emeritus
at the University of California, Riverside, spent a career studying this phenomenon in classrooms. He was
shocked by how rarely students asked questions—
which are critical to learning. The problem wasn’t a lack
of curiosity. “Every time that conditions have been provided for them (not by a mere pause, ‘Any questions?
No? OK, open your books’), a flood of intriguing student
questions has poured forth,” Dillon writes. When he
surveyed other teachers about this, they almost universally agreed that “students indeed have questions
but do not go on to ask them in class.” Why not? They’re
afraid to do so, Dillon says, “largely because of their
experience with negative reactions from the teacher
(and from classmates).” They learn to keep their questions to themselves and to repeat back well-rehearsed
answers when quizzed by their teachers, according to
Tony Wagner, a senior fellow at the Learning Policy
Institute. Other researchers—looking at arenas of human learning and interaction such as community forums, medical consultations, political institutions,
and workplaces—have consistently come to the same
conclusion: Questioning is an innate human behavior
that’s actively subverted and systematically shut down.
And power struggles don’t help matters. In social
groups, dominant individuals inevitably emerge; left
unchecked, they find ways to build and perpetuate
their power. One common way to do this is to silence
questioners—those pesky curious minds whose queries might suggest that the leader hasn’t quite figured
it all out.
Of course, many business leaders, recognizing the
imperative for constant innovation, do try to encourage questions. But their employees have already internalized the habit of not asking them—especially the
tough ones. We need to change this habit. That’s what
my MIT colleague Robert Langer, the health care technology innovator who has been called the “Edison
of medicine,” has been doing with his students and
postdocs. In a recent interview he said: “When you’re
a student, you’re judged by how well you answer
questions. Somebody else asks the questions, and if
you give good answers, you’ll get a good grade. But in
life, you’re judged by how good your questions are.”
As he mentors people, he explicitly focuses their attention on making this all-important transition, knowing “they’ll become great professors, great entrepreneurs—great something—if they ask good questions.”
Organizations can raise their questioning quotient
in various ways. For example, in my field experience,
I’ve found that people become better questioners in
environments where they’re encouraged to value
creative friction in everyday work. At companies like
Amazon, ASOS, IDEO, Patagonia, Pixar, Tesla, and
Zappos, for example, people often come together to
tackle challenges by asking one another tough questions—in hallways, lunchrooms, or even conference
rooms. Research by management professors Andrew
Hargadon of UC Davis and Beth Bechky of NYU shows
that those volunteering ideas in such companies do not
mindlessly spit back answers to the questions posed;
they respectfully build on the comments and actions
of others, considering “not only the original question
but also whether there is a better question to be asked.”
As they do this over and over, new solutions emerge.
People also become better questioners in organizational cultures where they feel safe doggedly pursuing the truth, no matter where it takes them. To
create such cultures, MIT’s Ed Schein says, leaders
must show humility, vulnerability, and trust, and they
must empower others and treat them equitably. When
those conditions aren’t present, questions tend to be
constrained or, worse, crushed.
Interestingly, when I’ve facilitated question bursts
with very large groups (broken down into subgroups of
three to six people), I have noticed that the people least
likely to engage in the exercise and follow the rules are
the folks with the highest positions or greatest technical expertise. Whether they feel they’re above the exercise or worry that sharing problems will make them
appear incompetent, they cripple the truth-seeking
capability of the entire group as others watch them
disengage or scoff at contributions. If that’s the example and tone leaders are setting in a single microcosmic
exercise, imagine the dampening impact they have on
inquiry throughout their organizations.
Finally, people must hold themselves accountable
for follow-up. Few things are more annoying than a
colleague who only asks questions. People must take
responsibility for exploring the pathways those questions open up and discovering valuable answers. This
is especially true for leaders. Everyone else is taking
cues from them about when, where, how, and why
the status quo should be challenged. They must carve
out time to help gather and analyze newer, better, and
different information. It’s a sign of ownership when
leaders go out of their way to do that. It shows others
that management is committed to crafting a future
where questions count.
HBR Reprint R1802C
HAL GREGERSEN is the executive director of the MIT Leadership
Center and a senior lecturer in leadership and innovation
at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He is the author of the
forthcoming book Questions Are the Answer (HarperCollins),
a coauthor of The Innovator’s DNA (Harvard Business Review
Press, 2011), and the founder of the 4-24 Project.
MARCH–APRIL 2018 HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW 71
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المملكة العربية السعودية
الجامعة السعودية اإللكترونية
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Ministry of Education
Saudi Electronic University
College of Administrative and Financial Sciences
Decision Making and Problem Solving (MGT 312)
Due Date: 16/04/2022 @ 23:59
Course Name: Decision Making and Problem Student’s Name:
Course Code: MGT312
Student’s ID Number:
For Instructor’s Use only
Instructor’s Name: Dr Ganesh Dash
Marks Obtained/Out of 10
Level of Marks: High/Middle/Low
General Instructions – PLEASE READ THEM CAREFULLY
The Assignment must be submitted on Blackboard (WORD format only) via allocated
Assignments submitted through email will not be accepted.
Students are advised to make their work clear and well presented, marks may be reduced
for poor presentation. This includes filling your information on the cover page.
Students must mention question number clearly in their answer.
Late submission will NOT be accepted.
Avoid plagiarism, the work should be in your own words, copying from students or other
resources without proper referencing will result in ZERO marks. No exceptions.
All answered must be typed using Times New Roman (size 12, double-spaced) font. No
pictures containing text will be accepted and will be considered plagiarism).
Submissions without this cover page will NOT be accepted.
1. Explain and apply critical thinking and cognitive psychology as it pertains to
analyze and synthesize information for problem solving and decision making.
2. Demonstrate decision tools and employ appropriate analytical business models to
break down complex issues. (C.L.O :2.2)
3. Demonstrate effective leadership skills and teamwork capacity for efficient
decision making with the problem owners and other stakeholders as either a team
member or a team leader.. (C.L.O :3.1)
Assignment Instructions for Part-I:
• Log in to Saudi Digital Library (SDL) via University’s website
• On first page of SDL, choose “English Databases”
• From the list find and click on EBSCO database.
• In the search bar of EBSCO find the following article:
Date of Publication:
Harvard Business Review
Read the article titled as “Better Brainstorming” by Hal Gregersen, published in
Harvard Business Review, and answer the following Questions:
1. Summarize the article and explain the main issues discussed in the article. Discuss
the three steps of ‘Question burst’ in brainstorming in relation with the text you
learnt in the course. (In 600-700 words)
Part-II- Critical Thinking Question
2. “Critical thinking is the opposite of creative thinking.” Do you agree? Provide
examples of why you agree or disagree.
(Words 200-400; Marks 3)
3. Suppose you are a member of a group asked to find ways to cut costs throughout
your organization for the upcoming year. Sales have fallen sharply, and the
company is in danger of going out of business. After gathering information, your
group concludes that the company will save the most money by freezing pay for a
year, despite a tradition of annual salary increases. How can you make sure this is
a fair decision? How can you make sure that others in the organization will see it
as a fair decision?
(Words 300-400; Marks 3)
1. Answer2. Answer3. Answer-
Purchase answer to see full