Crafting Powerful Questions: The number one tool for non-executive directors, lay members and governors

feb 2016 illustration questionsAmong the biggest challenges faced by non-executives (including CCG lay members, school governors and charity trustees) are
• creating a balanced approach to challenge and support
• generating the all-important assurance; a responsibility that is shared equally by all board members.

People approach this in various ways but, in my experience, the very best non-executive directors use carefully crafted, powerful questions as their most trusted and frequently used tools.

Good non-executives constantly seek to engage and provide feedback whilst maintaining relationships in which power and respect are shared equally. Questions, when carefully crafted, can:
• indicate empathy and support
• give recognition
• create ownership
• create opportunities for further engagement and understanding
• create opportunities for conversation, reflection and learning
• create opportunities for collective problem solving
• help sort fact from opinion or conjecture
• help people think from different perspectives

Powerful Questions do not only focus on the facts. A good question does not merely transact information; it also embodies the relationship between the questioner and responder.
A powerful question:
• is always open and never closed
• is never personal or personalised
• is never leading
• genuinely seeks understanding
• shares ownership and power
• does not convey a judgement

Good phrases for powerful question construction:
• To what extent…….?
• Could you outline…….?
• Is it possible to say….?
• How confident….?

Powerful questions never start with “I think…”
“Why?…” should rarely be used. Powerful questions are never constructed to give advice in disguise. They are not used to convey a judgement or disapproval.

When preparing for board meetings NEDs will find it easier to construct their powerful questions if they reflect on what it is that they really want to know. It’s too easy to ask “why did it go wrong?” when that’s not actually what is important. What we really want to know is, have lessons been learned and are we confident that it won’t go wrong again.

Try asking using some of the following ideas to craft your questions in your next board meeting and see what response you get from your executive team.

Good examples of powerful questions:
o To what extent is this proposal supported by local people?
rather than
o How many people were involved in the consultation? Or what % people agreed with the proposal?

o Could you outline the range of options that were considered?
rather than
o Have you thought about X?

o What degree of certainty is there that X will happen?
rather than
o How sure are you? / How can you be sure?

o Where is the team’s confidence in these figures drawn from?
rather than
o Are you sure?

o Could you outline the criteria used to determine…..?
rather than
o Why did you opt for X?

o At what stage would it be advisable for the board to re-consider this issue?
rather than
o Can you bring it back each month for review?

o What are our neighbours doing about X?
rather than
o Why are we behind/ failing?

o If we benchmarked ourselves against others, what could we learn?
rather than
o How are we performing?

o How much control do we have over X?
rather than
o What went wrong?

Illustration by Mair Park. Say hello to her on twitter @p_mair