The Power of Smart Questions


I could be a poster child for the phenomenon known as “growth through resistance.” It is not a pretty process, fraught with needless pain and suffering. Yet the lessons that I have learned by conquering my own resistance have proven to be the indelible ones. My journey from resisting to embracing the power of “smart questions” is paramount among these.

My graduate program in Organization Development required two semesters of courses in coaching. This struck me at the time as an inexplicable aggravation and a needless distraction from “hard core” OD courses. The source of my resistance to coaching — the exploration of which was, annoyingly, a requirement of the coaching process — was grounded in my misperception of coaching as self-indulgent and narcissistic, with little relevance for change management as I understood it.

My epiphany came as I grew to appreciate the discipline required to frame issues concisely in the form of “smart questions,” and the artistry involved in coaching individuals and groups to their ideal future state through questions, not answers. The process of not just supporting — but allowing – groups to work toward the best answers to smart questions forges an intimate bond within groups, and between facilitators and groups, that often yields exceptional results.

La Piana consultants consistently witness firsthand the power of smart questions in our facilitation of Real-Time Strategic Planning and business planning with nonprofits. Both processes are propelled by questions that encourage concise thinking, leading to laser-like clarity about organizational identity, context in the marketplace, competitive advantage, and the nexus of mission, opportunity, and strategy. By framing questions that will inform and guide the exploration process while lending objectivity to the process of defining decision-making criteria, we help nonprofit leadership teams identify and assess associated risks and rewards, and make deliberate, business-driven decisions.

Similarly, by devising focused, challenging, and smart questions, we are able to arrive at the most compelling program evaluation designs and, ultimately, performance accountability in partnership with our nonprofit clients. The ultimate reward is not only being able to answer questions about program impact, but also about continuous program improvement, as driven by answers to questions about what works, and how we know it.

My bumpy journey to this destination of appreciating smart questions — as a tool for coaching, facilitation, strategy development, business planning, and program evaluation — has yielded personal value as well. I frequently find myself distilling complex personal deliberations to their essence: simple questions, the answers to which contain the only truth I need to move forward. As a testament to my ongoing struggle with resistance, a recurring question for me is, “What extraordinary opportunity might your resistance be blocking you from experiencing right now?” I believe that this is an equally relevant — and smart — question for nonprofit organizations as well.

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