Over a decade ago, I saw an advertisement for a workshop on Powerful Questions. That’s an odd topic, I thought. Now with hindsight, I realize the topic was ahead of its time.
What is a powerful question? Reos Partners in their Change Lab methodology use powerful questions as the catalyst for significant social innovation. A powerful question is one to which there is no answer yet. A technical question, in contrast, is one to which we do not know the answer but the answer exists. In other words, when faced with a technical question, research can provide the answer. When faced with a powerful question, we must turn to one another and engage in dialogue and discovery, through which new intelligence emerges.
Examples of powerful questions being explored now using Reos Partners’ methodology are:
- “How can all of us ensure that all children in Calgary grow, learn and thrive by the age of 5?” being explored by The United Way in Calgary and Area’s community change initiative, Thrive by 5
- “What will it take for Canadians to succeed in creating a good future?” explored by the Possible Canadas Project
Powerful questions are challenging because they focus on complex, systemic issues. Often the questions are about “wicked problems”. The Austin Center for Design defines a wicked problem as “a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for many reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems”.
Forming a powerful question takes a lot of trial and error to ensure it is a “real” question, not technical, that will inspire and engage others in the search for change. However, be inspired by this wonderful quote from Albert Einstein, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”