Everyone wants to be more innovative in their work, and in today’s business world, being innovation is increasingly becoming something that is demanded of everyone, including learning professionals. In the first two articles of this series I looked at what happens when we don’t ask questions, as well as what gets in the way of asking them. Now it’s time to get into the specifics of what makes for great questions.

Learning Innovation Part III: How to Ask Great Questions

This series draws upon the thinking and writings of Dr. Stephen Di Biase, and innovation expert with decades of experience in making innovation happen in corporations across the nation.

In short, good questions promote learning. Bad questions tend to close off inquiry and learning. Let’s say your team is discussing delivery methods for your department’s latest learning initiative. Although more and more learning is being delivered through a variety of digital formats, you’re convinced that this particular new program would best be delivered in a blended format relying primarily on the traditional instructor-led physical classroom model supplemented with eLearning activities to extend and apply the content. In spite of knowing how heavily your team leans towards eLearning solutions, you muster your courage to ask the question, “I wonder if a traditional instructor-led classroom setting might be the best way to deliver the core content of this learning initiative?” That’s an example of a great question. You’re raising an issue that no one else might be brave enough to raise given the team’s proclivities. Hopefully, your question will reveal that there are others who feel the same way. However, what happens if your question is met with another question by someone else that goes something like, “Are you serious?” Well, you can see how this example of a really bad question might completely close off the exploration entirely. Dr. Di Biase summarizes these two very different approaches to questions as follows:

Great questions are empowering, selfless and supportive, insightful and challenging, and when asked effectively create learning and demand listening. Poor questions are often disempowering, clever in such a way as to deceive those involved, and often judgmental, destroying learning that comes from discovery.

You can easily see how the hypothetical exchange I created above illustrates the empowering nature of good questions and the disempowering nature of bad questions. The common elements that run through all great questions are the following:

  • They challenge taken-for-granted assumptions.
  • They enable people to better view the situation.
  • They cause people to explore their behaviors.
  • They are open-ended to elicit discussion.
  • They generate courage and confidence.
  • They lead to positive and powerful action.

There are all kinds of different questions to consider in your work, including the following:

  • Empowering questions focus on positive outcomes.
  • Open-ended questions, such as simply asking, “Why?”
  • Explorative questions, such as “Have you thought of…?”
  • Affective questions, as in “How do you feel about…?”
  • Reflective questions, such as “What do you think of…?”
  • Probing questions, as in “Can you describe this in more detail?”
  • Fresh questioning, such as “Does it have to be this way?”
  • Clarifying questions, as in “What specifically do you mean by…?”
  • Analytical questions, such as “Why did this happen…?”

Finally, keep in mind Dr. Di Biase’s simple table illustrating the difference between empowering and disempowering questions:

Disempowering Questions

Empowering Questions



Either/or thinking

Both/and thinking

Defends assumptions

Questions assumptions



Win-lose outcomes

Win-win outcomes



Learning how to ask great questions is one of the surest pathways to become a more innovative person. The ideas I’ve presented in this three-part series were adapted from Ten Keys to Unlocking Your Innovative Self, by Dr. Stephen Di biase. Learning professionals are required to exercise innovation nearly every day in their work. If you use the tips and advice I’ve presented to revive and stimulate your curiosity, imagination, and effective inquiry, you’ll be well on your way to learning innovation.