The art of the follow-up question

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One of the critical tools in user-centered innovation is asking a lot of questions. You can make your questioning even more effective by perfecting the art of the follow-up question. In fact, even not-so-perfect follow-up questions will do.

The key is to find ways to break through assumptions. Like finding cracks in a smooth surface, you can chisel your way to a better program or product by making your team (or yourself) answer questions they wouldn’t otherwise think to ask.

How do you know?
This question goes right to the heart of the matter. Don’t be satisfied with what you think you know. Take a look at where the thinking comes from. In particular, if you’re thinking about a product that meets needs for some clientele (external or internal), have you asked them about it? When you do ask for more input, be sure you’re not biased to confirming your assumptions. You’ll get more creative solutions if you can take an open-ended approach that might yield you some nuggets of wisdom to improve your ideas.

What have you forgotten?
This is a great question to ask at multiple stages along the path of developing a concept. It makes you pause. It can be used in a peer coaching context. For example, two team members could have a brief weekly check-in to ask each other this question about their current work. If you’re stuck and can’t think of anything you’ve forgotten, ask someone else, “What have I forgotten?”


How can it be simpler?
This is one of my favorites. People often think big in developing solutions. This can occur out of enthusiasm--or out of fear of failing if they don’t think of everything. Either way, the risk is that things get stuck because the prospect of implementing them becomes overwhelming. “How can it be simpler” helps break things down into bite-sized pieces. Typically I’ll ask it at least two or three times to stretch a team’s thinking beyond what they first imagine.

The general “How can it be…?” approach can be used in other contexts as well. For example, in brainstorming, I’ll ask people to come up with a crazy idea. They’ll typically stretch a little for this. Then I ask them to come up with something even crazier. This time around, it feels more like a game, which means people get playful--and really creative.

You get the idea. It’s related to the concept of “5 Whys,” nicely explained here by Mindtools. Give it a try--and see what you can shake loose.