Expansive Questions

Get Results: Knowledge requires asking expansive questionsl
Get Results: Knowledge requires asking expansive questionsl

I like the concept of expansive questioning. The sequence goes…

  1. Why
  2. What if
  3. How

It’s a great strategy for moving beyond habitual, routine thinking, and the trap of doing things the way you’ve always done them. It questions the why… you do what you do, then brings in creative thinking and asks what if… we do thinks like this or that, and finishes by asking how… can we make this happen.


Why is an example of a Challenge question, and can be used to overcome assumptions, inferences and biases. Question your questions. Why did I come up with that question? What are the underlying assumptions in that question?

Beware the curse of knowledge, which comes about when you’re an expert at something. You move from literal thinking to more abstract modelling of the subject, and in the process, forget to think like a newbie. It’s rather hard to unlearn that particular subject, forgetting what gaps in knowledge are likely to be missing from a novices model of the subject.

There’s a good tip I heard a while ago that advises to use someone who knows nothing about your niche, problem, subject but is good at asking questions, such as a child. A newbies naivety is needed to ask good why and what if questions. Step back create space and observe. Spend more time looking. Stop knowing and start wondering. Try to make your mind like an empty bucket, with child-like curiosity. Give yourself and employees permission to think like a child.

Ask “why do we do what we do?”

See beyond the problems and look for the opportunities.

I like to use the sequence of asking 5 why’s to dig deeper into a subject, or moving from broad questions to narrow questions. For instance

  • Why do I exercise? – because it’s healthy
  • Why is it healthy? – because it raises my heart rate
  • Why is that important? – so that I burn more calories
  • Why do you want to do that? – to lose weight
  • Why are you trying to lose weight? – I feel social pressure to look thin

What if  (followed by … why not)

Expansive questions are better than negatively framed questions such as “Oh dear, what am I going to do now?” which instead becomes “what opportunities does this present, what if…..?

Look at unrelated industries, technologies for inspiration and opportunities to take a different approach.

You and your team need unlimited imagination for generating ideas, without grounding your creative thinking in reality, for example an upside down helicopter was the inspiration for coming up with the strimmer for cutting grass.

Use Imagination and think outside the box, and move away from the way thinks have always been done. For example, a recent trend has come from moving from the concept of owning to one of sharing. Replacing ownership with access to things like cars, bikes and holiday homes.


The How stage moves from imaginative, creative thinking back towards reality to figure out how you can deliver ideas generated in stage two. It’s about bringing an idea to reality, and execution.

This stage requires problem solving abilities and resourcefulness.

Get Results: wisdom is knowing all the right questions
Get Results: wisdom is knowing all the right questions


Questions (a journey of inquiry)

Having a process helps you to keep taking next steps, even though you don’t know what you’re doing you know what to do next.

Q (questions) – A (action) =P (Philosophy)

Q (questions) + A (action) = I (innovation)

The WHY, WHAT IF, HOW progression sequence breaks down the problem solving process and helps you come up with new ideas.

“Why don’t they do something about this?” is really just a complaint, change the “they” to “I” and instead take ownership and empower yourself to find a solution.

Fail forward and keep asking “what if…?”

Deborah Meier, an educational reformer questions…

  • Significance – why is it important?
  • Perspective – what is the point of view?
  • Evidence – how do you know?
  • Connection – how does it apply?
  • Supposition – what if it were different?

5 habits of mind and core questions – think with skepticism and empathy

  1. Evidence – How do we know what’s true or false? What evidence counts?
  2. Viewpoint – How will this look if we stepped into other’s shoes, or looked at it from a different direction?
  3. Connection – Is there a pattern, have we seen something like this before?
  4. Conjecture – What if it were different?
  5. Relevance – Why does this matter?

You can change the quality of a question by swapping open questions for closed questions and visa versa to mix things up – For instance “why is my mother in law difficult to get on with” – change to closed version “is my mother in law difficult to get on with”, if she gets on well with other people, re-phase question as “why is my mother in law difficult for me to get on with”. You can see by this simple example how phrasing the question differently, changes the perspective.

Fear prevents people asking questions – this is why it’s more difficult for “experts” to be seen going back to basics for fear of appearing less credible – missing something basic after years of practicing raises questions about capability and knowledge. This explains why many experts are so resistant to fresh ideas and perspectives.

Think in questions, you don’t have to be smart to ask questions, just curious.

Instead of brainstorming,start questionstorming. Get members of your team to generate questions. What if.. there were no limits or restrictions, for instance how can we supply a £100 solution for £10? Or what new solution would threaten our existing business?

Question the validity of your assumptions/inferences

Much of what we think we know is made up of assumptions, so question everything you have been and are being told, even the testimony of perceived experts and authority figures. Unless you know something from personal experience, always treat as a hypotheses and test it, research it and try to disprove it. This approach avoids confirmation bias.

Move away from default habitual thinking

Step back  and wonder instead of know, give yourself space and time by taking a pause to see properly (how many squares test) and take in the bigger picture and overall context. Look through a Vu deja lens (opposite of deja vu) seeing familiar things (camouflaged by familiarity) with fresh eyes.

Notice patterns and relationships between things we thought of as separate, reversing assumptions about cause and effect, outdated methods and dormant opportunities, looking at negatives as positives and visa versa, what matters most versus least, not travelling through life on automatic pilot, see what’s always been there but gone unnoticed. In other words use beginners mind.

Notice what others miss.

Challenge assumptions and inferences, yours included – use challenge questions “why do it this way, it doesn’t make sense”.

Expertise narrows possibilities over how fresh eyes see things. if we feel you know the subject well – we categorise the incoming data according to your knowledge-set and experience which becomes hardwired into your mind.

We routinely default to this set of knowledge and experience schema, and discard irrelevant information by filtering out what we consider to be irrelevant and stop paying attention to anything outside our knowledge schema.

We have to let go and open our minds to new possibilities and relationships i.e. and electric drill is used average of 15 minutes in it’s lifetime, so share instead of buy one. Stop knowing, start being curious and asking questions.