The Problem-Solving Benefit of Questions

There are big, big problems to solve. On nearly every front, our industries, norms, systems, and way of life is being challenged. This can be both an intimidation and an invitation for leaders because they are facing problems they have never had to solve before.

New problems sometimes require a more proactive and innovative way of mining for solutions and ways to move forward.  The problem is, we don’t have a lot of extra time on our hands.  We also have to be expedient in this work.

One of those ways is to use a protocol called Q Storming. Q Storming is the process of asking questions for the purpose of thinking together. Not necessarily to come up with the answers or solutions in the first pass. It is taking a true position of exploration and curiosity combined with a good dose of humility. Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question, calls it Intellectual Humility.

Intellectual Humility when it comes to Q Storming is crucial because you are not just looking for a solution. You are expanding thinking with the idea that what you have done before may not make the “keep doing it” cut. You may discover a new way forward in your business. It requires profound honesty and sometimes scrutiny while searching for a better way than anyone may expect. This level of deep work would be quickly thwarted if met with resistance and the desire to hold on to historical norms. That’s the downside. The big payoff of Q Storming can catapult your company into a new and more proficient level of operating. This will allow you to meet emerging demands in an ever-changing landscape of society.

Q Storming also requires that you admit what you don’t know. By not coming in with the answers, it makes the questions more powerful.
Questions serve as a catalyst for more expansive thinking about the challenge or situation.

What might this look like in a real-world scenario?

The Colonial Pipeline Story

Late Spring, 2021 a company by the name of Colonial Pipeline was assaulted by cyber criminals. They were able to hack their system and access important information. With information in hand, they demanded a ransom of over 4 million dollars in bit coin. This breach had a serious impact on the availability of gasoline in the area for about two days. Gas stations had no gas. Long lines formed waiting to get the gas that was unavailable. Several car accidents happened because of extensive lines and crowds trying to get the necessary fuel for their vehicles. Not only were there long lines, but people were also taking great risk just to get gasoline. One woman filled a trash bag with gas and put it in her trunk to transport. For many, desperation and fear clouded clear thinking and judgement. Colonial never wanted any of this to happen.  The CEO, in an interview, said that the company enjoyed a certain level of anonymity. They never cared if anyone knew who they were. They simply wanted to keep doing the work they had done for 57-years. The problem is, over the 57-year life of their company the world changed. However, they didn’t quite change with it.

“Hackers gained entry into the networks of Colonial Pipeline Co. on April 29 through a virtual private network account, which allowed employees to remotely access the company’s computer network, said Charles Carmakal, senior vice president at cybersecurity firm Mandiant, part of FireEye Inc., in an interview. The account was no longer in use at the time of the attack but could still be used to access Colonial’s network, he said.

It didn’t take long for news of Colonial’s shutdown to spread. The company’s system transports roughly 2.5 million barrels of fuel daily from the Gulf Coast to the Eastern Seaboard. The outage led to long lines at gas stations, many of which ran out, and higher fuel prices. Colonial began resuming service on May 12.

Soon after the attack, Colonial embarked on an exhaustive examination of the pipeline, tracking 29,000 miles on the ground and through the air to look for visible damage. The company ultimately determined the pipeline wasn’t damaged”.

The criminals gained access to the plant with a single password. Not a sophisticated phishing scheme. A password that provided employees with remote access to the system was discovered on the dark web and used to gain entry into the operations of the company. There was no multi-layered authentication system and no system in place to disconnect passwords from someone who should no longer have access to the system.

When did Colonial stop asking security questions? Why did they stop wondering if the way they were doing things was the right way? How did they become complacent? They had no sophisticated system to protect against sophisticated technology. Hindsight teaches painful and valuable lessons for all of us. Q Storming sessions might have benefited them as they grew over the 57 years.

How does Q Storming work?

Q Storming is based on asking questions that you don’t have the answers to. Exploration is the first objective. For example, “What can we do to create a stronger cyber security system to protect our operations and IP?” After you have assembled the key leaders to address these issues, the questions begin. At first it may take a few rounds before the team gets the hang of the process, but keep going.

I recently did this exercise with a group of leaders. It wasn’t until the third round that they started to get into hefty questions. Once you have your questions, you are still not looking for a bottom-line solution. The exploration continues with specific questions that are more guided such as:

“What do we need to happen here?”

“Where can we get more information?”

“Who do we need to get help from?”

“How does this question fit our bigger purpose?”

You will feel the energy in the room as the team begins to tap into their creativity. You’ll also see them access parts of their brain not usually required to do the work they do.

The Neuroscience of Questions

“Research in neuroscience has found that the human brain can only think about one idea at a time. When you ask somebody a question, you force their minds to consider only your question. As neuroscientist John Medina puts it in his book Brain Rules, “Research shows that we can’t multitask. We are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously.” Likewise, Nobel Prize–winning economist Herbert Simon has written that human beings consciously “operate largely in serial fashion. The more demanding the task, the more we are single-minded.” Want to Know What Your Brain Does When It Hears a Question? David Hoffeld Fast Company Magazine

Q Storming packs a return by giving you ideas that shape your next steps. It protects the team from focusing on problem solving too soon.  Finally, Q Storming helps your team focus on the issues without being distracted. Even the multitasker will be drawn to lean into exploration of the question as they relent to the power of the amazing brain.

What problem can you as a leader put on the table for your team and practice using the technique of Q Storming?


Questions can be:

·        A catalyst for exploration
·        Build the critical thinking capacity of the team.
·        Create and environment for sharing learning.
·        Increase the awareness of shared issues or challenges.


What can you accomplish by using this Q Storming protocol?

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