A powerful way to add value in a fast-moving digital world is to be a ‘thought partner’ for others. And asking implication questions can put you on that path.

But before drilling down on ‘What if…?’ questions, consider the rare privilege of being a genuine thought partner. It is by definition influential: of all the people available for this role, someone has chosen you to be their personal sounding board, the person with whom they can have a genuine and constructive dialogue. This is something to be appreciated.

Beyond that, being selected as someone’s thought partner indicates that person values and respects your judgment. That is a powerful compliment: he or she would consult with you before making an important decision, wants to hear your candid opinion, and believes you to be credible and discreet. In a word, this person trusts you.

But how do we arrive at this enviable position of credibility, influence, and trust? It certainly doesn’t happen overnight. Building this kind of trust-based relationship takes time, patience and effort. And it often requires the insight that we can make important contributions with our questions as well as with our answers.

Different types of questions

Being credible and influential for customers, colleagues or investors is not always a function of knowing ‘the answer’: many answers evolve over time, particularly in rapidly-evolving technical and commercial areas. This means we can often make a significant contribution to the process by asking the right questions at the right time.

And there is certainly a range of different questions we can ask. The first letter of the SMI question model reminds us that many questions are situational: who, what, where, when, how, how much? These are the various questions we ask in any language to determine what the situation is at a given moment: ‘Who’s there? Where are you going? How much does this cost?’

The letter M in the model reminds us of the important motivation questions, queries that typically begin with ‘Why?’: ‘Why did we lose that account?’ or ‘Why isn’t that app working the way it should?’ ‘Why is our competitor gaining market share at our expense?’

We are all familiar with asking situational questions – who, what, where, when, how, how much? –  and then following up with motivation questions to ascertain why that situation exists. We are all quite skilled at asking these questions and gathering the required answers. Then we might write up a report, prepare a presentation, or move on to another challenge.

But there is another type of question that we often fail to ask, a question that can lead to lateral thinking, creative debate, and innovation. This is the ‘What if…?’ or implication question: ‘What if you had two more days?’ ‘What if we could find money in the budget?’ ‘What if we could release that constraint?’ ‘What if we tried this?’

Implication questions invite us to think about possibilities, consider other perspectives and work around obstacles. This helps make implication questions strategic. Posed at the right moment, they build our credibility and personal influence because they get people to think, often in creative and strategic ways. So these questions need to be in our influence toolboxes, and we need to be on the lookout for opportunities to use them.

Why are implication questions rare?

So asking the implication question – pushing ourselves and others to look beyond the immediate answer to consider possibilities and less-conventional solutions – can add value for any enterprise. Even when we don’t know the answer, posing the right question can generate insight, clarity or additional questions and discussion that can move us closer to the solution. 

But we often fail to ask implication questions, and an opportunity for creative insight and innovation may be lost. If implication questions are so great for problem-solving and creative thinking, why don’t we ask more of them? Why aren’t we asking powerful implication questions all the time? There are actually some understandable reasons we don’t ask more of them:

  • Asking these questions require concentration and mental energy, and we may be too busy or distracted to engage at that critical moment.
  • Timing is critical, but if we aren’t listening carefully to the discussion we may miss the moment to pose that powerful question. Good listening is crucial.
  • With stress and time pressure in our work, we may be inclined to get the answers to our S or M questions and then say to ourselves, ‘Okay, I have enough. I’ll just go with this answer.’ We don’t push for the better solution; we don’t ask that next question.
  • Sometimes we may have a fear of speaking out of turn, reluctant to ask a question that challenges the consensus or the hierarchy of the group. There may be political concerns.
  • And finally, powerful implication questions require imagination, and sometimes we are just too tired to come up with them. It happens.

So there are factors that keep us from asking ‘What if…’ questions as much as we would like. But these are challenges we need to overcome, because the potential of implication questions for generating insight and creative thinking is too valuable to ignore. We can do better.

Thought partner, innovative thinker, pusher of boundaries, challenger of assumptions: these parts are not for everyone in an organization. But if these are the influential, value-adding roles you want to play, ask more implication questions. You will see a difference.

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Mark Brown
Mark Brown works with executives who are striving to become more effective leaders. An American based in Europe since 1994, Mark has worked extensively as a facilitator, leadership consultant, and executive coach across Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the Americas, with individuals of 75 nationalities. He is currently a director of a Portuguese company providing tri-lingual leadership development to firms worldwide. Mark holds an MBA from Solvay Business School (ULB) in Brussels, an MA from SAIS - Johns Hopkins in Washington, D.C., a diploma from Universidad de Belgrano in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and a BA from the University of Florida. A highly experienced executive coach and mentor, he holds a PCC from the International Coach Federation (ICF). Mark has published numerous articles on executive coaching, leadership development, and business strategy and published his first book in 2016, ‘The Empathic Enterprise: Winning by Staying Human in A Digital Age’. He works comfortably in English, Spanish and Portuguese and resides with his wife in Lisbon, Portugal.


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