You’re in a meeting discussing an important issue, and you need to make a decision. Bob doesn’t offer his opinions, but he does ask a lot of questions. Bob thinks, “Hey, this is great. My questions will help us really understand what’s going on and make the best move.” Sasha steams, “At this rate, we’ll never decide anything. Why did I invite Bob anyway?”

The jury can be divided on the value of questions when you need to make progress on an issue. Some people see questions as a great way to make sure that no stone is left unturned. Others think questions can bog down the process.

What types of questions really drive progress?

Be the accelerator. Ask questions that move the issue forward. (e.g., What will this look like when we’re finished? What are the 3 aspects that are non-negotiable?)

Be the brake. Ask questions to slow things down and bring people back to the important foundations of the issue. (e.g., How does this align with our core values? Will this help us achieve our strategic objectives?)

Be the steering wheel. Ask questions that re-direct the discussion. (e.g., What part of the status quo do we need to change? What emerging client needs should we be aware of?)

Go off-road. Some questions take you to unexplored territory. (e.g., If money were no object, what would we do? If you could magically erase one obstacle, which one would you choose?)

If you’re the one who is known to ask a lot of questions, mix it up. Don’t always be the accelerator, brake or steering wheel. If you’re pigeon-holed, your questions will be predictable and will not elicit the most productive responses. (There goes Bob again!)

To understand how you use questions, track them. Use your BlackBerry, a notepad or other means to tally the times you ask questions – and what purpose they served. You may be surprised about how many questions you ask and where they drive people. (Hopefully, it’s not crazy.)

For more information on helpful questions, read Leadership and Learning: The Art of Asking Questions, by Jennifer McFarland. It’s available from Harvard Business School Publishing.

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