The Power of Catalytic Questioning

Catalytic questioning is a problem-solving approach developed by Hal Gregson who is a Director at MIT. This little used system is an innovative development on the traditional brainstorming session but rather than focussing on ideas to solutions we ask questions. His original article is here and I have developed the process further to provide working implementation.

Within business the approach creates a new way of thinking and developing ideas that we would not normally consider.

What is Catalytic Questioning?

As a group we identify a challenge and spend 10-15 minutes writing down as many questions as possible (ideally 50+) to address it, we do not answer them or justify them, simply write them down. These groups can take many forms including a board of directors looking at business performance or a company team tasked with developing a new product. To begin with the questions are fairly standard but as we go through the process they become more ‘left field’ and seemingly obscure.

Tip: We want to be asking open questions (how, what, when, who etc) to ensure that we create debate further down the process.

Catalytic Questioning Process

  1. 1.
    We want to tackle the process with a fresh perspective so we remove any distractions and create an open atmosphere where everyone involved is comfortable contributing. This is imperative, someone within the group takes the role of facilitator to ensure group input, tracks the questions and keep the team focused.
  2. 2.
    Identify a problem that we are all focussed on and that we do not have a solution to.
  3. 3.
    Ask questions, everyone contributes questions that focus on the challenge and writes them all down. After 5 or 10 minutes we may have exhausted the ‘normal’ questions at which point we want to push on and come up with even more provocative questions. There are no right or wrong questions, we want to explore avenues we don’t normally consider.
  4. 4.
    When we have 50+ questions we review and highlight those that are most ‘catalytic’, that is those we can’t answer but as a group feel could be really disruptive/innovative. We narrow this list down to 3 or 4 and focus on those.
  5. 5.
    Answer these questions, in doing so we will create innovative solutions that will move our business forwards. This may not be done in the same meeting but rather delegated for further research and debate at the next session.

Catalytic Questioning in Practice

Example Problem
“Our market share is diminishing in a more competitive market”

Example early questions:
“Are our products good value?”
“Do we provide good customer service?”

Making Progress:
“Who are our most valuable customers?”
“What is our best selling product?”

Catalytic Questions:
“What did we do to grow our business in the first place?”
“Has the market moved away from a preference for our type of product?”
“How is employee morale impacting our customer service”?
“How is our digital presence supporting our business?”

Moving Forwards:
We may identify the last two questions are truly intriguing.

Action Points:
We explore employee morale across the business to understand what this looks like and the impact on day to day operations, we may discover that the dispatch team are disengaged and not taking care with packing which creates a negative experience for the customer.

Analysing our digital presence we discover that whilst our website is current and relevant there is no accountability for our social media accounts since an employee left. This means customer engagement has now dropped off and we are losing sales to more socially engaged competitors.

You should now see the power of catalytic questioning in problem solving, whilst brainstorming is an effective technique our creativity tends to be limited and we move in a particular direction. With catalytic questioning we introduce new ideas and explore new avenues that are seemingly unrelated but in practice open our eyes to new ways of thinking.

To run a successful session we require a facilitator who can take the team through the process and maintain focus.

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