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What is Catalytic Questioning

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

Within business, catalytic questioning creates a new way of thinking. It develops new ideas that we would not normally dream of.

What is Catalytic Questioning?

Working in a group we pick a problem that we have been unable to solve. Before spending 10-15 minutes listing as many questions as possible (ideally 50+) to address it. No time is given to answering or justifying them, simply write them down. These groups can take many forms;  a board of directors looking at business performance. A company team tasked with developing a new product. An individual business owner going through a problem solving process.

To begin with the questions are fairly standard but as we go through the process they become more ‘left field’ and seemingly obscure.

Tip: Ask open questions (how, what, when, who etc) , this ensures we create debate further down the process.

What is the Catalytic Questioning Process?

  1. 1.
    The process requires taking a fresh perspective, therefore, we remove any distractions. We are creating an open atmosphere where everyone involved is contributing. Impartial group involvement is critical. One person within the group takes the role of facilitator to ensure everyone inputs, tracks the questions and keep the team focused.
  2. 2.
    Identify a problem that we have been unable to develop a solution to that the group are focussed around.
  3. 3.
    Begin the questioning. Everyone contributes questions that focus on the challenge and writes them all down. Generally after 5 or 10 minutes we will have exhausted the ‘normal’ questions. This is when a problem solving process would normally stop. Instead this is the point at which we want to push on and come up with ever more provocative questions. The purpose is to consider thought processes we don’t normally explore; as such there are no right or wrong questions.
  4. 4.
    When we have listed 50+ questions, we review and highlight those that are most ‘catalytic’. That is those we can’t answer but as a group feel, are truly disruptive and innovative. To move forwards we narrow the list down and focus on the 3 or 4 that are most exciting.
  5. 5.
    We then answer these questions. In doing so we create innovative solutions that move our thought process forwards. They may create solutions that we never thought possible. This part of the process may not be done in the same meeting; instead 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?”
“Why are sales dropping?
“Do we provide good customer service?”

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

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?”
“”hat has happened to our business reputation?”
“What would happen if we pulled out of the market?”
“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 undertake and exercise to explore employee morale across the business. We want to understand what morale looks like and the impact it has 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.

When we analyse our digital presence, we discover that whilst our website is current and relevant there is no accountability for our social media accounts. An employee left and the role was not picked up by anyone else. This means customer engagement has now dropped off; we are losing sales to our 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. Our unconscious bias leads us to explore the same paths we have trodden before.

What catalytic questioning enable us to do, is introduce new ideas and explore new avenues. The innovative problem solving process can appear very abstract, but in practice opens our eyes to new ways of thinking.

Would catalytic questioning help you and your team solve a seeming impossible problem?

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