August 17, 2022

Pia Lauritzen on the possibilities of questions, collective curiosity, diverse question cultures, and making room for exploration (Ep32)

“What are the questions I’m asking? Do I have some biases in my question patterns? By paying attention to the questions you’re asking, you will also get some attention to the questions that you’re not asking and that will help you make better choices”

– Pia Lauritzen

Sam McRoberts

About Pia Lauritzen

Pia Lauritzen is the co-founder and chief scientific officer at Qvest, a technology company that unleashes the power of questions in companies and communities. She is the author of the book Questions and a regular contributor to strategy+business magazine.

What you will learn

  • What are the questions that we could be using to be able to understand the world that we live in (02:34)
  • How to ask questions usefully (04:25)
  • How we can use questions to help us navigate and make sense of the world (06:46)
  • Why we should ask more “why” questions (09:25)
  • What are the kinds of questions which develop our subject matter expertise (12:09)
  • Why questions create value without your knowing (14:49)
  • What questions frame your journey to thriving (17:08)
  • Why answers are probably not the point because good questions lead to more questions (20:40)
  • Why good questions may or may not be independent of context (22:16)
  • Why we need to start asking questions about the questions you’re asking yourself and others are asking (24:29)


Ross Dawson: Pia, it’s a delight to have you on the show.

Pia Lauritzen: Thank you for having me.

Ross: You are the questions expert. Is that fair to say?

Pia: I think you can say that. Yes.

Ross: This is certainly your framing all of your work around questions. I’m very, very interested to ask you some questions about that. We were just having a conversation a moment ago, and you were saying that this frame of thriving on overload is not something which you’ve thought about before, you think about these kinds of things differently.

Pia: It’s not something I’ve been thinking about, understanding myself or other people, as combining the two, thriving and overload, I think none of them are words that I would use. I thought the work I do and the way I see the world, I’m not that… I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking and writing and talking about either thriving or overload, so combining the two is very interesting.

Ross: From my perspective, it is something which I’m sure you bring to life in your work and your life. I’d like to explore that just starting thinking about this frame of questions. We all sit in the world, we are in society, we’ve got things going on around us, we might be sitting in an organization, so from a question frame on that world, just living our daily lives, in society, in our organizations, what are the questions that we could be thinking or using or framing to be able to understand the world that we live in?

Pia: I think all of us, we’re already asking tons of questions all the time. I think the first step is to start listening to those rather than finding out what to ask. I’m very curious about what we’re already asking. It’s very deliberate that I’m saying “we” because I understand human beings and questioning as something that has to do with collective curiosity. We have been curious together and sometimes you’re being curious, just because other people are being curious. Rather than having a strategy ourselves or as individuals, I’m very interested in exploring the collective curiosity and the things that we do together to navigate and the questions that we are asking each other, not necessarily the people that we’re used to asking questions like journalists, and politicians, and teachers and leader, are used to asking questions, but all the other questions, all the questions that we’re not taught how to listen to? Those are the questions that I’m very interested in exploring because I think they give us a key on how to navigate together.

Ross: Let’s think about some particular contexts. One is, you’re working inside an organization, let’s say you’re a manager inside the organization. I can imagine some of the questions I might be asking myself, but what are the ones which you find that people are asking, are usefully asking in that kind of role?

Pia: The first thing when I’m talking to executives and senior managers and leaders in organizations, is that I try to start by exploring, have they ever even thought about the power of questions, the power of their own questions, the power of other people’s questions, the power of their customers’ questions? And have they ever even thought about how questions are not only a matter of collecting answers and making decisions, finding input, and collecting insights to make decisions, it’s also about distributing responsibility. When it comes to questions, we are opening up a space, we ask a question because we want to make more room for something and by making that room, we are also inviting other people to join somehow, and if we constantly use questions in a way where we either use questions to make more room for ourselves, to manipulate other people maybe, asking questions to make them think the same way we’re thinking, that could be in an organization but also at home, parents asking their kids questions just to get them to do something for them.

If we’re asking questions just to make more room for ourselves, then we’re not using them in a good way, then we’re not tapping into the empowering magic of questions as well. But if you’re using questions more to make room for other people to join something, to join a discussion, or to join a decision, or decision process, then questions can do wonderful things. I usually start by exploring how they even think about questions. Have they ever thought about questions? Are they aware of all the different possibilities of using questions for different purposes?

Ross: One of the things you’re describing is questions as an opening point for discussion, for conversation, for dialogue. In a related sense, around sensemaking, as in that’s what we do in the world is we try to make sense of what is happening either inside the organization or our industry or our work context. In terms of sense-making, how do you see that relationship? How we can use questions to be able to make sense? The question saying, how does this work? Or does this make sense? Why does this happen this way? These are the kinds of questions that can lead us to sensemaking.

Pia: Yes, and I think what you just did is a very brilliant example of how to use questions to help us navigate and make sense of the world, it’s to try out different question words, you actually just did that. You started out by does this make sense? Then you were, how does this make sense? Why do I want it to make sense? Then you can move on to when does this make sense? When does this not make sense? To whom does this make sense? Reminding ourselves that we have different question types that we can use when trying to explore something is extremely useful, and something that we tend to forget.

I’ve been doing a lot of studies on the questions that people are asking in organizations, and I recently, with my team, finished reporting on a large data set consisting of 16000 questions and answers asked across 32 companies, almost 6000 people have contributed to this dataset. What we can see is a very strong what, how bias. People tend to ask questions that start with what or how, it’s 79% of all the questions, almost 10000 questions and 79% of them are what and how questions, which leaves only 29% to the why, who, when, where questions, and that means that we have a lot of blind spots when trying to make sense and trying to navigate. Helping each other explore all the types of questions, is a brilliant way to make more sense and make it easier for ourselves and each other to navigate simply by shedding light on some of the blind spots, and asking other kinds of questions that we would usually do.

Ross: That’s interesting. If I’m talking sensemaking, then “why” would probably be a fairly common question. Interestingly, people don’t ask why very much from the data.

Pia: It is, and why has something else to it. Why is the only question that is pointing back and forward at the same time. When we ask why, we’re looking for a reason that something is the way it is, but we’re also looking for a purpose. There’s something very strong in the why question that makes us historical, makes us empirical, it brings us to so we know that we have a past and we know that there is a future and what we have to do right now is to make sense of where we are to find out how to move forward. By leaving all the why questions out of the equation, we’re robbing ourselves of understanding our opportunities in light of all the experience we already have, and all the future that we are aiming at. It’s kind of sad news that we tend not to ask the why questions.

Ross: Do you specifically encourage people to ask more why questions?

Pia: Not specifically why questions, I encourage people to have as diverse question culture as possible. I encourage people to use that we have different ways of framing questions, and just by rephrasing a question or using another question word, we will have and we will be able to see new opportunities. I’m not encouraging people to have a new bias, a why bias or a who bias, and why, who bias, I’m just encouraging them to remember that by asking different kinds of questions, they’re not only increasing their opportunities of seeing you, getting new ideas and having your inspiration, we can also see from the data from the report that we just finished that we increase our chances of receiving an answer. We see more answers in a population of people if people have a diverse question culture than if they only have the what, how, bias-driven culture.

Ross: That diversity of questions is really important. You might want to come back to that, but another frame for me around questions, if I think of thriving on overload, one of the things is the opportunity to become experts. The overload, in that case, is abundance. We have as much information as we can possibly want, to become an expert in whatever it is we choose to be. Let’s say we ask ourselves why question to work out what it is we wish to become an expert in. Then how do we use questions to develop our expertise in an area? What are the ways in which we can be more knowledgeable in a particular area? What are the kinds of questions which can guide us on that journey?

Pia: I would not be able to answer that question because I think it comes back to what we were talking a little bit about in the beginning that it has to do with listening to the questions that you’re already asking yourself, and the questions that other people are asking you. Because if you suddenly realize that people are reaching out to you with a specific kinds of questions, then it’s probably because they have heard you say something that they found interesting, or you’ve been writing something or you’ve been in a conversation where they saw you, you were good at something and now they are curious about learning more from your perspective. Rather than me telling people what to ask, to find out how to become an expert within something, I would encourage people to listen to their questions and the questions they are being asked because that will tell them something about where they’re going.

That’s again why I talk much about the we. I believe very strongly in listening to the signals we’re getting from each other and the world around us. Because sometimes you get a question from nature, you can be walking in the forest, or you can be in the water or something like that, then you start thinking about something, you become curious about something almost like you were asked the question, you were asked to respond to something. I was called upon, to do this. I think a lot of people who are truly experts in something, will have a difficult time explaining why and how they found their passion. It was a combination of conversations with themselves, with other people, with experiences in nature, with art and with reading, and all kinds of things, and then suddenly it starts shaping itself.

Ross: What you’re saying is resonating because in a way thriving on overload and the book and the podcasts and everything came from a question that I was asked a lot, which is how do you keep on top of everything? So very consistently, people say give a speech and talk about things and people say, how do you keep on top of everything? The thing is that I needed to ask that question to myself and say, how do I keep on top of everything in the way that I do? So that becomes then the self-examination. I think that a very interesting aspect of this podcast series, to me, is that I ask all these incredible people who do thrive on overload and are experts in a complex world, I ask them how they do it, and they don’t know. They’re not very good at expressing. It is very implicit. It is the subconscious.

They have developed these ways of working, but they don’t know how’d they do it. They find it interesting to be asked these questions as well. I hadn’t thought about it before, but this is what I do. So this began as a questioning of myself, of questions asked to me, which asked me to question myself on how I did things. Now when I question other people, I find that it is useful to them to start to surface, how it is they do things, because they’ve never really been quite conscious of that.

Pia: It’s a great story. It makes sense, that’s how it will work, and that’s probably what you’re doing, that’s at least how I experienced what you’re doing with the podcast, you’re simply just making room for people to explore some of the questions that you have been exploring yourself, and that have been inspiring to you and then sharing the questions and being okay, with people needing time to find out how to deal with these questions. Then the value is created without anybody knowing how and why. But it just is.

Ross: Let’s say, somebody’s doing a Ph.D., just take one instance. I presume they’re trying to generate new knowledge. They have which I think we could probably frame as a question as in, how is the so, or what underlies this, or what happens when we do this? There’s a hypothesis, is this correct? I think of that Ph.D., it’s just a nice instance of developing expertise of searching for new knowledge. Just any reflections you have on that, research, or are there frames about how to use the questions well in that journey?

Pia: Yes, I think that we have different ways of dealing with questions. I think we have different times where we can deal with them differently. I think some questions, they want an answer. They need an answer to make sense. Those can both be questions that we ask ourselves and the questions that we ask of each other, or we feel like I cannot move on before I have the answer to this question. But I think that questions really drive something, as far as I recall when I was writing my Ph.D., it’s another kind of question. If not, of course, there will be questions that I need to find an answer to right now. I know someone wrote something about that. Who was that? I need to look it up. I need the answer to that question.

But overall, the engine in writing a Ph.D. or becoming an expert is a question that might not be answerable, at least not for some time, maybe not even within the three years or five years, or however long, the time you spent writing your Ph.D., but it’s the engine that keeps you on, I wouldn’t even say on track, because you can get off track as well. But it keeps you on your mission somehow. So it’s another kind of question. If you’re only working with the questions that actually can be answered and that you can constantly say tomorrow I will answer these questions and next week I will answer these questions, then I think you will have a hard time becoming an expert. But if you somehow are in love with some of the questions that you know, there might be a risk that this cannot be answered but if I spend my whole life dedicating my attention to this, I will at least become a little smarter.

I will know a little bit more than I do now and maybe that will shed light on something else. Then I think the expertise is starting to build because then you’re building on top of something constantly, and you’re constantly being curious about whatever could feed that hunger for getting a little bit closer. I think you need to be okay, with those questions as well. You can finish your Ph.D. I did myself, okay, I spent three years on that and I just knew, but I’m not done. That was just my Ph.D., but it has nothing to do with what I’m doing. That was just when this book has been written, that’s nice, but it’s not like now I know everything I need to know, on the contrary, so now I’m getting started. I think that that has something to do with building expertise.

Ross: Absolutely. I think one reflection is that you focus on questions, not on answers. The answer is probably not the point. Any good question leads to more questions in a way, the part of that expertise development is then choosing the right questions because every question leads to a lot more questions. You can’t answer all of those questions. you have to keep choosing the questions, which I presume takes you into deeper areas of expertise.

Pia: That’s a good definition of the right questions, because when you just said you have to choose the right question, I felt, Oh, that feels wrong somehow. But then you said what you meant by asking the right question that is the questions that take you a step further in what you’re trying to do, and sometimes you’re asking questions that don’t, and then you have to be good at saying, Okay, that was nice meeting your question but I will leave you here because now I need to move on to another question, and just be okay with the fact that the questions I’m asking, maybe they won’t even have an answer, that’s not a bad thing, that’s confirming the fact that I’m onto something new here. Because if there is an answer, I would not be developing something new, I would not be developing myself. But the fact that there isn’t an answer makes it possible that there isn’t an answer yet, and that’s my mission. I can focus on that. That just makes it so much sense-making, right? It makes so much sense.

Ross: Do you need to know about your clients, organizations, or industries, or it doesn’t matter? Is it independent of context?

Pia: My answer is yes and no. I need to know something about the organizations that I’m working with but I don’t need to know anything in advance. That’s why it’s also a no, that I don’t need to know anything because of the method that I’ve developed that has to do with simply surfacing the questions and answers in the organization, to have a digital platform that helps the organization and the leader surface all the questions and answers in the organization. By looking at that data, you can do the analysis and say, Okay, now I actually know more about this organization than I would know by having conversations with 50 people. Because of the method and the framework and the digital platform, I will get the knowledge that I need to help the leaders ask more insightful questions and facilitate more insightful conversations based on the data from their own organization.

Ross: In a way for your learning, the other people ask the questions, and that’s how you understand the organization or the context from other people’s questions.

Pia: Exactly. That’s how I help them understand themselves and that’s also why I was a little bit hesitating when you said in the beginning, so can I call you a question expert? Yes, you can. I don’t know that many people in the world who have been spending more time exploring and researching both academically and practically questions, so I guess that would make me an expert. But my mission is more in helping people pay attention to their own and each other’s questions because they are the true experts on what needs to be done in our organization, so listening to me doesn’t bring them that much but paying attention to their own questions move the needle in terms of seeing new ways of doing things.

Ross: Thinking in terms of some takeaways for our listeners to the podcast, the takeaways for me in many cases, is just be more aware of what questions you are asking. Because as you say, we are all asking questions, and whatever it is we’re doing, whether we’re reading the news, or studying, or whatever we’re doing, it’s only when you understand what questions you’re asking that you can think this is a good question, or this is where it would lead me, or this is how I can most usefully move on to the next question, or possibly answer. How would you try to summarize? The context here is this idea, we live in a world of information so arguably, our questions can be answered more easily than they could 10, 20, or 30 years ago, the ones which are based on information anyway. What are the suggestions you would make to people in terms of how they deal better with this very complex world and in finding the path or finding what it is that brings them value?

Pia: I think it’s very much along the lines that you just summarized. Start asking questions about the questions you’re asking yourself, and the questions that you’re not asking. If you start to pay attention, and you realize you could do with a big study, like I did, looking across all these questions and answers, and you can see the what, how bias, but if you simply start doing it with yourself, what are the questions I’m asking? Do I have some biases in my question patterns? That gives me some blind spots. Very practically, it’s like, okay, I’m asking what movie to watch, rather than, should I even watch a movie right now? By paying attention to the questions you’re asking, you will also get some attention to the questions that you’re not asking and that will help you make better choices, Because then you can see, right now, instead of asking, should I be on Facebook, or on LinkedIn.

I could ask, should I talk to my kid? Or should I go for a walk with my dog? I actually have all these opportunities all the time. I automatically realize that by paying attention to my own questions. That’s true for the individual but for the collective, it’s extremely important to pay attention to other people’s questions. What are they asking, not to tell them, well, you could also ask but to simply find out what are you telling me about yourself right now, by asking that question, you’re focusing on this instead of that, that’s a clue for me to know what’s important to you. I want to know what’s important to you because why I’ll spend the time having a conversation with you? One, pay attention to your questions, the ones you’re asking and the ones you’re not, and two, pay attention to other people’s questions.

Ross: That’s fantastic. Thank you so much for your time and your insights, Pia. I think that’s really insightful. I’m sure many people will get a lot of value from thinking more about the questions that they are asking and could ask.

Pia: Thank you. It was a pleasure. Thank you for all your nice questions.

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