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Powerful Questions – a guest post by Geoff Watts


Geoff Watts is a certified Scrum Coach and Trainer based in the UK. I first met Geoff at Play4Agile  and thought “what a great guy!”. He is fun and full of energy, always willing to debate a point – just to see where it goes. We are very excited that Geoff will be doing a keynote at the Scrum Gathering in South Africa this year. The gathering theme is magic, and Geoff has even learned a few magic tricks for the event. Recently Geoff released his first book: Scrum Mastery – be sure to give it a read. We asked Geoff to write us a blog post so that the South African community can be introduced to him before the Scrum Gathering.


Twitter: @geoffcwatts

If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.


What is a powerful question? 

It’s often really hard to define, which is frustrating, because it’s such a useful, nay integral, part of a coach’s (and ScrumMaster’s) toolbox. A coach will spend a lot of time asking questions rather than giving solutions and so wouldn’t it be useful if we could define what a powerful question was and then practice the art of asking them? It would not only make us better coaches but also be of more benefit to our coachees, and our teams.

In Co-Active Coaching, a powerful questions are defined as “provocative queries that put a halt to evasion and confusion. By asking the powerful question, the coach invites the client to clarity, action, and discovery at a whole new level.”

Vogt et al define a powerful question as  thought-provoking, generating curiosity in the listener, surfacing underlying assumptions, touching a deep meaning and inviting creativity and new possibilities.

This is good and helpful but still leaves us with a certain amount of ambiguity. Another difficulty is that a question that has a powerful impact on one person at one particular time may be less powerful, or not powerful at all, at a different time or with a different person.

How can we get good at something so abstract?

I have a technique that I like to use in order to practice my skill of asking powerful questions. I have found that, as well as being great practice for me, it is also a useful coaching technique in its own right and can even be used by teams themselves to help get past a tricky challenge.

I call it “hot-seat questioning” and was introduced to it on a coaching course with Barefoot Coaching a couple of years ago. As most of the best techniques are, it is very simple, yet regularly profoundly effective and it works in groups of 3-7 although 4-5 is generally optimum.

One person (person A) gets to talk about something that they are finding difficult to make progress on for around 60 seconds while everyone else listens. At the end of the 60 seconds the listeners get the chance to ask one question that is designed to help person A. Person A does NOT answer these questions but rather notices how the questions affect them.

Once everyone has asked person A a question, person A then provides feedback to the questioners on how their questions affected them and/or how they might have made their questions more powerful.

Optionally, you may then allow everyone to ask another question each (again with no answers being provided by person A).

After the feedback on the powerful questions, another person gets the chance to talk about their topic…

Some powerful questions for you

  •  Once you have given this technique a try, consider one or two of the questions below:
  •  How did you find talking about something knowing that you wouldn’t have to answer any follow up questions?
  •  How did the fact that you knew your question wouldn’t get answered affect your question?
  •  How did it feel knowing you couldn’t answer the questions you were asked?
  •  What patterns did you notice about the questions that had the biggest effect?
  •  Why was (or wasn’t) this technique powerful for you?
  •  How could you use something similar to this technique with your teams?