Questorming

Outline of the Method
Copyright © 1985 Jon Roland. All rights reserved

Questorming is a variant of brainstorming, the technique developed at MIT in the 1950s for getting a group of participants to come up with more creative solutions to problems. In brainstorming, a moderator first presents a problem to a group, who then propose as many different kinds of solutions as they can, but without evaluating any of them until the moderator halts further proposals and begins the evaluation phase. During the proposal phase they are encouraged to be as imaginative as they can, and not to restrict themselves to what they or others might consider "good" solutions, but to propose anything that might be remotely relevant. During the evaluation phase, the proposals are consolidated, perhaps reformulated, evaluated, and by process of elimination, reduced finally to one by votes of the group. The technique emphasizes the importance of suspending criticism, both of one's own ideas and of the ideas of the others, to foster creativity and original solutions. It recognizes that "bad" ideas may often be more productive of "good" ideas than "good" ideas are. The method also involves the application of various standard constraints on the solution adopted, such as that it can be carried out by the members of the group without requiring any resources not available to them.

Questorming takes a somewhat different approach. Its aim is not so much to get a group to come up with "solutions" to a "problem" as to come up with well-stated and well-selected questions or problem formulations. In one sense it addresses the process leading up to what is done in more conventional brainstorming: formulating the problem to be solved by the group. In another sense it is brainstorming in which the problem for the group is to find the answer to the metaquestion, "What are the best questions we need to ask right now?". Questorming is based on the recognition that if people can ask the right questions, the answers are often easy. It also does not allow the moderator to control the outcome by the way he or she initially formulates the problem for the group.

This does not mean that the moderator does not need to impose some constraints on the subject matter of the discussion. This may be done in various ways. One way is to briefly describe the situation as he or she sees it, including the members of the group and their concerns, and invite them to then ask and try to answer the metaquestion with reference to that situation. The answers they then propose may actually involve a rejection of the situation as described by the moderator, but it serves as a point of departure to keep the discussion focused.

As with brainstorming, criticism of proposed questions is suspended for a period of time until a sufficient number and variety of questions has been achieved, after which the evaluation phase is begun. The objective in questorming is not necessarily to come up with one best question, but a list of questions ordered from best to worst, or perhaps a tree structure in which related questions and subquestions are organized and ordered by quality.

The technique also involves guiding the discussion with a standard list of generic questions which are considered givens that do not need to be proposed themselves. One example of such a standard list is provided at the end of this document. The moderator should direct variants of such standard questions to the group or its members to keep the discussion moving and focused.

The technique does not forbid all discussion of answers or solutions to the questions proposed. Mention may be made of the kinds of answers or solutions a question might have as a way to provoke ideas for more questions or to indicate ways to evaluate the questions, but the moderator is supposed to discourage the group from getting sidetracked by a discussion of answers or solutions that are not themselves questions or problem formulations. This is most easily done if it is agreed that such answers will be addressed in a later session devoted to more conventional brainstorming.

Part of what is sought in questorming is a determination of whether the concerns and perceptions of the members of the group can support concerted action toward a common goal which meets the perhaps divergent goals of each of the members of the group. This involves identifying a point of agreement among the members and building upon it until a basis for group action is established. If no such consensus can be achieved, then the membership of the group may need to be altered or the group dissolved.

Although some groups, because of their backgrounds, may be able to assume certain common concerns and perceptions, it is often useful to go back to basics and re-establish the principles which unite them. This effort can often uncover and resolve divergencies that will later interfere with concerted action by the group. On the other hand, it may also sometimes be best not to examine first principles too closely, lest disclosure of divergencies result in dissolution of the group or impair its ability to function. That is a judgment call by the moderator.

One of the jobs of the moderator is to make sure all proposed questions are kept before the members of the group, and direct their attention to them as required. This may involve posting them on a board, or providing each member with a scrolling display or with a display large enough to allow all questions to be kept in view at once. He must also keep the questions down to a manageable number. If the number becomes too large, it may be necessary to break down the task into smaller tasks, each with its own set of questions, to be dealt with during separate sessions.

The moderator may also need to introduce some levity in case one or more of the members begins to become too emotional about the subject matter or the process. Members should be instructed that even though they may have strong feelings, there is likely to be a better outcome of the session if everyone treats it as an intellectual game.

For more information on this technique, contact the Vanguard Research Institute, 7793 Burnet Rd #37, Austin, Texas 78757, 512/374-9585.

Standard Questions