How to come up with the perfect focus question – asking the right question

When solving problems, the importance of the question you ask cannot be overstated. How you phrase your focus question determines the type of answers you’ll get. Therefore, it’s best to always consider several different questions before you start. But how do you come up with a bunch of different questions to choose from?

Looking for the perfect focus question

In previous articles, we’ve often paid attention to the importance of asking the right question. Don’t immediately start looking for answers. Instead, pause and list many different ways to approach this challenge. What questions might you ask yourself? The question you focus on determines the type of answers you’ll find, so always consider many alternative questions.

Once you’ve generated many different questions, you can choose the most promising ones to work with. At the bottom of this article, I’ll describe how you can make this selection.

First, let’s focus on actually creating a long list of possible questions.

How do you come up with (many) different questions for the same challenge? You use thinking techniques. Just like you can use techniques to generate creative ideas, you can use techniques to generate alternative questions.

In this article, I describe three different methods to do exactly this:

1. Wouldn’t it be great if…

This technique might remind you of the creative thinking technique ‘Wishful Thinking’. But where Wishful Thinking is used to find ideas, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if…’ can be used to find questions.

You can use this technique both on your own or in a group. When you use this technique, you start by listing different desired outcomes, related to your main challenge. You do this by completing the sentence ‘Wouldn’t it be great if…’

Come up with different ways to complete the sentence. Imagine, for instance, that finding talent is a challenge for your organisation. Possible ways of finishing the sentence, in this case, might be:

  • Wouldn’t it be great if every young professional who’s looking for a new job would find us?
  • Wouldn’t it be great if top talent would love to work for us?
  • Wouldn’t it be great if we’d be known to be the best employer in our field?
  • Wouldn’t it be great if many talented youngsters did an internship in our organisation?

Clearly, this list could be much longer. Go wild. Come up with as many ways as possible to complete the sentence. When generating a good focus question, quantity is important.

Once you’ve written down a long list of ‘Wouldn’t it be great’-questions, select the ones you find most promising. These questions can be turned into focus questions. Start your focus questions with ‘How can we…’ or ‘How might we…’ The questions above could, for instance, be rephrased as:

  • How can we make sure young professionals who are looking for a job will find us?
  • How can we become an attractive employer?
  • How might we become known as the best employer in our field?
  • How might we get talented youngsters to do their internship at our organisation?

2. Obstacles

Another way of finding focus areas is by listing obstacles.

Ask yourself: ‘What’s stopping us?’

Start with a general purpose. Imagine you’re responsible for maintaining a public park. Unfortunately, the park has become a mess. Many people who visit the park leave their rubbish behind. Packaging, soda cans, leftovers and other types of waste scar the once beautiful park. Your general purpose here is: to make the park waste-free.

Based on this general purpose, you ask yourself ‘What’s stopping us?’ In this case, possible answers are: 

  • People don’t clean up their waste
  • The park is riddled with waste, so new visitors leave their waste next to the pile that’s already there (leaving your waste on the ground is the norm)
  • Visitors do not feel guilty about their misbehaviour
  • There aren’t enough garbage bins.
  • We can’t keep an eye on every visitor
  • We don’t have enough manpower to call out people on their misbehaviour.
  • It’s hard to pluck the waste out of the bushes. This is very time-consuming.

 Again, you turn the generated sentences into focus questions.

Based on the obstacles above, possible questions would be:

  • How might we encourage visitors to clean up their waste?
  • How might we prevent people from leaving their waste behind? (or: How can we make the park look clean, so people won’t want to spoil it?)
  • How can we make people feel ashamed of leaving waste behind?
  • How can we make sure there are always enough places to throw away your garbage?
  • How can we keep an eye on every visitor in the park?
  • How can we hold every person who misbehaves accountable? (or: how can we make sure we always have enough manpower to call out litterers?)
  • How can we make it easy to remove waste from the bushes?

Each of these questions focuses on a slightly different aspect of the problem. Some questions will seem similar. However, a small difference in the way a question is phrased can lead to wildly different ideas.

Take the first and second question, for instance. ‘Cleaning up’ and ‘not leaving behind’ might seem similar. However, thinking about ways to encourage people to clean up their waste will lead to other ideas than thinking about ways to prevent people from leaving waste behind. The focus on ‘cleaning up’ takes waste as a given. The focus on ‘not leaving behind’, however, could easily lead to ideas where you prevent the creation of waste altogether. You could, for instance, offer visitors food without packaging (limiting the number of people who bring their own snacks). You could also think about packaging with a deposit, or even about compostable packaging

3. What’s the real problem?

The last technique I’d like to share is the technique called ‘What’s the real problem?’ You can use this simple question to generate multiple focus questions.

Imagine you’d like to think about creative solutions for a common workplace problem: tools regularly get lost.

First, answer the question ‘What’s the real problem?’ What makes losing tools so annoying?

In this case, you might answer:

  • Employees often spend a lot of time searching for the right tools, causing a drop in productivity.
  • Lost tools have to be replaced regularly. An unnecessary expense.
  • Having tools lying around can be dangerous, as factory workers can trip over them. Displaced tools can even end up in the moving parts of a machine.

Obviously, these insights are input for new focus questions.

The insights could lead to questions like:

  • How might we prevent employees from having to look for tools? (this question might, for instance, lead to a cabinet with spare tools)
  • How might we ensure that tools never have to be replaced? (this might lead to a personal utility belt for each employee. Every employee is responsible for his or her own belt)
  • How can we keep tools from being displaced? (this could lead to a tool board with sensors, automatically checking if every piece is in place at the end of the shift. It could also lead to a utility belt with tools attached to elastic cords)

Choosing the most promising question(s)

Once you have listed a bunch of different questions, make a quick selection. Eliminate questions that focus on elements which don’t really matter. Also, get rid of questions that are not in line with the 5 points of the focus-checklist;

  • Addressing just one issue
  • Specific
  • Clear
  • Positive
  • Actionable

Often it’s possible to re-write a lousy question is such a way that it passes the focus-checklist test. Do this where possible.

Now that you’ve narrowed down your list of questions, select the most promising ones. Which questions are inspiring? If you read the question, you should immediately get your first ideas. If not, it’s probably not a great question.

Which focus questions you choose, can be best decided with those directly involved. As a team, consider which questions are most inspiring and which aspects of the problem are most promising to focus on.

You don’t have to end up with one single question. It’s usually a good idea to think about multiple questions. In different rounds, you can look at your challenge from different angles. This way you’ll end up with more (and more creative) ideas.

How many questions can you come up with for your challenge?


Would you like to know more about creative problemsolving?

Perhaps it’s time to train your team in ‘Creative Problemsolving‘.

You’ll learn how to ask the right question, how to quickly analyse your problem and how to come up with truly original solutions.

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