Opinion Paper

One of the characteristics of highly effective people and highly effective organisations is their capacity to ask MDQs – Massively Difficult Questions. MDQs are the essential precursors to insight. They force people to address issues they may have been avoiding, open out alternate perspectives and stimulate deep reflection.

Effective individuals pose such questions both for others and for themselves; and welcome MDQs from others. They accept that once crafted, an MDQ cannot be put back into its box unless and until it has unleashed a wide-ranging and disciplined examination of circumstances, processes, intent and motivation. They recognise that “no gain without pain” applies as much to intellectual development as to physical development. And they meet the challenge of facing up to an MDQ in much the same mental state as a mountaineer at the foot of a sheer rock face – they climb it because it is there.

The art of crafting MDQs is not easy. When we ask skilled practitioners in mentoring and coaching how they do it, the first step they define is a very high quality of listening. There is often a sense of stillness, both physical and mental, in which they attend to what is being said (and what is not being said). Intuition is heightened by a suspension of the natural instinct to judge, compare, assess or provide an answer. Their intent is simply to understand, without overlaying the issue with their own values, preconceptions or expectations. This is, for many people, very hard to accomplish.

The second step we can describe as positioning. They attempt to find a location in reflective space where they can achieve a balance between being engaged and disengaged, expansive and focused in their thinking, being aware of the detail yet observing the big picture.

This duality of perception exposes areas of avoidance – holes in the fabric of logic and/or emotional awareness, which they gradually bring more clearly into focus. Like an astronomer seeking to assure himself that what he sees is real, they cautiously probe the edges of their intuition.

Then they compose – finding and putting together the words that will cut to the heart of the issue. Often these words echo those used by the other person but place them in a different context or perspective.

Finally, they wait. Once released, the MDQ needs time to percolate, to wreak its subtle effects on the other person’s mind. Adding further words, or asking further questions will break the spell. The learning partner needs to make their own journey into reflective space, following a similar, though probably not the same, path as the coach or mentor. Often, the power of the question is that it evokes a strong sense of appositeness, of rightness – “this is the question I needed to be asked right now”.

People, who create and impart MDQs naturally, typically do so in a wide range of situations. It’s a skill of great value to the non-executive director, who can challenge accepted thinking without causing affront or dissension. And to the group chief executive, who can stimulate a much higher quality of strategic thinking among the management teams of subsidiaries through a small number of highly targeted questions that test ideas, approaches and assumptions.

There’s a role for MDQs in all levels of education, in politics, in theatre, in the management of work-life balance – indeed, in all aspects of human endeavour. But, because they are so demanding, both on those, who craft them, and those, who receive them, society, in general, avoid them. Developing our capacity to create and self-manage tough questions is perhaps a sign of maturity for individuals, organisations and communities.

Some valuable MDQs for managers

The following is a list of some useful MDQs. If you want to raise your effectiveness as a coach or mentor – or simply as a manager – consider building your own library of MDQs. The wider the range of MDQs you have at your disposal, the easier it is to respond appropriately to people and organisations, who need help in focusing their reflection.

  1. What’s the consequence of not doing this?
  2. What do you want to become?
  3. How would you explain this to your children/spouse?
  4. If you weren’t here for a month, what wouldn’t get done?
  5. How much do you respect your colleagues? Yourself?
  6. How will you feel about this decision when you look back at it in two years’ time?
  7. What does your gut instinct tell you?
  8. How genuinely committed are you to this goal?
  9. Who else’s job are you doing, in addition to your own?
  10. How much is enough/ good enough?
  11. Who is in control of this situation?
  12. Whose opinion do you value?
  13. How does this approach fit with your/ our values?
  14. What happens if you do nothing?
  15. If all the obstacles disappeared, what would you do?
  16. What could you stop doing that would help your situation?
  17. By how much do you want to improve, by when?
  18. If you had another 100 years to live, would this still be a priority for you?
  19. Who else’s job are you doing as well as your own?
  20. What would put you back in control?
  21. Do you need to control this situation? If so, why?
  22. What efforts have you made to understand the other person’s perspective?
  23. In this situation, how helpful is it to be right?
  24. If you could give vent to your real feelings, without fear of consequences, what would you say?
  25. How pure are your intentions?
  26. What were the differences between the best and worst (career) decisions you have made?
  27. If this is really what you want to do, why haven’t you started?
  28. How much could you have contributed to the problem?
  29. What is your need from this situation?
  30. What would be the impact of doing exactly the opposite of what is planned?