For many people — Chautauquans included — asking lots of questions is daunting, discomforting, impolite, taxing, risky, time consuming and sometimes unnecessary.
For Hal Gregersen, executive director of MIT’s Leadership Center, questioning is essential for developing innovative leaders to solve the world’s problems. Innovation begins with questions, especially those that are atypical.
At 3 p.m. Saturday in the Hall of Philosophy, Gregersen will focus on “Asking the Right Questions Before Someone Else Does.” This will be the third lecture in the Women’s Club’s Contemporary Issues Forum series.
By “the right questions,” he means the ones that disrupt people’s view of — and interaction with — the world.
“If you’re not asking the right questions, you’re not getting the right answers,” Gregersen said. “Asking great questions is at the core of great leadership.”
Gregersen is convinced that, by asking a series of probing questions — including elementary and even “stupid” questions that others laugh at — innovative leaders discern “what they don’t know they don’t know” about a situation. Whittling down their assumptions, they become aware of factors that it would not have occurred to them to think about, let alone ask about.
Turning situations on their head and challenging the status quo through questions based in part on using all of one’s senses and being fully present, Gregersen said, better enables leaders to solve significant problems.
In The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators, Gregersen and his co-authors, Jeff Dyer and Clayton Christensen, present research contrary to the popular idea of “brained-ness” — particularly the notion that some people are genetically disposed to being creative because they are right-brained. They found creativity isn’t just genetically endowed at birth; more often than not, it is learned.
According to Gregersen and his colleagues, by changing their behavior and acquiring new skills, people can enhance their creative influence. By acting differently, they can not only think differently, but also make a difference in their own lives and in the lives of many others.
Gregersen has co-authored nine other books, including It Starts with One: Changing Individuals Changes Organizations and Global Explorers: The Next Generation of Leaders. He has also published more than 50 articles, book chapters and cases on leading innovation and change, and received several awards for his research and teaching. Numerous national and global media have highlighted his work.
Gregersen credits his parents for sparking his curiosity in innovation and questioning.
“My mother was incredibly observant,” Gregersen said. “She asked questions others wouldn’t. I also had the gift of a father who was very inventive with mechanical things. When needed, he would make a part or a tool. They were a combination of those who watch the world carefully, ask questions, and explore.”
While earning his B.A. in management at the University of Utah, Gregersen was smitten by a class in leadership, so he pursued an M.A. in organizational behavior at Brigham Young University, and his Ph.D. in administration at the University of California, Irvine.
As an assistant professor, his first position was at Pennsylvania State University – Erie, where he taught international human resource management, organizational behavior and organizational change for four years.
Before joining MIT in 2014, Gregersen served as a chaired professor of leadership and innovation at INSEAD, the graduate business school based in France. There, he pursued executive teaching, coaching and research about how leaders in business, government and society discover ideas and deliver positive and powerful results.
“Over two decades ago, I came across a practice of asking nothing but questions — catalytic questions,” he said. “I was teaching and got stuck on something, so I took 10 minutes in class and just asked questions about it and it worked. Ever since, I’ve done this with tens of thousands of groups around the world.”
The term “catalytic” was a conscious choice, Gregersen said.
“It means ‘to dissolve something down,’ ” he said. “Catalytic questions are ones that dissolve down the assumptions you have of the world. They are the most likely to be disruptive and challenge the status quo.“
Deeply curious about how leaders find and ask the right questions, Gregersen and Christensen are currently in the process of studying over 100 prominent business and government leaders.
In addition, Gregersen has founded The 4-24 Project to rekindle in adults worldwide the creative power of asking the right questions that they once possessed as 4-year-olds.
“Children learn fast that answers trump questions, and that quick answers are important,” he said. “It is up to adults to pass along the skill of questioning to the next generation.”