Question is the single most important part of answering any concern about the future. 

"If given an hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.” - Einstein

What the question is will determine the nature of the answer more than any other variables. Typically you have to ask a different question to get a different answer. The same question addressed in the same ways gets you no further than where you started from. Similarly, questions written as hypotheses only confirm or deny the hypothesis rather than yielding new understanding.

A well-designed question helps break through the boundaries that cripple organizational ambitions by building new and deeper levels of understanding. The challenge is to get teams to consider a question that takes them into uncomfortable (and often more ambiguous) territory.

Political 'correctness', taboos, and group-think blindness combine to produce very shallow, shared understanding and painfully flawed common understanding of environments that need to be challenged.

When people determine that the answer is to use a screwdriver and bound the problem they miss that employing a hammer would have been better. Their probability of success is at best limited! So go after fundamental assumptions, existing paradigms, longer time frames than normal and blind spots first.

Specific and near-term questions certainly run the risk of capturing continuity but miss vital changes emerging on the horizon. On the other hand, a long-term horizon opens up the imagination to many, novel, and exciting possibilities. Therefore for real world, ambiguous, and complex problems it is beneficial to phrase the question in a manner that encourages exploring the topic as opposed to initially defining it.

Framing better questions*
Use these questions to check the power and effectiveness of your own question:

  • Is this question relevant to the real life and the work of the people who will be exploring it?
  • Is this a genuine question - a question to which i/we don't have the answer?
  • What work do I want the question to do? That is, what kind of conversation, meanings, and feelings do I imagine this question will evoke in those exploring it?
  • Is this question likely to invite fresh thinking/feeling? Is it familiar enough to be recognizable and relevant - and different enough to call forward a new response?
  • What assumptions and beliefs are embedded in the way this question is constructed? Should they be so embedded?
  • Is this question likely to generate hope, imagination, engagement, creative action and new possibilities or is it likely to increase a focus on past problems and obstacles?
  • Does this question leave room for new and different questions to be raised as the initial question is explored?

* Adapted from Sally Ann Roth, Public Conversations Project c. 1998

Systems thinking
The initial question is not about the "decision" that is to be made but instead acts to define the relevant "system under scrutiny" that will contain the eventual decision. The system needs to be drawn widely enough to include all the competing driving forces that impact on the initial question. Just what the extent of the system often produces controversy among stakeholders at the start of the exercise but can be used as a source of new learning and understanding.

A question also needs to "chunk up" to its highest level of abstraction and breadth relative to the organization. For example: 'The future of the car' is too narrow for a car manufacturer. 'The future of mobility' is better. 'The future of access' may be better still, but may be too widely drawn, depending on the specific question that the client has.

In some cases, the question can be general because the purpose is informational or for better understanding. In other cases, you may have a need for better foresight in order to make a decision. The question has to address your underlying need. This is unusually hard to do, as many people and teams feel a need for something but cannot articulate it. They also find the crafting of a question very difficult to do. Too broad a question ("What is the future of the world?") produces no or very limited answers but too narrow a question, nothing new. But, as some philosopher observed, a question well-structured is half answered. Spend time on it, challenge it, look at it from every angle and ask how the outcome might be too restrictive or too encompassing before accepting it as your "right question".

Stakeholder engagement
Whether we are asking the "right question" depends entirely upon the purpose and goals of the exercise. The stakeholders, particularly the sponsor/champion, have to feel good about the question or they will worry about the exercise from beginning to end and may finally disown the results. You impose your own question on your stakeholders at your own risk. The question should be crafted by expert judgment and agreed upon by both the sponsor/champion and the team conducting the exercise.

Ask them: What are you worried about? What if you had the answer to a question about your worries, what would you do with it? Who else could use the answer? Don't answer questions that have no value to stakeholders.

A good question has many elements beyond the purpose of the project:

  • A key question; usually one short, memorable, engaging phrase.
  • A focused description. In the exercise, there may be two dozen descriptors, or so, but there has to be one primary, focused description. This description can be very specific, like GNP growth rates or consumer sales or profits, or it can be very general, such as the overall social-demographic and economic characteristics of a defined market. A description could be as broad as "global climate" or "world peace."
  • A definition or way to measure the focused description
  • A geographical scope (a territory, a country, the world …)
  • A time horizon (2020, 2050, 2100, etc.)
  • Exclusions (geographies, products, organizations etc. not of interest)
  • Special attention (issues deserving an in-depth look)

In addition, there may be a follow-up question(s) which relates the question directly to the concerns of the stakeholders.

Definition of metrics deserves extreme care for one tends to get what one measures (and rewards). Metrics is often the source of unintended consequences as the system exploits the metric while losing sight of the side impacts.

While limits facilitate and simplify process they are ultimately arbitrary and artificial (from a humankind perspective) and invite exclusion of important factors that will ultimately dominate the problem and potentially dictate the end outcome. Even for something with as seemingly clean a timeline as 'win the Olympic Games for 2024' the drawing of geographic bounds to the city/region/state/nation or time frame to 2014 (when they are awarded) or 2018 (when the plans must be finalized for construction) or 2024 or 2028 (after the facilities have been converted to end-uses all involve a level of arbitrariness that invites blind spots.

For example, the question "What will be the GDP growth rate in the future" is very different from "What will likely be the average annual GDP growth rate in the U.S. from 2011 to 2018 and under what different sets of conditions?" A follow up question that is more normative and visionary could be: "And given these different conditions, where are our best opportunities for top line growth?"

Then check your question's robustness using the following checklist:

  • Is the intent clear and positive in its outlook?
  • Is it too broad or narrowly defined?
  • How will the stakeholders view the project or question?
  • Are the boundaries and time horizon clear?
  • What opportunities and risks may be won or lost by the thrust of the question?
  • What answers would one expect from the question?
  • Will these give expected and unexpected answers (both are important)?

Continuous checking
After identifying "the system" revisit whether the right question has been asked and keep reviewing it as the exercise proceeds and learning and understanding grow. In particular, evaluate how the stakeholders view the exercise at regular intervals during and after its completion. In this way, success will bring stakeholder learning, acceptance and action arising from the outcome.

Keep asking "what is the purpose of the project?" and "what are the objectives of the question(s)?" and check that the answers to these questions are always satisfied during the life of the exercise:

Then begin researching your question by working through our strategic foresight methods selecting quantitative, qualitative or mixed methods that suit your purpose.

Using multiple methods will help ensure that you derive a thoroughly researched answer. You do not need to use every method; just select those that help develop a robust understanding of the issue and associated solutions.

For more information consult the 'Practical Foresight Guide' for more on running your project.

Further reference

'Question' and the remainder of the associated tool bar is a mixture of methods gathered together in a logical sequence to allow members to conduct robust strategic foresight projects in one place or to dip in and dip out as required.

The original idea for this came from a flowchart offered by Joseph (Joe) P. Coates, consulting futurist, as 'How to do a Future Study'.


With grateful thanks to the members of the Association of Professional Futurists and Shaping Tomorrow who contributed most of this advice.

We are grateful to both Joe and Terry for sharing their ideas and time with us and for all those futurists, strategists and change agents who developed and authored the many methods offered here as web templates. The latter's contributions to the development of strategic foresight are noted in the History tab of each individual method.

The future of this tool bar is not complete. We are continuing to develop the tool bar with more added methods and introducing artificial intelligence to take as much of the drudge out of the process and offer connections and ideas that the human mind cannot see on its own.

This method and your response can be shared with other members or kept private using the 'Privacy' field and through the 'Tag', 'Report' and 'Forum' functionalities. Use 'Tag' and/or 'Report' to aggregate your analyses, or add a 'Forum' to ask others where they agree/disagree and encourage them to make their own analysis from their unique vantage point.

Click the 'Invite tab to send invitations to other members or non-members (colleagues, external experts etc.) to ask for their input. You can whether or not you want anonymous responses.  These can be viewed and exported within the Responses tab.

Contact us
Even with all the advice and tools we have provided here starting a foresight project from scratch can be a daunting prospect to a beginner. Let us know if you need help with this method or want a group facilitation exercise or full project or program carried out by us. We promise to leave behind more internal knowledgeable people who can expand your initiative for better organizational performance.

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