Ask Better Questions, Get Better Results

It is hard to believe that better business could be as simple as asking better questions. In her presentation featured as the third of five lectures in the AIANY Professional Practice Committee’s Transforming Architectural Practice series, Marilee Adams, PhD, blended psychology, business practice, and personal history into a simple approach. She provided both the logic and motivation to rethink the way that we use questions in our business and personal lives.

Adams, a psychologist by training and author of the international best-seller Change Your Questions, Change Your Life: 10 Powerful Tools for Life and Work, focused on the seemingly simple act of asking the right questions and the various degrees of empowerment that can arise from doing so. She began with a series of personal anecdotes and examples from her career of coaching and leadership training. Her approach is similar to a blend of “cup half full” thinking and ”five why’s” techniques, wherein she encourages an approach to asking questions that  seek to uncover positive outcomes and maintain the perspective of a learner – someone who truly seeks to understand and discover.

One of the teaching tools presented by Adams demonstrated the importance of this positivity: a map showing the various pathways that we choose when formulating questions. She explained the difference between a “learner mindset,” which is positive and exploratory, and a “judger mindset,” which has a tendency to find fault and looks for ways to blame one’s self or others. Most importantly, she provided thoughtful guidance on ways to be open-ended and not assume one knows the answers to the questions..

Several audience members confessed that their architecture school training may have encouraged defending solutions rather than asking questions. Adams helped the audience consider how asking questions is a truly powerful act that, when done thoughtfully, can reinforce rather than undermine the authority of an important solution.

The conversation also explored the way we work as architects includes asking questions, but we may not always address our clients or audience in a way that leads to successful outcomes. For example, are our programming and pre-design techniques truly effective in seeking new and positive outcomes, or have we built in assumptions about what the answer may be? By using the techniques Adams presented, we might be able to re-craft our questions and, as a result, redirect our outcomes and business performance.

Adams promotes a truly inquisitive mindset, someone who says to themselves: “What is possible? What is the future that I would like to see for myself and others? How may we work to make that happen?” She said that once we have focused on these questions, we should pose these questions to those around us in pursuit of new behaviors and outcomes.

The audience discussed the relation of these concepts to the AIA’s National Repositioning initiative. Among these provocations was a discussion about how we are posing questions regarding our profession at this moment in time. Everyone was curious about whether we are asking the right questions. Adams’s comparison of the “judger” and “learner” mindset may be applied to these broad professional questions, so instead of asking “Who or what is to blame for changes in our profession?,” we might pose “What is the future condition we would like to see, and what do we need to do in order to get there?”

Melissa Marsh is Founder and CEO of Plastarc, a social research, workplace innovation and real estate strategy firm serving tenants and owner-occupiers, and collaborating with architecture and design firms. Plastarc is a portmanteau of Plastic and Architecture representing a focus on engaging architecture to be more flexible, dynamic, and fun through social research and analytics. Melissa is a regular contributor to e-Oculus, and can be reached at

Event: Transforming Architectural Practice Series: Critical Questions: Key Methods for Engaging Talent and Clients
Location: Center for Architecture, 04.21.14
Speaker: Marilee Adams, PhD, President, Inquiry Institute; and Melissa Marsh, Founder and CEO, Plastarc (moderator)
Organizers: AIANY Chapter Professional Practice Committee