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The art of inquiry

Inquiry is more than asking good questions. It is the purposeful act of seeking knowledge through questions.

5 min read


The art of inquiry


Brian Grazer has produced some of the most well-known television shows and movies of the past four decades. Along with partner Ron Howard, Brian co-founded Imagine Entertainment, which has produced dozens of highly successful shows including “24,” “Parenthood,” “Lie to Me” and “Empire.” Grazer’s movie catalogue includes “A Beautiful Mind,” “The Da Vinci Code” and “Apollo 13.” In addition to financial success, movies and television shows have earned the studio nominations for 43 Academy Awards and 195 Emmy Awards. In 2007, Grazer was named one of Time Magazine’s most influential people in the world.

In “A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life,” Grazer wrote:

”Here’s the secret that we don’t seem to understand, the wonderful connection we’re not making: Curiosity is the tool that sparks creativity. Curiosity is the technique that gets to innovation.

Questions create a mind-set of innovation and creativity. Curiosity presumes that there might be something new out there. Curiosity presumes that there might be something outside our own experience out there. Curiosity allows the possibility that the way we’re doing it now isn’t the only way, or even the best way.”

Merriam-Webster defines art as a “skill acquired by experience, study, or, observation.” Developing this particular skill comes from building and demonstrating comfort with asking meaningful, probing questions, letting responses guide subsequent questions in order to understand a topic — and doing so in a natural, conversational manner.

The Art of Inquiry applies to learning more about ideas, interests and concerns of your colleagues, customers, competitors and vendors.

Curiosity leads to questions, and questions are how we bring the Art of Inquiry to life. So why not refer to this leadership practice as the art of questioning? Inquiry is more than asking good questions. It is the purposeful act of seeking knowledge through questions. Mastering the Art of Inquiry means building a competency that facilitates the exchange of knowledge and contributes to the development of relationships, where both aspects — the knowledge exchange and relationship development — are equally important.

Think of the Art of Inquiry as a leadership practice that invites inclusion and engagement among colleagues.

In every organization, there is a need to know more. More about team members, more about customers, more about competition, more about the offering, and more and more. Formal research is one dimension of sourcing new information. Curiosity leads to questions, and questions are how we bring the art of inquiry to life. Meaningful questions are incredibly powerful in guiding discovery and learning.

Curiosity and good questions

Maybe there’s no such thing as a bad question, but there is a matter of relevance. As you practice the Art of Inquiry and express authentic curiosity, let the environment guide your questions.

A helpful framework to inform relevant questions is to take a deductive view of a specific situation. Determine the bigger-picture context of a situation you’re in, be it a team meeting, project discussion or simply a conversation with a colleague. Imagine the top of a funnel — the widest part — which represents the bigger picture of a situation, and seek to understand the specific case being discussed in context of that bigger picture.

For instance, if you are working on a project that affects a number of parts of your organization, some of these bigger-picture contextual questions may include:

  • What is the purpose of the project?
  • How did it come about?
  • What does success look like?
  • How does this endeavor fit into the broader organization’s mission?
  • Why was company leadership willing to commit to this project?
  • What if the organization would not have undertaken this endeavor?
  • How does this project leverage our competencies as an organization?
  • What are some of the risks we need to be cognizant of with this endeavor?
  • Who else in the company should we be speaking with to gather their insights on this work?
  • Have other organizations taken on similar projects, and if so, what can we learn from their experience?
  • Who are the subject-matter experts in this area and how can we access them?

These bigger-picture contextual questions can help in developing a deeper understanding and create fodder to frame more specific and tactical questions of relevance to the project.

Steps to practice in mastering the Art of Inquiry

  1. Frame questions around points of curiosity that will contribute to the organization’s dialog.
  2. Listen for invitations for follow-on questions.
  3. Distill the answer and play it back to affirm your understanding.
  4. Empathetically inquire about practices that don’t make sense to you; you may just need more information, or maybe the practice no longer serves your organization.
  5. Leverage this practice to develop relationships within and outside your organization.


Dave Coffaro, principal, Strategic Advisory Consulting Group, has more than 30 years of experience expanding and refining his craft as a strategic organizational advisor, leader and developer of people. He has a distinguished record of leadership in the design, development and implementation of growth-oriented business strategies. Coffaro’s areas of expertise include leading organizations in the process of strategy development and execution, change leadership, organization transformation and innovation. He is a well-respected consultant and leader, with a strong reputation for investing in and developing diverse talent for the benefit of organizations and their stakeholders.

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