Provocative Questions


By David Creelman

If a university professor asks how to handle a difficult situation, the response “Interesting situation, I wonder what James Bond would do?” will yield a poor mark. Yet, your question about Bond might lead to some fresh insights. A good question is often superior to a mediocre answer. Part of HR’s job is to be good at asking provocative questions; questions which do not necessarily have right answers.

What provocative questions do you like to ask?

How it works
If your goal is to convey information then you should use answers. If your goal is to convey understanding , questions are the better tool. Think of understanding as an exercise of reconfiguring someone’s brain. For that reconfiguration to occur, the brain has to work: you work a brain by asking questions rather than delivering answers.

Questions are also powerful for HR because sometimes you do not know enough of the context to supply good answers. Questions enable people to draw on their own deep insights into a problem. Have you ever been able to help someone find their own answer, an answer you could never have provided, simply by asking provocative questions?

Who would you miss?
One question I like to ask is “Which employees would you really miss if they left?” Organizations have a remarkable ability to get over the loss of an employee. An organization is like a bucket of water and the employee like a fist in the bucket; pull out the fist and the water flows back seamlessly. This is a somewhat sad phenomenon, but it does lead to that provocative question: Who would you really miss if they left?

This question draws out what is unique, what is rare, what is irreplaceable.

I am tempted to start answering this question myself. I reflect on the people I have worked with and start making distinctions between the ones who were simply good and the ones I truly miss working with. Provocative questions should be like that. You should have to actively hold your tongue from answering your own questions.

Living without answers
For some questions you want an answer. If we ask “What kind of intervention won’t feel like an imposition on employees?” then we ultimately want to come up with a specific set of tactics.

Other questions do not need to end with an answer because your goal is to reconfigure the brain (to impart understanding) not initiate a specific action. For example, in pondering “Who would you really miss if they left?” you do not need to come up with a definitive list of people; or a final list of characteristics that make people uniquely “missable”. Nor do you need to implement a retention plan for this new category of talent. This does not mean that understanding exists in a realm far removed from action, just that understanding affects many actions, often in subtle ways.

The impact of understanding is usually far greater than the impact of an identifiable decision; it is just that the impact may be invisible. We have to embrace the primacy of the invisible; that some things really do matter even if we cannot weigh them on a scale or measure them with a ruler. Provocative questions are a way to get people to engage with the intangible, the invisible, the important things that cannot be nailed down.

Bond, James Bond
People do want help with answers. If your professor is struggling with your “answer” of “What would James Bond do?” let me help. What Bond would do is to reduce the whole thrust of the situation into a pithy one liner.

So I will leave you with this: if James Bond were to capture the essence of this article in a single line, what would he say?

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research, providing writing, research and speaking on human-capital management. He also leads a club on evidence-based management with Carnegie Mellon’s Denise Rousseau. He can be reached at

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  1. Here is a provocative question for you: “What would the organization miss if HR were to disappear tomorrow? Would it really matter? How else could those things be done?”

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