The Most Powerful Question You Can Ask


Every leader on the planet is looking for ways to make their groups more cohesive; to empower it to solve problems on its own. The question is, how?

The other day, I heard a cool story on how to do that by asking one simple question. The story goes like this:

A few years back, a team of Pixar engineers were using a new programming technique to solve a tough problem. All of a sudden they look up to see Ed Catmull watching them. The engineers freeze. This is Ed Freaking Catmull, president and co-founder of Pixar. Not just their boss, but also the most powerful person in their industry, a brilliant engineer who worked with George Lucas, Steve Jobs, and who literally invented some of the graphics tools animators use every day.

Catmull mildly asks the engineers what they’re up to, and so they tell himCatmull nods, watches for a few minutes. Then he asks a question.

“Hey, after you’re done, would you mind coming by my office and teaching me that?” 

So they did. The engineers spent a highly engaging hour walking Catmull through the new technique.

Isn’t that great? No big speeches, no memos, nothing fancy. But the engineer who told the story still got goosebumps about it, ten years later. Because in his simple, curious question, Catmull had delivered three unmistakable signals:

  • Learning is valued here
  • I’m not above you
  • We teach each other things

We normally think of cohesion as a trait: groups either have it or they don’t. But that’s wrong. Cohesion is a conversation. It’s an exchange of behaviors that happens over and over.  Small signals — hey, would you teach me that? — that send a larger message: we are connected.