For Justice Innovators, Asking the Right Questions Is Key

“Answers are closed rooms; and questions are open doors that invite us in.”
~ Nancy Willard

In my last couple of posts (here and here) I’ve been exploring some of the conditions needed for justice innovation. I’ve looked at why including users in the design of new justice solutions is important, and I’ve discussed why I believe we need to rethink some of our problem solving approaches. In my last post in this innovation series, I want to talk about the “art of questioning” and how asking the right questions can help us become more empathetic, creative and successful justice innovators.

Asking questions and answering them may seem like second nature, particularly for lawyers who spend a great deal of time asking and answering questions. Yet, there is a science to asking questions. Think for a minute about the myriad of question types. One can ask, for example,

  • Hypothetical questions
  • Closed questions
  • Provocative questions
  • Redirect questions
  • Rhetorical questions
  • Reflective questions
  • Clarifying questions

(But, of course we all know there is no such thing as a stupid question!)

With all of these options, how do you know what kind of question to ask? Simple. Think about the kind of answer you want to get.

Consider the different answers each of these questions solicits.

Q1: Are you satisfied with the current experience of SRLs in the justice system?
Q2: What barriers exist for SRLs in the justice system?
Q3: If SRLs were to redesign the justice system, what would it look like?

Q1 simply generates a yes/no answer. Q2 opens up a discussion, but a very narrow one. Q3, however, generates reflective thinking. It encourages imagination and creativity, while also encouraging us to examine an issue from a different point of view. In short: it helps us to explore new possibilities that can lead to innovation.

But what makes a good question? As Lisa Bodell points out in this Forbes article, questions that inspire innovation are most likely to start with “how”, “which”, “why” and “if”. This is because these types of questions can “be specific without limiting imagination”.

One of the challenges to innovating in the justice system is breaking out of our traditional thought patterns. Good questions can help. They can,

  • Generate creativity and insight.
  • Inspire dialogue and discovery.
  • Encourage thought experiments.
  • Reframe an issue or challenge assumptions.

The right question can also help set a tone. For example, opening a meeting with a question that invites people to turn the status quo on its head sends a strong message that thinking-out-side the box is encouraged.

Finally, asking the right questions can help us avoid jumping directly to solutions. In my previous post, I wrote about the business-as-usual (BAU) approach to problem solving. The BAU approach assumes we already understand the problem and just need to solve it. Good questions help us avoid this mistake. They force us to take a step back to explore, unpack and reconsider the problem. In some cases good questions bring us to the realization that the problem is very different from what we first thought.

Before you can ask the question however, you have to come up with it! Good questions take time to compose and they require careful forethought. When I’m preparing an innovation session I think a lot about the questions I will ask and why I will ask them. I consider the following:

  • Is this question necessary?
  • What do I want to accomplish with this question?
  • Is this question going to generate optimism and excitement or is it going to encourage negativity and a focus on past problems?
  • Is my question focused enough to generate effective answers but open enough to allow for creativity and new ideas to emerge.
  • Will it lead to other questions?

Bottom line: questions are as important as answers. And, just as answering reflective questions requires imagination, creativity, and courage, so does asking them.

I’d like to end with a bit of demonstration on the power of asking creative questions. Hopefully you’ll join me in this experiment! Please pick one of the questions below and answer it in the comments. I want to hear your most imaginative, creative and innovative ideas! I know that you, my fellow Slawyers, are up for the challenge!

  • If you were “CEO” of the justice system for one day what three things would you change and why?
  • In 2025 Canada is recognized as having the best civil justice system in the world. How did we manage to win this award?
  • How can architects help us to improve access to justice?
  • Using one sentence, describe the perfect justice system. (Okay, okay not really a question but you get the idea!)

— Nicole Aylwin


  1. The perfect justice system costs government more up front but reduces the burdens on society further down the line by a drastic reduction, from the user’s perspective, of the crippling expense of family law litigation.

  2. There is a “trilogy” of books by John Ralston Saul from the early nineties in which he demonstrates that the ability and willingness to ask questions is far more valuable than the desire to present answers (that tend to foreclose further deliberation).

    As an SRL myself I had to ask questions. In due course I found that the legal profession reacted very negatively to some of them. The first one – still of enduring significance – was why were there two versions of the statutory provision that was key to what I was litigating? It was originally enacted in 1992 and relied on a hybrid Latin / English term: prima facie case. I would expect most lawyers to say the meaning of this term is uncontroversial. However I would then refer them to the section in the book “The Law of Evidence in Canada” that discusses the prima facie terms. The first edition was published in 1992, and I suspect that may be why when I dealt with it (years later), that term was no longer found in that statutory provision.

    So I had two questions: did the two versions mean the same thing; and when and how was the change made. No one wanted to entertain those questions so I benefitted from finding the answers myself. This was an opportunity to learn something about both legal language and the legislative process. Our legislatures have a mandate to enact, amend and repeal legislation. There was no record of this provision ever being amended. With persistence I determined that the change had been effected by “statutory revision”. That however meant it had to be cosmetic. And the evidence clearly and overwhelmingly says that it was (and remains) substantive.

    I have tried challenging that conduct through several avenues including a tort action that was summarily dismissed. Such results however have done nothing to dissuade me from continuing to pursue this issue (especially as additional issues have come to my attention).

    Perhaps my experience as an SRL has been unique, but I believe it demonstrates the value of asking questions.

  3. Asking questions is a request for building my understanding of how things work, how things are connected, how things are monitored, how things can be corrected, how things or processes can be improved etc.

    They are the basis of building on what is our understanding (where we are) so that we can determine where we are going in any aspect of things in which is of interest to us.