Unlocking the power of 'how might we?' questions

Lee Smith

31 May 2024
Employee Engagement
Employee Experience
EX design 
When it comes to improving the employee experience (EX) within your organisation, there’s one powerful question you need to ask: ‘how might we?’  

These three words form the start of one of the most powerful and overlooked tools in the EX kitbag. Used in the right way, ‘how might we?’ questions can help you involve employees in co-creating the solution and, in doing so, transform your EX.
'How might we?' questions are a hallmark of design thinking, a human-centered approach to problem-solving which encourages co-creation, iteration and experimentation. Its proponents believe it’s one of the most effective ways to create and deliver solutions that work for those impacted by them – it’s something we explore in depth in our ground-breaking EX Designer Masterclass (next cohort kicking off 3 July).  

So how do these questions work and what makes them so powerful?  

Unlike typical problem statements, HMW questions are framed to encourage open-mindedness and creativity, presenting the task as an opportunity rather than a problem to fix. As such they serve as an invitation to explore possibilities rather than jumping straight to solutions, fostering a culture of curiosity and collaboration.  

It’s a subtle difference, but in practice makes a world of difference!
There are three reasons why HMW questions make so much sense:  

  1. ‘How’ is optimistic, suggesting the challenge can be overcome.  HMW questions shift the focus from what's wrong (negative) to what could be improved (positive). This ‘polarity switch’ encourages employees to think outside the box and sparks innovative solutions. The positive framing of HMW questions can totally transform the way employees approach problems. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by challenges and lost in the weeds, they can see them as opportunities for growth and improvement.  
  2. ‘Might’ underlines that there are multiple solutions. HMW questions break down complex challenges into manageable and approachable inquiries and underlines that there’s rarely one best way. This helps unlock creativity and innovation by signaling that all ideas and all contributions count – this is the collective search for what’s possible.  
  3. ‘We’ captures the collaborative, team-based nature of the endeavour.  HMW questions turbocharge team collaboration. By collectively exploring how to tackle a challenge, teams can leverage the diverse perspectives and skills of all participants, leading to more comprehensive and effective solutions. By directly involving employees in the problem-solving process, these questions empower them to voice their ideas and concerns, to help shape the solution. This sense of ownership and involvement can significantly enhance their engagement and satisfaction at work.
So what does this look like in practice?  
It’s worth pointing out that, simple as this sounds, it can take time and practice to learn to craft really good HMW questions. These questions will have a significant impact on the outcome of your ideation – as EX Space co-founder Emma Bridger explains in the book ‘Employee Experience by Design’, “make them too broad and people will get lost, too narrow and the thinking will be constrained”. Emma also warns against the temptation to hide the solution in the question itself – this isn’t about directing people to your solution, but opening up the possibility of finding many.    
To illustrate the transformative power of HMW questions, let’s consider some practical examples touching on different areas of employee experience:  

Let’s start where a lot of people start, with employee onboarding.

We know that new employees often feel overwhelmed and disconnected during their early days in a new role or organisation. Faced with this challenge, we could ask "How might we create an onboarding experience that makes new employees feel welcomed and supported from day one?"

Posed to the right group, this could unearth a range of ideas, for instance:  

  • Designing a buddy system where new hires are paired with experienced employees. 
  • Creating interactive and engaging onboarding materials. 
  • Organising regular check-ins during the first few months.  

Faced with challenge to enhance collaboration in the workplace - getting teams to communicate and work across departments - we could ask "How might we foster better collaboration and communication among different departments?"

Again, this could unlock lots of great ideas from using collaborative tools and platforms to streamline communication, to encouraging regular interdepartmental meetings or social events.  

Finally, if tasked to boost employee wellbeing and reduce stress levels, you could ask “How might we create a work environment that promotes mental health and well-being?"  

You get the idea.
Emma also suggests going a step further by adding ‘so that….’. to include a clear outcome in the question. For instance, using the example above, “How might we foster better collaboration and communication among different departments, so that new processes reflect the needs of every team and department.”  

The power of HMW questions lies in their ability to transform challenges into opportunities for innovation and growth. By fostering a culture of curiosity, collaboration, and positivity, these questions can significantly enhance the employee experience. When employees feel heard, valued, and involved in shaping their work environment, they are more likely to be engaged, satisfied, and productive.  

Incorporating HMW questions into your organisational practices is not just a strategy for problem-solving; it's a commitment to continuous improvement and a more genuinely human-centered workplace. Start asking these questions today and witness the transformative impact they can have on your work and organisation.

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