Q-tools: An approach for discovery and knowledge work

Q-tool: Flanker

A set of standard questions that can be applied consistently to different situations might form the basis of a standard toolkit for information discovery and design.

By Dave Gray

4:56 pm
Wed, Jun 4, 2008

What is information design? And in a world where, slowly but surely, everything is being translated into, and expressed as, information, how do you begin to think about organizing the massive amounts of information we’re generating every day? What are the most successful strategies for thinking with, manipulating and organizing information?

Google home page

Google, one of the superstars of the information age, has recognized something important: that the internet does not need to be organized until you want to ask it a question. The entire Google business model is built around this premise: just-in-time organization. As soon as you have a question, Google will attempt to organize all available information in rank order, from most relevant to least relevant.

This would seem to be an ideal method for organizing information, and Google’s business success is a testament to this.

You can think of a question as a tool that you can use to increase your knowledge or reduce uncertainty. In fact, a question may be the most basic tool for gaining knowledge and working with information. If this is so, then it makes sense to ask which kinds of questions are best suited to different kinds of information challenges. A set of standard questions that can be applied consistently to different situations might form the basis of a standard toolkit for information discovery and design.


The list below attempts to define a set of “Q-tools” that may be used to generate, sort, classify and perform operations on information. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, but more of a starting point for discussion. I have also added some alternative names for each Q-tool.

PrismA prism is a question that divides information into smaller groups. The purpose of a prism is to break down information into categories or subgroups. An example might be “What are the parts of this system?” Prisms are used extensively in scientific inquiry. They are also used in organization design to map the departments and sub-departments of a company. An example question used in this activity might be “What roles are required to deliver this functionality?” To create a prism, define a question that can be used to divide a unit of information into its constituent parts. Alternative names: Divider, separator, splitter, brancher.

“What are the components?”
“What is it made of?”
“What resources are required to make this happen?”

RazorA razor is a question that divides information into two categories, based on relevance. The purpose of a razor is to define a boundary which can be used to sort any incoming information , and determine whether it lies inside our outside the boundary. A simple example: “Is this information relevant to me right now?” Productivity expert David Allen uses razors such as “Is it actionable?” as a method to process inbox information and increase productivity. A razor can also be used to sort things into rank order by asking of any two items “Which is more important?” To create a razor, define a question that can be answered only two ways, such as yes/no, or in/out. Alternative names: Cutter, fin, blade.

“Is this relevant to the issue at hand?”
“Can it be used to…?”
“Can you eat it?”
“Can you find it in a grocery store?”
“Can it be used to make a cake?”
“Which is more important?”

GeneratorA generator is a question that has a potentially unlimited number of answers. The purpose of a generator is to explore new or unknown territory and to find knowledge that may be hidden and make it explicit. An example might be “What kinds of things are possible?” Open questions are used by inventors to stimulate discovery, for example: “How might we transport sound over great distances?” To create a generator, define a question that has an unlimited set of possible answers. Alternative names: Spout, spring, opener.

“How might we…?”
“What might happen if…?”
“What kinds of things could…?”
“What is the meaning of life?”

PeelerA peeler is a single question that, when repeated, drives attention to deeper and deeper levels, like the peeling of an onion. The purpose of a peeler is to penetrate beyond superficial levels in order to get to the heart of the matter. An example might be “Why?” Taiichi Ono, the designer of Toyota’s production system, described “Five whys” as the basis of Toyota’s approach, because by the time you have asked why five times, the nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear. But a peeler does not have to use the word “why.” Another peeler results from using the question “How does that work?” This approach has served science for many years and has led to deeper and deeper levels of the onion, from atoms to particles and beyond [Is it fair to call this reductionism?]. To create a peeler, define a single question that can be asked repeatedly to drive to deeper and deeper levels of an issue. Alternative names: Ladder, drill, hammer, spike, repeater.

“What else?”
“So what?” (For developing a selling story)

FlankerA flanker is a question that seeks patterns or ideas that are similar. The purpose of a flanker is to think laterally and find an analogous situation that may help you think about things differently. An example might be “How might you approach this problem if you were a chef?” Flankers are used to break out of existing thought patterns that may cause blind spots. To create a flanker, define a question that approaches your situation from an oblique or unexpected angle. Flanker may be a subcategory of generator. Alternative names: Similator, Analogizer, slider, sider, shifter, sidestepper, lateral.

“How might this look from the opposite side?”
“What would we do if we wanted to create this problem instead of solve it?”

SplicerA splicer is a question that combines information, or sets, into groups. The purpose of a splicer is to find larger categories and simplify collections of information. An example might be “What do these things have in common?” Splicers are used to classify information and build hierarchical information structures. For example, any invertebrate animal that has four pairs of legs, no antennae and no wings may be considered as a members of a single class which we call arachnids. Splicers are also used in a process called affinity mapping, a process designed to find similarities in large groups of information. Another example might be “What things feel like they belong together?” To create a splicer, define a question that can be used to find commonality. Alternative names: Merger, on-ramp, combiner, fuser.

“What are the similarities?”
“What group does this belong to?”

A pointer is a question that has a well-defined or broadly agreed-upon answer, or set of answers. The purpose of a pointer is to gather specific information, for example: “What is your name?” Pointers are used extensively to collect information for the purposes of comparison and quantitative analysis. Census data would be an example. To create a pointer, define a question that is likely to have one, and only one, answer. Alternative names: Finder, getter, coupler.

“What is your gender?”
“How old are you?”
“What is your primary address?”
“How many languages do you speak?”

Other Q-tools that might be worth exploring:

The essay question is particularly interesting. I think there’s a benefit to a tool whose purpose is to generate a story or narrative. For example, “Tell me about a time when…”

Another might be an estimator, to use when you need to make an educated guess. Such cases are quite common in business, because most business plans are actually a combination of goals and educated guesses. Budgets, agendas and project plans are examples. An example of an estimator might be “How much will this cost?”

Another way that q-tools can be useful is to help define the purpose of a question. For example, “What is the scope of the project” could be a generator (open question, exploratory) or it could be a pointer (specific request for information). There are many occasions when a pointer could look like a generator and vice versa, causing a lot of potential confusion. Common use of q-tools would make such distinctions explicit.

1. The questions we use in tests and school might be worth exploring:
– a. Word problem
– b. Essay question
– c. Multiple choice
– d. True/false (falls under razor)
2. The Zen koan, exploring the nature of paradox
3. The riddle

I’d appreciate any thoughts that you have for additional Q-tools, as well as your thoughts about what they might be called. It seems to me that tool names should reflect the use of the tool as much as possible (a drill drills, a screwdriver drives screws, a hammer hammers, etc.). I have chosen the names with that in mind.

I’ll try to keep this list updated as new Q-tools are defined.

Please share your thoughts!

As always, your comments, thoughts and feedback are much appreciated.


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  1. botgirlq commented on June 5, 2008 | Permalink

    Hey Dave,

    Here’s an idea for a new kind of question. I call it “The Tao Bowling Ball”


  2. tony.karrer commented on June 8, 2008 | Permalink

    Wow, a lot of work to leave a short comment.

    Very good stuff here Dave. I like the visual representation and the examples as well as where they are applied.

  3. michaeldila commented on June 9, 2008 | Permalink

    Dave, I think this idea of a toolkit of questions is very intriguing. The kind of questions that interest me most, however, are those that are less like tools and more like lockpicks or even kaleidoscopes. Questions that help people escape dominant frameworks of thinking, acting being and questions that product startling and unexpected new directions for thought, the way a complicated kaleidoscope generates myriad patterns each time you even slightly revolve that chamber. I’m not sure how to visualize such ideas, but it would be cool to see you try!

  4. Dave Gray commented on June 9, 2008 | Permalink


    Can you give me a few examples of such questions, and how you might ask them?

  5. michaeldila commented on June 9, 2008 | Permalink


    It is not the form of the question, per se, so much as the act of questioning. Heidegger talked about this in terms of raising questions like “what is called thinking”? I guess what I mean is, how do we visualize a disposition to question? One idea is that of the old maps of explorers which identified the area beyond which existing knowledge ran out: this space was literally mapped out as terra incognita (land of the unknown). I am thinking of the type of questions (and questioning) that lead into the unknown, the darkness, the hidden, where we can never have the “right” question before hand. The question does not lead toward a destination or purpose, but away from one…

  6. Dave Gray commented on June 9, 2008 | Permalink

    Even a question about the unknown needs form, or it can’t be asked. Are you talking about questions like

    “What is out there?”
    “What is the meaning of life?”
    “What comes next?”

    Or are you talking about the questions we can’t ask yet because there are too many unknowns?

    I think the tool in this post called “flanker” comes the closest to your idea of a lock-pick. The flanker is all about getting outside the frame of your question in an attempt to see it from another angle; what Edward De Bono calls lateral thinking.

  7. hyperrhetoric commented on July 15, 2008 | Permalink

    Genius! What you are proposing here seems like a pattern language of information management (which would intersect with a number of other fields as well). I prefer the names which you given these in your post. However, I’d rename “essay question” as “storyteller.” Your 3d post also brings to mind the role for an “iterater” to ask how something can be successively improved (however that is defined) over the course of its life/use. Likewise, I’d also add the “reorganizer” tool in which multiple of the other tools could assist in optimization of information for a particular task, much the same way agile programmers refactor code to make it more reusable and easier to maintain. These actually remind me of the heuristic I developed as a “rhetoric” for technical communication in my dissertation http://etd.lib.ttu.edu/theses/available/etd-10292007-130449/

    Michael seems to be suggesting looking at Q-tools from the perspective of a heuristic rather than specifying a particular question. A flanker, for example, may ask a question like how this problem would look to a chef, but answering that question requires a particular kind of action in order to make it work…and it seems that action might be implementing a kind of heuristic in order to edit or restructure the paradigm used in viewing the information. To think like a chef requires more than asking, it takes mapping alternative value systems, comparing and contrasting knowledge structures, and ultimately engaging much of what we’ve traditionally termed invention (though from a rhetorical perspective I’d suggest it is more memory, but that’s a different topic).

  8. roryoconnor commented on January 12, 2009 | Permalink

    I’m really appreciating your thoughtful considerations on the matter of asking questions. As a creativity trainer, I include a section called “Asking Effective Questions”. I do this becuase when I consider what it is that makes me creative, I relaised that I alsways ask questions. I consider asking questions as one key indicator as to whether someone is likely to generate creative solutions.

    While my focus is on creative problem solving – i.e. the generator, peeler and flanker types questions, I can imagine providing these alongside the other forms of questions (splicer, razor and prism) will help people to think more deeply about the kinds of questions they are asking both themselves and others (i.e. colleagues).

    I’ve developed a question reference guide (http://www.thecreativityhub.com/chub_old/files/roc_070830_questions.pdf) and chart (http://www.thecreativityhub.com/chub_old/files/roc_080415_questionsChart.pdf) that you might want to take a look at.

    I wonder if you would be okay with me referencing your Q-tools in a future version of these?

  9. Dave Gray commented on January 15, 2009 | Permalink

    Sure Rory, that’s fine with me.

  10. AndriusKulikauskas commented on March 13, 2010 | Permalink

    Hi Dave, these are great and profound! I’m currently working on “12 questions” for engaging independent thinkers http://www.12questions.org as the basis for a culture of independent thinkers. I wish us to express our answers creatively and I am starting related business services. I’m trying to make good use of visual thinking. I wish to talk with you regarding all of that. Also, are you familiar with the Soviet methodology TRIZ for classifying and catalyzing inventions? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TRIZ that might be related with Q-tools somehow.

  11. Scott Ellis commented on July 12, 2011 | Permalink

    Dave, really excellent read.

    My only thought was to add a specific example for the “peeler” Q-Type that is particularly relevant to marketers and entrepreneurs…

    And that is when developing your business plan, benefits statement, marketing materials, … always ask “Who Cares” or “So What”… I like the Toyota 5x method… that feels like a good number of times to ask to get to the core of what really matters.

  12. Dave Gray commented on July 12, 2011 | Permalink

    Great tip Scott! I have added it to the post :)

  13. Locksmith commented on May 6, 2013 | Permalink

    Impressive non-biased concept! Its upsetting that decent insights such as
    this are being ignored. Such a marvelous job should get credit.
    Many thanks for your efforts.

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