Binary vs. Adaptive Questions [+ 30 Examples]

Learn binary and adaptive questions and how you can transform closed questions into ones that will set you up for professional growth!

Asking the right questions is hard. If you’re a busy employee or manager, you probably get asked hundreds of questions each week, and you may even ask yourself just as many. Whether things are going well or it’s a challenging time, the questions you ask yourself are likely to reflect the situation at hand. 

While a bad week could prompt a fixed question like, “am I a failure?”, a good one may prompt a question that leads to a more nuanced answer such as, “how can I continue to succeed at work?”. The kinds of questions we ask ourselves can transform the way we think about ourselves and how we approach everyday problems. Remember, it’s not the answer that enlightens, but the question itself!

Let’s take a look at the key difference between binary and adaptive questions, and how you can reframe your own binary questions to make them adaptive today. 

What are binary questions? 

A binary question is closed and often only has two possible answers: yes or no. Binary questions are less than ideal because they imply that there are two categories into which the topic can fall, like right or wrong, bad or good, and win or lose.

For example, you’ve probably asked yourself a question like, “am I good at my job?” in the past. While there isn’t anything inherently harmful about this question, how you answer it can be misleading. 

While reality is almost always nuanced, binary questions usually reflect a fixed mindset. Everyone should strive to adopt a growth mindset and understand that successes can improve with continued resilience, effort, and learning!

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Examples of binary questions 

While binary questions aren’t all bad, they often don’t get us any closer to our goals. We can, however, use them to establish realities within a situation. Here are 10 examples of binary questions you ask may ask yourself and your teammates on a regular basis: 

  1. Is the person I’m interviewing right for this role?
  2. Am I good/bad at my current job?
  3. Do we have the right business strategy at the moment?
  4. Am I a good manager?
  5. Do my colleagues view me as a leader on the team?
  6. Will I ever ascend to the next level in my company?
  7. Will my team be disappointed if I don’t meet this project deadline?
  8. Do I want to remain in my current field of work for the rest of my career?
  9. Should I apply for a promotion at work?
  10. Is my education and experience enough to make me a competitive candidate for this role?

What are adaptive questions?

Adaptive questions are open-ended and solution neutral, meaning that there are often many possible answers to these questions. For example, an adaptive question that replaces the previous binary example, “am I good at my job?” would be “what skills can I work on each day to improve my performance at work?”.

Adaptive questions focus on possibilities. They help you develop a mindset geared for learning and development. They also make you think about how you can make the most of your existing strengths and improve on your areas of weakness. Next time you hear an adaptive question, think of adaptability!

Examples of adaptive questions

You can transform your binary questions into adaptive questions to help cultivate a growth mindset. Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • Binary: Is the person I’m interviewing right for this role?
    Adaptive: How do the candidate’s answers align with the job description? In what ways would they or wouldn’t they fit in well with the team?
  • Binary: Am I good/bad at my current job?
    Adaptive: In what ways am I currently succeeding in my role? What can I do now to improve?
  • Binary: Do we have the right business strategy at the moment?
    Adaptive: What can we do as a team to strengthen our current business strategy?
  • Binary: Am I a good manager?
    Adaptive: What can I do now to get better at managing my team?
  • Binary: Do my colleagues view me as a leader on the team?
    Adaptive: What are the top skills that would make me a better leader on my team?
  • Binary: Will I ever ascend to the next level in my company?
    Adaptive: What concrete steps can I take to help me get a promotion? What skills should I work to develop?
  • Binary: Will my team be disappointed if I don’t meet this project deadline?
    Adaptive: How can I best communicate with my team that I require a deadline extension for this project? What can I do to support myself and my team moving forward?
  • Binary: Do I want to remain in my current field of work for the rest of my career?
    Adaptive: What kind of meaningful work do I want to pursue in the future? What are my short- and long-term personal and professional goals?
  • Binary: Should I apply for a promotion at work?
    Adaptive: What skills would the ideal candidate for this promotion possess? What parts of this role align or don’t align with my goals for the future?
  • Binary: Is my education and experience enough to make me a competitive candidate for the role?
    Adaptive: How can I work now to improve my credentials to make me a competitive candidate for this role?
  • Binary: Do my colleagues think highly of me?
    Adaptive: In what ways do I contribute positively to my team? What positive and constructive feedback have I received recently that I can work to implement?
  • Binary: Am I a failure?
    Adaptive: What are my current weaknesses and how are they impacting my performance at work? What steps can I take to improve these skills?
  • Binary: Will our business model survive as our field evolves?
    Adaptive: How can we adapt as a business to stay relevant for years to come? What steps can we take in the near future to be proactive?
  • Binary: Do I have a competitive edge over other candidates in this hiring pool?
    Adaptive: What skills do I possess that would make me an excellent candidate for the role? What feedback questions should I ask if I do or don’t get the position?
  • Binary: Am I going to enjoy this task that I was assigned?
    Adaptive: What will I learn from being a collaborator on this project?
  • Binary: Should I ask for a raise?
    Adaptive: How can I politely ask my manager to be better financially compensated for the extra work I’m doing?
  • Binary: Do I have the capacity to take on more work at the moment?
    Adaptive: What tasks should I be prioritizing at work right now to help my team succeed?
  • Binary: Will I ever overcome my fear of public speaking?
    Adaptive: What steps can I take to help me overcome this fear?
  • Binary: Will I be able to accomplish all of my goals this year?
    Adaptive: What objectives and key results can I use to progress towards my goals?
  • Binary: Is my manager happy with the work I’ve been doing lately?
    Adaptive: What feedback questions can I ask my manager to gain insight into my recent performance?

The benefits of asking adaptive questions 

When you ask adaptive questions, you’re unintentionally adopting a growth mindset. Rather than asking questions that will give you an answer you want, you’re forced to look for the answers you need to make strides towards your goals. Using adaptive questions also trains your brain to look for the nuances in situations that seem black and white. When you learn that there are endless solutions to everyday problems, you’ll become a better problem solver and a more analytical thinker too!

The differences and similarities between binary and adaptive questions

Binary questions create fixed solutions and false dilemmas, whereas adaptive questions search for neutral solutions. Binary questions and adaptive ones are also similar in that they both strive to solve workplace challenges. For example, if the problem is that your team needs a design application to best complete a new marketing project, one might ask: “should we purchase a subscription to Photoshop or Canva Pro?”. An adaptive question to ask in this situation would be: “what tools could we purchase to best meet our design needs moving forward?” 

Parting advice

Don’t think of binary and adaptive questions in binary terms (pun intended). One isn’t bad and one isn’t good. These types of questions simply serve different purposes. If you need a yes or no answer, a binary question is the way to go. If you’re looking for a more detailed answer, ask an adaptive one.

Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” Without a good question, a good answer has no place to go. Beyond binary and adaptive questions, strive to ask questions that are thoughtful, reflective, and align with your vision for the future. Happy question asking!

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About the author

Brier Cook

Brier Cook is a seasoned communications expert with a Bachelor's degree in Journalism from Carleton University. As an Engagement Strategy Advisor for Carleton University, she leverages creative marketing to address business challenges. Her multifaceted experiences enrich her content, making it both insightful and engaging.

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