Swarm Questions: What Have? What Should? What If?
Swarm Questions are essentially meta-questions (questioning the question).
May 12th, 2020 | 4 min read
“You cannot answer a question that you cannot ask, and you cannot ask a question that you have no words for.” — Judea Pearl, The Book of Why

Our understanding of reality is usually wrong. Yet, how many of us take the time to change the way we see reality? Or better yet, how many of us understand how to make this change? To do this, we must learn to question everything… including the questions we ask.

I have been searching for the right questions. I started to explore different ways to structure questions — then I started to question those questions. At the same time, I was also researching and writing about swarm intelligence.

I started to think about a swarm of questions swarming the brain. I pictured these questions passing signals to each other just as a synapse permits a neuron to pass signals to another neuron. I decided to call these questions Swarm Questions.

Swarm Questions

“The most important ingredient in an argument is a great question.” — Dr. Jamie Schwandt

Swarm Questions are essentially meta-questions (questioning the question). Let’s look at the questions:

#1. What Have?

What have we been doing?

#2. What Should?

What should we be doing?

#3. What If?

What if we were doing what we should be doing?

From Data to Wisdom

“Questioning is the ability to organize our thinking around what we don’t know.” — The Right Question Institute

The idea for these three specific questions (What Have? What Should? What If?) came to me as I was mapping out a new interpretation of the DIKW Hierarchy — which represents structural and/or functional relationships between data, information, knowledge and wisdom.

I altered the DIKW framework using Swarm Questions and inserted “Thinking” between Information and Knowledge following the advice offered by Derek and Laura Cabrera in Systems Thinking Made Simple and Flock Not Clock:

“Knowledge = Information x Thinking”

Metaphorical Eye

“Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” — Voltaire

Let me briefly explain the three questions using a metaphor… actually, I will use a metaphor to explain each metaphor. I am essentially using the SEE-I structured method combined with a metaphor (I call it the Metaphorical Eye) — where the goal is to use a metaphor to state something clearly, elaborate, provide an example, and an illustration.

Metaphorical Flashlight

Metaphorical Guitar

Thinking in High Definition

In my mind, Swarm Questions are a way for us to Think in High Definition. They allow us to improve our vision by feeding us meta-questions; essentially, they allow us to see in high definition.

I am reminded here of a quote by David Cooperrider,

“We live in the world our questions create.”

Our questions literally create the world around us.

Swarm Question Canvas

“It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.” — James Thurber

Let’s now examine the questions via my Swarm Question Canvas and see how we can apply it.


  1. Use What Have? Trigger Questions. Start listing facts and assumptions. This will lead you to a deeper understanding as to what is actually going on.
  2. Use What Should? Trigger Questions. This will lead you to the “why” or the purpose behind what is happening and what should be happening.
  3. Use What If? Trigger Questions to get to an innovative “how”.
  4. Start to map out your hypothesis with an argument map. The map uses the logic behind the Toulmin Method and IF — AND — THEN logic.
  5. Create a diagram or concept map. I regularly use DSRP Guiding Questions found on Thinkquiry.us and Plectica.com to map and organize my thoughts (most of the images used in this article were created using Plectica.com).

The Swarm Question Canvas can also be used to formulate questions branching from the Swarm Questions. Similar to an Interrogatory — where you seek to gather information needed to answer or clarify matters of fact in a trial or lawsuit. A well thought-out set of questions will help establish a framework to develop and structure your questions. It will help you decide what to ask, how to ask it, and how to react to responses you receive.

While formulating your questions, I suggest you use a logical sequence of questions and identify a range of anticipated answers to your questions (then branch from the anticipated answers). If you are surprised by a response and cannot think of a follow-on question, my suggestion is to use the 5-Why technique and simply ask “why”.

My preferred method for formulating questions is to use a systems diagram allowing me to map out each question and anticipated response. Let’s examine how this might look.

Swarm Questions are like a tendon — the connective tissue which attaches muscle to bone. Just as a tendon serves to move the bone, a powerful question serves to move and/or connect ideas. Here, Swarm Questions serve as our connective tissue between ideas or thoughts.

Swarm Questions offer us a way to give form to our questions. For me, they serve as the underlying DNA of our questions. They allow us to construct our own knowledge by simply asking questions. Or as Warren Berger remarked in A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas — Questions allow us to…

“Create paths of inquiry and inspiration.”

Finally, for those in search of wisdom… remember this: answers do not unlock wisdom — questions unlock wisdom.

This article was written by Jamie Schwandt.
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