Are you asking the right questions?

Have you ever left a meeting questioning why you were even summoned in the first place? What was the objective of the session – if it had any? What was the convener trying to achieve? I don’t know about you, but I have been to too many such meetings, in which we, collectively,  wasted valuable time and effort. Likewise, I took part some branding projects that did no go anywhere. Luckily, there is a simple and elegant solution to this problem.

Overcoming the lack of direction

One of the reasons why we waste so much time and effort in meetings and projects is the lack of direction. Imagine for a second that you are piloting an airplane. You would not even entertain the idea of taking off unless you know exactly where you are going to land. Likewise, when you set a meeting or manage a project, you have to know exactly what you want to accomplish, where you want to be, and how to define success.

While that is stating the obvious, somehow the problem of ineffectiveness is lingering -if not picking up steam, which signals to that people still cannot determine their objectives correctly. So the real question becomes, “How could we make sure that we have the right goal?” The answer is, we should ask the right questions.

Allegedly, Albert Einstein once said:

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

You can liken a problem to a locked door and a question to a key. Only by asking the right question we can unlock the door. We often spend too much time answering questions and too little time asking the right question.

Hierarchize your questions

According to Vogt, Brown and Isaacs, a powerful question has three attributes:

First of all they are constructed in a way to make us think differently. They force us to broaden our mind, to consider the inconsiderable, and to think the unthinkable. There are Yes-No questions, one-sentence-questions, and finally powerful questions. Based on their research, they found that there is a hierarchy of questions. The undisputed king is “why” followed by “how.” Pay attention to the quality of answer that the following two questions demand:

-Are we satisfied with our team’s performance?

-Why might it be that our team’s performance has been declining over the last three months?

As you can see, the “why” question opens more doors, generating a wealth of insights. (Obviously, we are excluding simple questions such as: “Why didn’t you call me?”)

Hierarchy of questions

Narrow down your scope

The second attribute of a powerful question is its scope. As a rule of thumb: the bigger the scope, the vaguer the answer becomes. So before setting your objectives, you have to be realistic about what is within your reach and what is beyond your boundary. Avoid asking too much. Again consider the following questions:

-Why might it be that our team’s performance has been declining over the last three months?

-Why might it be that our sector’s performance has been declining over the last three months?

The latter question -though valuable without a doubt- is too broad. Even if we have an answer, what are we supposed to do with it? What use does it have?

Search the third way

Finally, powerful questions challenge current assumptions. Our mind is far from perfect. We all have many annoying glitches called cognitive biases, which prevent us from being rational. Because of those biases we ask questions either to confirm our existing beliefs or to assign blame. Powerful questions, however, don’t point the finger to anyone. They are not dualistic. See how the below questions are leading to a third way.

-How can we beat our competitor?

-How can we become more than a company?

The first question is dualistic (us vs. them,) combative (fighting, defeating, beating,) and restricting (limiting the focus to what it is instead of what is possible.) The second one, however, pushes us outside our comfort zone. It does not assume error or blame. It forces us to consider the inconsiderable.

To sum, sadly, so many meetings are nothing but a waste time. The root cause of the problem is the lack of direction. We can overcome this issue by asking more powerful questions. Not all questions are alike. Instead, there is a clear hierarchy among questions. Also, by asking questions that force us to narrow our scope while widening our horizon, we can set much more concrete objectives.

Make no mistake; ineffectiveness is a multi-faceted problem. On the next article, we will address the organizational issue of the Chief Answer Officer.

Actionable tip of the day: Before starting a project ask yourself, “What are we trying to achieve? What are your aspirations?” Align your goals with your ambitions. Ask more “why” and “how” questions instead of “what” questions.

“WHY” by Barney Moss is licensed under CC BY 2.0

540-698 Dovercourt Rd, Toronto, ON, Canada

11 Replies to “Are you asking the right questions?”

  1. interesting point about asking “why?”. i raise this question in almost every project or task i am presented with.

    many times, people who aren’t trained in the process of (design) critiques tend to take these questions as personal insults or challenging them, when, in fact, as the designer, i am just trying to understand what the actual issue is so i can create an effective solution.

    for example, a classic client comment of “make the phone number larger.” but why? what is the issue? oh, you want people to call instead of going to your website because human interaction is what you feel your company offers over the competition? ok, maybe we focus the direction of the copy to how your company offers a live person to listen to the customer, instead of having them communicate through impersonal emails.

    so by asking “why” here, we found out the solution wasn’t that the client loves to see numbers set in larger type sizes, but that customers don’t realize of the “live person” benefit they offer.

    and i realize that its not always /what/ you say but /how/ you say it. so delivery, explanation and further discussion are very important to this magical question of “why.” but thats how we push the project further.

    1. Hi Adam,

      Everything you said is absolutely right. When we ask “why”, we start to see life differently. However, as you mentioned, tonality is the key. Asking too many “why” questions might be perceived as challenging, undermining, disrespecting the person you are talking to.
      I believe, a healthy brand should clearly answers these three questions:
      Why do you do, what you do?
      How do you do, what you do?
      What do you do that matters to me?


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