The theme this month is about asking the right questions

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Any questions?

“How am I to get in?” asked Alice again, in a louder tone. “Are you to get in at all?” said the Footman, “That’s the first question, you know.”

What is the first question? The best question?

Do you stop to think if you are asking the right question? In the rush to take decisions and to be seen to be acting, we often don’t pay enough attention to the questions that we are being asked to think about and decide on. Nor about the questions we put to others.

Here are a few things to think about in asking the right questions.

First, the way we phrase a question can easily reveal the prejudices or presuppositions that lie behind them. Everyone knows the classic: “Are you still beating your wife?” This is just an old and somewhat extreme example of a question which is based on prior assumptions, that assumes (or begs) other questions have already been answered.

“How can we grow our broadband business in Europe?”, “What restructuring of the team is needed to improve the focus on patient experience”, “When should we start the freeze on new posts?”. All of these questions are also based on critical premises (that it’s the best option to grow the broadband business in Europe, that restructuring is an appropriate part of improving patient experience and that a freeze on new posts is the right thing to do taking a long-term as well as short-term view).

So, it’s worth testing the assumptions that lie behind the questions — especially if it is something that could lead to critical decisions.

Even with more mundane things at a personal and team level, it’s worth checking the assumptions that are being made. “Can you prepare me some slides to present the customer survey findings?” assumes that slides are the best way to influence the audience in question. Maybe a more open request (“What would be the best way to get across the key results of the survey?”) would allow your team to be more imaginative and effective in helping you put your message.

Why not pause for 30 seconds now — what are the assumptions behind the questions you and your colleagues are working on right now? Which of these needed to be tested or challenged? Which assumptions limit the scope of your creativity?

Another useful discipline to try is ‘question fanning’. The idea here is to take a question that you’re thinking about and see what other questions you can derive from it that are either broader in nature or more narrow — to fan out from your starting point. From “What would make customers value what we do more” you can step back to a broader question such as “How are our customers’ needs changing?” This is one of the more strategic questions you can ask before thinking about what you can do to get customers to value you more.

You can also narrow down your question. “Are we delivering the right things?” is a more focused question which is just one part of thinking about how to get customers to value you more.

You can see an example of question fanning with these and other questions at:

The art (or science?) of ‘question framing’ is yet another skill that is worth developing. The way you ‘frame’ a question influences the answer that you’re likely to get.

For instance, when asked, most of us are more likely to spend £100 with an 80% guarantee of getting £200 and a 20% chance of getting nothing, than to invest the same £100 with a 10% probability of getting £1600 and a 90% chance of getting nothing. Even though the probable outcomes are the same. That is why more is spent on insurance than on pensions.

Here’s an example of the way people can be influenced by reframing the question to shift their answers in relation to choosing between (identical) medical treatments:

You can also tend to spot whether questions have been posed in a ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ frame in terms of the type of emotional reaction they are likely to elicit. Asking “How can we cut costs by 20%?” may involve some similar actions and result in the same financial outcomes as “How can we increase customer profitability by 10%?” but you can be sure that those working on the second question will approach it with a different mindset. And perhaps come up with a more imaginative range of solutions.

So try thinking about how questions are framed in the organisation. See if you can spot an underlying bias — perhaps leading decisions to be more conservative and less willing to try new things.

A couple of final thoughts.

Kipling knew the value of asking great questions when he wrote:

“I keep six honest serving men
They taught me all I knew
Their names are What and Why, and
When and How, and Where and Who”

Of these, the most common types of questions we come across start with “What” and “How”. Why not try a few more questions with “Why?” It’s an especially good thing to ask of the things that the organisation has always done and no-one seems to question.

And finally, how can you judge what the best question is to pick off and work on now? We find the following checklist helpful. The question should:

be one you can take responsibility in answering (it shouldn’t be a question that is more relevant or meaningful for someone else to take on)

be capable of being answered (enjoyable though they are, more philosophical questions that you’re unlikely to get to a well-reasoned answer to which you can then act on are best avoided)

have an impact when answered (it will help you and your team set or achieve your goals — the more impact the better)

free up the progress on as many other questions as possible (so stepping back and answering some broader strategic questions often allows an organisation to make more progress when it is stuck working on a lot of nitty gritty things that actually need some clear overall direction).

We hope this inspires you to think about the questions you get asked and the questions you pose to others. Why not try a ‘question generation’ session with your team or other colleagues? Just focus on coming up with questions that it would be great for the organisation to have the answers to. Don’t try and answer them there and then — just enjoy exploring what you don’t know and what would be great to find out.

Interested in improving your influence?

Would you like to take your thinking, writing and presentation skills to the next level? We have just a couple of places left on the idenk structured thinking programme being held on 6th and 7th October:

“Thanks for a productive and thought provoking course which made me think about how I think. I will definitely make the effort to put it into practice (especially if I know you will be ringing to check on my progress!). I liked the way it all came together at the end for me, when I had a chance to put the ideas into practice on a real presentation I was working on.”

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