The Art of Asking
The ability to formulate relevant, probing, often open-ended questions and present them at opportune times to appropriate individuals is incredibly valuable. Honing this skill will secure your reputation as a thought leader among product development, process development, or other project team members.
Many laud those who seem to have “all the answers,” but to what questions? Solving problems in your business is not a trivia game; having all the answers to questions that do not expose the underlying causes of issues or reveal improvement opportunities is of little value to your team. In most cases, it is much easier to find an answer to a question than it is to construct a question in such a way that maximizes the value of the answer.
To substantiate this, conduct the following unscientific experiment: consider, for as little as one day, how many times you and those around you “just Google it.” Then consider, for the same period, how many of these questions were reformulated to improve the quality of the answers. I suspect it will be a very small fraction, even if using new search terms is accepted as “reformulating the question” – a very loose definition. Algorithms regularly provide us with answers, but how often do they provide us with questions that make significant contributions to our problem-solving or continuous improvement efforts?
Perhaps the simplest application of the Art of Asking is the “5 Whys” technique. Asking “Why?” a single time is not terribly penetrating. Repeating the question several times, however, can generate rather profound insights. If you can overlook the resemblance to an inquisitive four-year-old that some may perceive, it is a useful exercise, particularly for less-complex issues.
Asking “Who?” should be limited to identifying parties responsible for corrective actions, improvement implementations, or similar forward-looking inquiries. It is dangerous to ask who caused a problem – who made a mistake – as fear of negative consequences suppresses candid and forthright discussions of problems found and errors committed. If your team does not feel secure enough to openly discuss issues, both the questions asked and answers given become low-value; the rate of improvement slows to a crawl.
Anyone can ask the obvious questions, but it is those that probe beyond the superficial that generate value. Questioning the status quo forces long-standing policies and procedures to be examined for merit under the current circumstances. Questioning the validity, or completeness, of answers to previous questions drives deeper understanding of an analysis and its subject matter. This is the realm of truly effective troubleshooting, problem-solving, and continuous improvement, where jumping to conclusions is no longer prevalent or attractive to practitioners.
I have alluded to my belief in the supremacy of questions in previous posts. I have warned readers to “beware the superlatives” by asking questions that must be answered thoroughly to validate claims of superiority. I have also described a fundamental goal of JayWink Solutions – “to inspire relevant questions – the genesis of real learning.” (OK, that may have been more than mere allusion…) Most importantly, I have reminded readers to “value the questioner” as they, and the questions they ask, have value that should never be diminished.
If you’d like to adopt a question-focused approach to improvement in your business, feel free to contact JayWink for guidance. It requires a mindset adjustment, but the transition is a journey well worth taking.
[Link] “The Right Questions;” Quality Progress, October 2018
[Link] “The Power of Questions with Cal Fussman;” Kwik Brain podcast
Jody W. Phelps, MSc, PMP®, MBA
JayWink Solutions, LLC
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