As businesspeople, we love the certainty and closure of answers. Answers end debate and allow us to act. Questions, on the other hand, are messy things that complicate our lives, delaying our projects and plans. Especially in “hit-the-beach” cultures, we want our answers quick and clear. Questions, and often those who ask them, are thought of as troublemakers. As an executive coach, questions are my weapon of choice. That means that I, too, am often branded a troublemaker. I come by it honestly.
I spent 15 years of my career consulting with companies on the challenges and benefits of a competitive strategy centered on customer loyalty. Early in that period, customer relationship management (CRM) became trendy. Billions of dollars were spent with surprisingly little to show for the investment in CRM technology. People like me who were not selling software but asking pesky questions stood on the critical path to a planned project date (and a software sale to go with it). Too often, however, we prefer the comfort of an easy answer.
Questions such as “What, besides a successful software installation, will be needed to get the business outcome you are after?” may be troublesome to those selling the software, but the answer will come out eventually. Questions are powerful allies in the need for clarity. And often the first answer is not the last but only leads to the next question. We are too often in a hurry for the answer. What would happen if instead we were willing to tolerate the ambiguity of a question long enough to be certain we answered it thoroughly — and that we have asked the right questions? “Why is this the right thing to be doing?” “How can we do it better?” “What set our priorities this way?” “How would our priorities change with more resources — what about less?” “Who else has an interest in this that has not had a voice in the planning process?”
Using questions to build wisdom, clarify distinctions and fully explore is not rocket science, although it is often unfamiliar territory for those focused on fast answers. There are a few ground rules that will help a leader to stay with questions long enough to get under the surface of a challenge.
What, where, when and why are the old standbys and great for gathering information. Be aware that “why” questions can bring up defenses and close off conversation very quickly. Nothing will discourage full disclosure quite like the question “Why would we do that?” Even in writing it sounds accusatory. If you want to open up conversation and build wisdom, look for “what” questions. “What will that do for us?” “What else do we need here?” “What could torpedo this plan?” “What was happening when you had this idea?” “What is it in response to?”
Be cautious not to manipulate with questions. If the questioner has a dog in the hunt, especially if he or she is the boss, it is easy to use questions to advocate rather than explore. Allow your genuine curiosity, rather than your desire for a specific answer, to guide your questions.
Do not be satisfied with the easy answer. Generally, the first answer or even the best answer to the first question deserves another, more powerful question. That is a repeating cycle that can often yield much more insightful and powerful answers. If the participants are not excited about the exploration, the process can be frustrating. But I find that if you continue to ask questions that challenge a group to dig deeper, people respond with increasing enthusiasm. And answers that will stand up to scrutiny provide much more security and safety than those that are easy and immediate. Or as Paul A. Samuelson, Nobel Prize-winning economist, put it, “Good questions outrank easy answers.”