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“The wise man doesn’t give the right answers, he poses the right questions.”
–Claude Levi-Strauss

One of the biggest mistakes that consultants and managers make is to assume that they must have all the answers.  When stakeholders approach them with an issue, they feel that they must immediately solve the problem.  After all, that is why they are being paid the big bucks, right?  Wrong.

Consultants and managers –whether project managers, departmental managers, or directors – are paid the big bucks to remove roadblocks so the team can successfully achieve its goals. In order to remove roadblocks, you first have to understand the size and scope of the blockage. Roadblocks are often like icebergs:  What you see usually is only the top 10 percent of the problem.  If you only remove the obvious, the next 10 percent floats to the surface.

The best managers are like scientists:  They systematically study the problem, the underlying influences and assumptions, and then find a solution to the root problem.  To get to that real problem requires asking the right questions. The right questions, also known as powerful questions, are those that:

  • Challenge assumptions
  • Provoke deeper thought
  • Promote insight
  • Generate energy or
  • Provide greater understanding or information.

Finding the right questions to ask, however, is not as easy as it sounds.  Clearly, closed questions – those questions that can be answered in a single word or sentence – are not powerful.   Open-ended questions, particularly those beginning with WHY, WHAT, and HOW, are more powerful because they tend to generate more detailed answers.

The most powerful questions, though, are those that create connections between people and allow dialogue to flow freely.  Choosing the interrogative words to start the question is easy; finding the rest of the sentence is the hard part, especially when in the heat of conversation. Rather than being forced to create these great questions from scratch, I like to collect good questions.  Whenever I hear a really powerful question, I store it in my mental file folder.  That way, I can quickly search for it and find it at a moment’s notice.

The list below contains some of the questions now in my folder.  Not all of these questions can be used in all situations. Some are better for brainstorming.  Others are better for investigating root-causes.  Regardless, recalling the following questions often helps me ask other powerful questions:

  • What, exactly, are we trying to achieve?
  • What is driving the need for change now?  Why do we need/want to change?
  • What have you done in the past?
  • What would make your life easier?
  • What would be likely to happen if we stopped X?  What are the negative/positive repercussions?
  • What is the likelihood that this would result in a positive/negative outcome?
  • What questions would someone using this new approach be likely to ask?  How would I answer them?
  • How will you know if you are successful?  What does success look like?
  • In your ideal world, how would this work?  What is stopping you from living in that ideal world?
  • When/How/In what situations does this problem arise?
  • Why is it critical to …?
  • Why are we currently doing it that way?
  • Why did that happen?
  • To which goal does this solution relate? How does it help us achieve it?
  • To whom else should I speak?

That leads us to….

This month’s question:

What questions have you heard or been asked that make you think “Gee, I need to remember that question for the future?”

Please share your ideas below so we can learn from each other.

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