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How Smart People Ask Great Questions (and Get Better Answers)

April 10, 2019

 

 

It's easy to ask questions. But to get great answers, start asking the right way.

 

I spent weeks sifting through the data, modeling different scenarios, and perfecting my plan. I knew it was awesome -- but just to be sure, I asked a key employee for input. (OK, maybe I wasn't trying to be sure. In retrospect, I see I was hoping he would be impressed by how smart I was.)

 

"I'm thinking of moving two crews to a different shift rotation to get a better process flow," I told him. "I've run the numbers and overall productivity should go up by at least 10 percent. What do you think?"

 

He stood quietly for a moment. "I suppose it could work," he finally said.

 

Bingo! Just what I wanted to hear.

 

So I moved the crews.

 

My new shift rotation worked on paper. It even worked in practice. But it screwed up the personal lives of a bunch of great employees. (Luckily, I pulled my head out of my rear and moved everyone back to their old rotations.)

 

What happened? Sure, I asked the right question.

 

But I asked the wrong way.

 

You probably have, too. Maybe you asked a leading question. Or a limiting question. Or a question that presumed a certain answer. You asked the right question, but you asked it the wrong way.

 

Here are some ways to ask much better questions and as a result, get much better answers -- which is the point of asking questions in the first place.

 

Start asking one sentence questions.

 

Feel free to state the problem or issue in detail, but limit your question to one sentence. "How can we increase productivity?" "How can we improve quality?" "What would you do if you were me?"

 

Sticking to one sentence helps ensure your questions will be open-ended.

 

 

Stop asking either/or questions.

 

Say you have a quality problem and have come up with two possible solutions. Each has positives and negatives. So you seek input from an employee. "Should we just scrap everything and rework the whole job," you ask, "or should we ship everything and hope the customer doesn't notice?" Most of the time, she'll pick one of the two answers you proposed.

 

But what if there's a better option you haven't considered?

 

Here's a better way to ask that question:

 

"There are defects throughout the whole order. What do you think we should do?"

 

Maybe she'll say scrap it. Maybe she'll say ship and hope.

 

Or maybe she'll say, "What if we tell the customer up front there is a problem, ship everything to them, and take a crew to their warehouse to sort product? That reduces the impact on the customer. They can use whatever is good and won't have to wait for the entire job to be rerun."

 

Either/or questions assume an answer and therefore limit the possibility of different ideas.

 

Instead of sharing options, just state the problem. Then ask, "What do you think?" Or, "What would you do?" Or, "How should we handle this?"

 

Then be quiet. Let people think.

 

They'll respond much more thoughtfully -- and often will come up with ideas you never considered.

 

Start asking humble clarifying questions.

 

As a leader, you're supposed to have all the answers, which means asking certain questions might make you feel vulnerable.

 

But it shouldn't. When you ask questions, you show respect. You show trust. You show you're willing to listen and learn. Win, win, win.

 

Plus, asking for clarification is easy. Just say:

 

  • "I'm impressed. Now pretend I don't know anything about how that works. How would you explain it to me?"

  • "That sounds really good. Let me make sure I didn't miss anything, though. Can you walk me through it one more time?"

  • Or, best of all: "I have to be honest: I'm not sure I understand what you're saying, but I really want to." (A little humility goes a long way.)

 

Above all, don't pretend you understand when you don't. 

 

If only because that's a behavior you never want to model for your employees.

 

Stop asking leading questions.

 

Asking a question that assumes a particular answer is easy to do when you already think you're right and just want people to say you're right. (Which is exactly what I did when I asked an employee about my fancy shift rotation.)

 

For example:

 

  • "Do you think we should wait any longer than we already have for an answer?"

  • "Don't you think we should go ahead and release that order?"

  • "Do you think it's time we turned that project over to someone else?"

 

Each question assumes an answer: You clearly think you should stop waiting for feedback, release the order, and replace a project leader. Though a few people may disagree, most won't, because the answer you want to hear is obvious.

 

Here are better ways to ask those questions:

 

  • "The customer hasn't signed off on the prototype. What do you think we should do?"

  • "What do you think we should do about that order?"

  • "What do you think is the best way to handle that struggling project team?"

 

None of those questions imply a particular answer. And each also leaves room for a variety of options.

 

Start talking as little as possible.

 

You already know what you know. Great questions are designed to find out what the other person knows.

 

So stay quiet and listen.

 

You never know what you might learn.

 

And if you don't stay quiet and listen, you'll never know what you could have learned.

 

 

 

Originally published April  8, 2019 on Inc.com

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