3 must know skills for leaders to ask right questions

What are the two most important things for us? 

Many years ago, I asked this question to my children. One, then aged 6, answered finishing homework, the other, then aged 3, answered eating fruits. These were the most important things. As a parent, I was concerned on how to teach safety responsibility to my children. It was triggered by an accident where a small child had playfully jumped from a high wall on being challenged by her friends. Just to drill in the importance of safety to my kids, I had resorted to asking this question. What are the two most important things? First is safety and second is their happiness. Now, they are in their teens, and we often ask the same question. The answer continues to be Safety and Happiness. Sometimes, they use this framework of safety and happiness to make their own decisions. No Mom, this doesn’t make me happy so I am not pursuing this dance class. This is by no means a full proof method, but I hope and pray that this style of asking questions will make them keep safety as a priority in their subconscious mind. 

We often ask questions. 

We ask for help.

We ask to understand better.

We ask to be understood better.

We ask to frame the problem. 

We ask consciously and subconsciously to make decisions. 

Not just in personal life, as a business leader too it is important to build a culture of asking questions. You would ask, why? 

Albert Einstein had said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Defining the problem is the most crucial step in any problem solving. It involves diagnosing the situation so that the emphasis is on the problem and not on the symptoms. It is the same with data analytics. Tons of data but if you do not have a well defined problem, finding a solution is like finding a needle in the haystack.

Here is a question from me to you – As a leader, have you built a culture of asking questions? You may ask – what is that? 

A culture of asking questions is a culture that makes employees, managers, sales agents etc get into a habit of asking right questions. The culture allows them to not just present a problem to their leaders, but to present it as a question that will help the team find solutions. 

Sounds like a detective? Exactly. Mr Sherlock Holmes, the most popular detective, spends time observing the crime scenes, he takes time thinking and then starts framing questions. 

Q. How do innovators, strategists arrive at solutions? 

A. By defining the right problem. 

Q. How do they articulate the right problem? 

A. By asking questions. 

Q. How do we ask the right questions?

A. English language has already designed a framework for writing questions- how, what, where, when & why. Just answering these questions leads to some understanding of the problem. To make it complete, we need to also follow three skills to frame the right questions: 

Three must know skills to ask right questions:

1. Be specific

Be specific to the problem. It should not be ambiguous. For example:

a) The mother doesn’t have any money. 

b)The right way: The mother doesn’t have any money by the third week of every month. 

Problem statement as a question: How might we get her to save money for month end bills?

2. Positive side

Use the positive information while observing the problem. This can also be seen as looking at the strengths, not weaknesses. The same we talk about the glass half full. 

a) He doesn’t see more than three lessons. 

b) The right way: He watches three out of ten lessons 

Problem statement as a question: How might we get him to complete all his lessons?

3. Focus on the outcome – the emotions

The outcomes are what the business wants or needs to achieve. For example, a business outcome could be ‘increased customer satisfaction’. An output that can help achieve this might be a responsive online ordering system.

a) He drops off the course if he scores low in a lesson. 

Problem statement as a question: How might we build reward systems for progress?

Building the culture 

To build the culture at workplaces, question framing exercises can be used as a substitute for the regular brainstorming sessions. Instead of asking for ideas, one can request team members to suggest questions. As a team leader, in your weekly meetings, in your reports, you can spend a few minutes turning the problem statement into a question with the following filters:

1 Being specific. 

2 Using positive angle

3 Focus on the outcome

This culture of asking right questions helps in critical thinking and framing the right problem. 

You would have noticed- ‘How might we…”as a phrase in all questions. This phrase comes from Design Thinking1 practice. The excerpt here explains the power of the phrase: 

How” assumes that solutions exist and provides the creative confidence needed to identify and solve for unmet needs.  “Might” says that we can put ideas out there that might work or might not—either way, we’ll learn something useful. “We” signals that we’re going to collaborate and build on each other’s ideas to find creative solutions together.  Asking “How might we” at the start of a team project is a creative problem-solving tool that can be applied to almost any ambitious but achievable challenge.

Two Side Notes on personal life and the importance of asking the right questions:

1. When you ask for help : Here is a suggestion from twitter: Anand Chandrasekaran, Executive VP Product Management, Five9, is willing to help people. He wrote three steps to follow before asking for help. He is not against asking. He is against unclear requests. See the image below for his suggestions. 

2.When you tell others to ask for help: You would have come across several posts regarding mental health and suggestions like ‘if you are feeling low, ask for help.’ This statement is not in the right direction. Expecting a mentally-ill person to think straight and ask for help is like shooting in the dark. If you want to express empathy, ask yourself-How can I be of help to my circle? Turn the question. 

Asking the right question is life changing. 


@anandc– I’ve started getting ~2-3 dozen requests for help/m.o. 80-90% are help with job searches. Many make it so hard to help… even with good intent. here are 3 simple ways to make it easy to ask for help

1Design Thinking is a human centric approach to innovations in products and services. It integrates human needs, technological requirements and business success to any problem solving. The process of design thinking plays emphasis on asking the right questions to arrive at a problem statement. As steps, the process starts with understanding latent needs, empathy mapping of the user and finding insights. These insights are used to define the problem statement. The problem statement becomes the base for innovation. 

2Ask to grow is one of the fifteen habits in SHIFT- Simple Habits & Ideas for Forward Thinking

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