The Power of Questions

My grandmother Martin, when commenting on the difficult adolescent years, would often say, “teenagers have all the answers, it is the questions they are minus.”  Good questions can foster creativity, provide insight, and focus the mind to address problems.  The ability to construct, ask, and importantly listen for answers to questions is a hallmark of both maturity and intellect.

We were all taught in school, or by others, that asking open-ended, versus closed-ended questions is an important skill.  I wish to share a few examples for unlocking the power of questions…

  1. Continuous Improvement.

The “5 Whys” problem-solving method is perhaps the most famous problem-solving method in business.  Originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda who stated that “by repeating why five times, the nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear.” The five whys are used for drilling down into a problem and the five hows are used to develop the details of a solution to a problem.

Toyoda was a Japanese industrialist, inventor, and founder of Toyota Industries.  Sakichi’s son, Kiichiro founded the Toyota automaker.  The technique which Toyoda developed in the 1930s is still used today by organizations around the world.

  1. Meeting Effectiveness.

Managers are always looking for new ways to make meetings more efficient and effective.  Popular trends include a) making people stand during the meeting; b) assigning time managers to keep the meeting on track; c) holding virtual meetings that employ chat functions and polls to hold colleagues’ interests; and/or d) including mindfulness breaks.

In a recent New York Times article Alyson Krueger cites a tip from Steven G. Rogelberg, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the author of The Surprising Science of Meetings – use questions.  Instead of agenda topics, share questions that need to be answered.  Using questions requires participants to think about why they are gathering, primes the mind to discover answers, and serves as a success metric (at the end of the meeting did you come up with or agree on an answer).

  1. Employee Retention.

Multiple studies highlight high levels of employee dissatisfaction at work.  In my book Develop I cite a Mental Health America and Faas Foundation report that found 41 percent of American workers looked for different employment several times a week.

In human resources we ask great questions in exit interviews when colleagues have made the decision to leave the organization, but why wait?  In her bestselling book Love ’EM or Lose ‘EM Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans encourage leaders to conduct stay interviews.  Kaye and Jordan-Evans suggest asking questions like:

  • What can I do to keep you?
  • As your manager, what could I do a little more of or a little less of?
  • What makes for a great day?
  • What can we do to make your job more satisfying?
  • What can we do to support your career goals?
  • Do you get enough recognition? How do you like to be recognized?
  1. Customer Service / Value.

In his book, The Secret Lives of Customers, David Scott Duncan believes the art of understanding what customers want and why they do what they do is similar to how a detective solves a mystery.  Good detectives look for clues by talking to people, asking questions, observing, gathering data, identifying patterns, and drawing out insights that lead to the right next actions.

By asking good questions you can discover the functional, social, and emotional needs of customers.  Questions unlock how they solve their needs today, and if better solutions exist. 

  1. Innovation.

Innovation is closely related to understanding customers.  The first step toward innovation is to see customers interacting with your products or services.  Observe what they like and what confuses them.  Then use the most powerful innovation question…What IF…?

The “what if” question helps people suspend reality, or the current state, to imagine a better future.  Once an ideal future state is defined, it can serve as a blueprint for innovation.  If the new product or service can deliver the what if, then barriers to acceptance and adoption fall. 

Bottom Line

Use the power of questions to keep great talent, improve existing products and services, and build a roadmap to innovation.

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