Need “cut through”? Find the right question

Nick IngramThinking0 Comments

Nothing lifts the level of your thinking, or the thinking of a group, like a good question.

I’ve just started reading “The HEAD Game“, by Philip Mudd (Liveright Publishing, 2015) – a book about decision making. He says the start of good decision making is to ask the right question. This has got me thinking about other places where asking the right question can get you off to a great start.

1. Overwhelmed by data? What’s the question underpinning the decision you need to take?

Mudd’s book talks about “the art of thinking backward”. The analyst needs to work “right to left” – not “left to right”. That is, you need to think about what the decision maker’s needs are – what problems she is facing – rather than everything you know as an analyst. In other words, think about the question the decision maker needs to answer.head game image

Mudd gives a great example. Say you’re moving to a new city and you need to find a place to live. If you approach this problem like an analyst, you’ll start by amassing data: trawling the real estate sites. Pretty soon you’ll be overwhelmed. In this day and age, lack of data is seldom the problem.

Instead, you should “think backward” – you should think from the point of view of the decision you need to take. To do this, you should start with a question. Something like: “What kind of life experience are you looking for as you move to a new town and start a new life?” (p 25).

This question immediately propels you to work out what’s important to you. Is it proximity to the CBD? Is it a quiet environment? Is it access to arts, culture, bookshops and cafes? Immediately you are thinking with the end in mind, because the question has turned your gaze to the end goal. And immediately, your searches on the internet become far more targeted.

So, if you’re faced with a whole lot of data, try to impose sense on it by asking a question of it. A question based around the decision you need to take.

2. Running a meeting or a workshop? What’s the question the group needs to answer?

Want the next workshop to run well? Make sure you’ve found the question the group needs to answer. “Moments of impact“, by Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon (Simon and Schuster, 2014), is a great primer on running what they call “strategic conversations”. They talk about the importance of finding the right question to launch your conversation.moments of impact

Ertel and Solomon look at a strategy the Nueva School in California was developing. The Nueva School is an independent school for primary kids. They wanted to know whether they should start a high school. After much preparation the Board had to choose between two questions for their conversation (p85):

  • Should we start a high school?
  • Could we start a high school?

You can see that the changing of just one word can radically change the course of the conversation.

The first question – “should we start a high school” – will propel the group into a conversation of values and purpose. It will cause the Board to think about the meaning underpinning their school and what they are trying to do in education.

On the other hand, the second question will plunge the Board straight into the mechanics. It will cause them to look at market demand, revenue models, operating models.

Wisely, the Board chose the first question first. There will be plenty of time for the second question, but only after some fundamental soul searching – it’s a big step to move from providing excellent primary education to also providing excellent secondary education.

3. Need information from  a person? Choose the right style of question

Chip and Dan Heath’s book, “Decisive“, (Crown Business, 2013), looks at the best way to obtain information from a person, when you need that information to make a good decision. It turns out that the style of question relates to the power dynamic you have with the person.decisive

If you’re the “weaker” party, say a consumer or a job applicant, it turns out that tough “disconfirming” questions will often win you the best disclosure of information (p 104ff). Chip and Dan Heath quote one study where participants were asked to sell an iPod and were told that it had a serious problem (it had previously frozen twice, wiping all the songs). The researchers had people play the role of a “buyer” of the iPod and gave them specific questions to ask of the “sellers” (the actual participants in the study).

It turned out that the least successful question, in this situation of “low power” on the part of the “buyer”, was an open question: “What can you tell me about it?”. This yielded a revelation of the problem with the iPod only 8% of the time. A second question was better: “It doesn’t have any problems, does it?” led to a revealing of the freezing issue 61% of the time.

But, the best question in this “low power” dynamic for the “buyer” to ask was: “What problems does it have?”. This led to 89% of participants, the “sellers”, revealing the freezing issue with the iPod.

So, if you’re in a “low power” situation, the more direct and probing, the more “disconfirming” a question can be – the better.

But, if you are in a “high power” position, such as being an expert – a doctor with a patient, an accountant with a client – it turns out that it is better to ask very open ended and less probing questions. Probing questions tend to clamp the conversation down, leading to people withholding information. It is better to “start broad and open ended: What was the pain like? How did you feel?” (p 107). These kinds of questions are more likely to elicit good information when you are the expert and the person you are questioning is in the “low power” position.


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