Powerful Questions

Questions and Answers signpostYou can use questions to change peoples thinking, move their thinking to the ‘right answer’, or elicit information. But questions are not neutral

  • Asking ‘leading questions’ when you are seeking information closes off options;
  • Whereas asking ‘open questions’ when you are intending to move a person towards the conclusion you want them to reach can be counterproductive.

To be effective, you need to know the objectives of the questions you are asking and then design the questions to support the objective. This is a subtle art but well worth the effort of learning, particularly is you need to ‘advise upwards’ and influence the thinking of senior executives, project sponsors and steering committees.

One of the best short demonstrations of the art of leading questions is in this video clip from the UK ‘Yes Prime Minister’ TV series – its an oldie but a goodie…… spend couple of minutes and watch an expert:  http://youtu.be/G0ZZJXw4MTA

You need to be more subtle than ‘Sir Humphrey’ to make this technique work effectively on senior managers but when you need something, asking a few well planned questions can very often lead the person towards the idea and instead of responding to your request, they have an idea of how to help you be more successful. Effectively advising upwards is an art – you really cannot ‘manage you managers’ but you can be an effective advisor. The art of advising upwards is the focus of my book: Advising Upwards: A Framework for Understanding and Engaging Senior Management Stakeholders see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/Book_Sales.html#Adv_Up

Questioning for effect is a key part of any sales process, including selling ideas such as the desirability of actually working to the project schedule or making the promised resources available on ‘Monday’.

However, when you are seeking information and insight you do not want to sell your ideas to the people being questioned, you want to find out what they know and think. When framing questions to gather information (eg, during requirements gathering) you need to be really careful to ensure they are open and do not predispose the person being questioned towards a particular view point. Unfortunately the art of open questions seems to have disappeared from academic teaching; well over 80% of the research questionnaires I look at have the objective of eliciting the answers wanted by the researcher to support their preconceived hypothesis.

A question like “Do you want to go to Kentucky Fried or McDonald’s for lunch?” presumes:
a) The person wants to go out for lunch, and
b) The person only eats takeaways.

Change the question to “Where would you like to go for lunch?” opens up other possibilities (eg, the really good salad bar down the street), but still assumes the person wants to go out for lunch.

You need two questions to remove all presumption; first “Would you like to go out for lunch?” and assuming a positive response, “Where do you suggest?” Even then the first question has a presumption of ‘with me’ built in.

The art of question has discussed at some length in the past, some useful resources are:

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One Response to Powerful Questions

  1. Brian says:

    Hello! The difficulty is knowing what questions to ask and what answers to require. It is clear that current project procurement paradigms are deficient, hence the frequency and magnitude of cost blowouts. There are very many issues arising from this, including; competencies, compliance and cultural.
    Without a clear understanding of the broader business influences, stakeholders are, to borrow a song title from Bruce Springsteen; Dancing In The Dark!. Kind Regards, Brian
    (Comment also posted to IPMA/LinkedIn page, pending approvals)

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