On Management

Asking the right questions.

Ask the right questions and you'll get the right answers, the old saying tells us. But how to ask questions -- and when -- also are important skills to learn as you progress in your career. Some people reach the executive suite without ever having mastered the art of asking a few simple questions -- in the right way and in the right situation. Here are a few of the questions that I've found to be particularly useful in given situations:

  • When you want to do something or want new or better ideas and alternatives . . . ASK: How can we do that? NOT: Why can't we do that? People will respond based on how the question is framed. If you frame the question in a negative context, be prepared for a litany of reasons why you can't do what you'd like to do.
  • When you're faced with an obstacle or bogged down in a negotiation . . . ASK: How else can we do that? or What else could we do? These questions get people's minds searching for ways around the roadblock or for alternatives that view the obstacle in a different, more productive light. Creative thinkers respond particularly well to such questions.
  • When you need help or don't understand something clearly . . . ASK: Will you please help me? or Could you explain that to me again? It is surprising how seldom people simply ask for help when they need it. Others often are willing, even anxious, to help out -- if you're not too proud to ask or to admit that you didn't understand what they said.
  • When you're under pressure to organize your thoughts or come to grips with a set of complex issues . . . ASK: Who, what, why, where, when, how, and how much? But ask these questions silently, to yourself, and then find and organize the answers. You'll be amazed at how often complex issues become simpler and more orderly to deal with.
  • When you want to get to the bottom of a problem . . . ASK: Why? Ask it not just once, but six consecutive times -- repeating the question after each of the first five answers. Be careful when you do this, however, because it may annoy people and put them on the defensive. This technique is part of a popular Japanese problem-solving technique. Peeling back the progressive answers to "why" usually exposes the root cause of problems.
  • When you want to ensure that things will get done or at least know when they are not . . . ASK: Who will do what and by when? Then write the answers down. This is a classic minutes-taking technique. Never leave a meeting without determining who is responsible to do what -- and when. Then make it clear that delays or failure to follow through must be reported back to the participants immediately. Adopting such a discipline will make meetings more effective, produce better results, and identify who the nonperformers are.
  • Last, but certainly not least . . . ASK: Will you forgive me? I'm sorry. I was wrong. Admitting a mistake is a difficult and courageous thing to do. If the mistake hurts someone, it is even more important to make a sincere apology -- promptly. It can clear the air and begin to repair damaged relationships. It takes a big person to admit that he or she is wrong and an even bigger one to apologize for it.
I'm not guaranteeing that these questions will make incompetent people more competent. However, some of them may uncover information that improves the questioner's knowledge base, which is a component of competence. Likewise, I don't mean to imply that asking such questions will bestow character on people who lack it. But if they are willing to ask, others may at least give them the benefit of the doubt. Certainly, by asking intelligent questions you often will get answers that give you a head start toward organizing and solving problems and working more effectively with people. And isn't that what business and management are all about these days? John Mariotti, a former manufacturing CEO, is the author of Smart Things to Know About Brands (1999, Capstone Ltd.). His e-mail address is [email protected]
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