Can I ask you a question? Do you know who said: “If I had one hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I knew the proper question I could solve the problem in five minutes.” 

Did you guess Albert Einstein? Have you always been this smart? Einstein’s quote made me wonder: Why are we always looking for the right answer when we should be asking the right question? So what else could I do but go on a quest for the right questions?

Do you know what I found? A five-question model that helps you do a self-assessment of your firm, a five-question technique that will help you get to the root of a problem and five questions that a leader should never ask.

Should we begin with Peter Drucker’s The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization? Are you prepared to make frank, honest and possibly painful self-assessments of your firm? 

  1. What is our mission? What are we trying to achieve? What are the significant external or internal challenges, opportunities and issues? Do we need to revisit our mission?
  2. Who is our customer? How have our customers changed? Should we add or delete customers?
  3. What does our customer value? Do we know what our customers’ long-term aspirations are?
  4. What are our results? How do we define results for our organization? How well are we using our resources?
  5. What is our plan? What have we learned? What do we recommend? Where should we focus efforts? What should we be doing differently?

Can You Find the Root?

Ever had difficulty getting to the root of a problem? Why not learn the “5 Whys” technique? Developed by Sakichi Toyoda for Toyota Motors Company, 5 Whys is a questioning technique that explores the cause-and-effect relationships of a problem. Does it work? Charles Duhigg tried it in his new book Smarter, Faster Better. Shall we take a look?

Problem: Charles never eats dinner with the family. Why? He gets home too late. Why? He has to stay late at work to finish emails. Why? He gets to work too late in the morning to answer emails before his meetings begin. Why? He can’t get out on time in the morning. Why? His children take too long to pick their clothes and get ready for their day.

Solution: Lay the children’s clothes out the night before so Charles can get out on time, get emails done in the morning, leave the office on time and have dinner with his family!

Are there questions a leader should never ask? Can you guess how many there are? Did you say five? You really are smart, aren’t you?

Did you know that questions can be great for motivating and engaging people? Did you also know they can be used to confront or assign blame? What does Warren Berger—author, innovation expert and blogger at A More Beautiful Question—consider the five questions you should never ask?

  1. What’s the Problem? If you focus on what went wrong, the problem or the weakness, the organization will fixate on that. Better question: What are we doing well and what can we build upon?
  2. Whose fault is it? This question inevitably leads to scapegoating, even when there’s plenty of blame to go around. Better question: How can we work together to shore up any weaknesses?
  3. Why don’t you do it this way? When asked by a leader, this can feel like a leading question, which can quash the autonomy of your people. Better question: How were you thinking of doing this? Or: What did you have in mind?
  4. Haven’t we tried this before? This question suggests that because it was done once and didn’t work it should never be considered again. It comes off as condescending, implying that everything has already been tried. Better question: If we tried this now, what would be different this time and how might that change the results?
  5. What’s our iPad? This implies your staff hasn’t come up with something new and needs to get to work. But this type of question could create followers or imitators instead of innovators. Better question: Why is our competitor having success with this product? What need is it filling? How might we use our strengths to do a better job of meeting customers’ needs?

How do I wrap this up? With a reminder that even though we all want the answers, sometimes the questions are more important. As Voltaire said, “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”

So, how will you use this information to make your organization better?