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  • Writer's pictureDan Manning

The question you ask determines the answer you get.

Asking questions is a part of leading a team to create new products, processes, and solutions. Unfortunately, most of us are not very good at it. Sure, we ask lots of questions…What should we do about X? Where can we cut costs? What is our competition’s next move? But, we are disappointed by answers that don’t really get to what we want to know. You start over with slightly better questions and repeat until stumbling upon the one you should have asked in the first place.

In this context, not all questions end with a question mark. Sometimes, the asks are really tasks, such as “develop a marketing plan” or “get the new product to market within 1 year.” Getting the ask right the first time will save you time, money, and frustration.

Our ability to ask incisive questions isn't what it used to be. In a few keystrokes or taps on a smartphone, I can crack off enough questions to consume any team I am leading. In the days of handwritten letters, composing the wrong question meant weeks of delay in an exchange of missives. In today’s world of disposable data, we are less careful with our words, and as a result, we often end up equally frustrated.

The most important lesson to learn about asking questions is understanding that the question and the questioner influence the answer. When Siri gets a question, the answer does not depend on the job title, mood, or personality of the person asking it; she simply gives her best objective answer. When asking our human teammates a question, however, there is always subtext. How that subtext impacts the answer you get falls into 3 categories:

1. Framing: The setup to the question influences the answer you get. We like to believe we are rational beings, but we know that is not always the case--Las Vegas burns bright on the fuel of irrational behavior. Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky made a career of demonstrating the frequent irrationality of human decision-making. When they offered test subjects a choice between adopting a course of action resulting in 400 theoretical deaths or one that offered a 1/3rds chance of no deaths and a 2/3rds chance of 600 deaths, 78% chose the latter despite there being no mathematical difference. A 66% chance of 600 deaths equals a probability of 400 theoretical deaths. Kahneman and Tversky demonstrated through several experiments that when questions are framed in terms of losses, people choose more risky behaviors.

2. Unstated assumptions: In the 1976 film, The Pink Panther Strikes Again, Inspector Clouseau, seeing a small dog inside an inn asks the innkeeper “Does your dog bite?” The innkeeper says, “No.” As Clouseau reaches to pet the pup, the dog leaps into an attack biting the Inspector’s hand. “I thought you said your dog does not bite.” The innkeeper deadpans, “That is not my dog.”

3. Trying to outguess the asker: Rather than digging into the actual question, some team members may try to divine the “true” question. “Why is she asking this question?” “What does he think the answer should be?” People naturally look for context. In the absence of stated context, we often create it based on assumptions and past behavior.

As the leader of any team, influencing the answer is unavoidable, but you can apply some simple techniques to limit these biases.

Be cautious about framing. Rather than asking “where we can cut costs”, ask “where can we increase revenue.” After all, the current costs would be a bargain if we were able to double revenue. Framing the question as a cost-cutting exercise encourages risk-seeking behaviors. By framing in terms of gains, not only do you get after the problem you want to solve (increased profit), but you also avoid putting your team on the defensive.

Look for unstated assumptions. During my time at an Air Operations headquarters, we would sometimes see social media reports of enemy activity and ask our intel section if we had any similar reporting from intelligence channels. Often, the response would be “sir, we have no reports of enemy activity in that area.” After a few iterations of this, I finally asked, “if the enemy were active in that area, do we have any sensors or sources that would indicate this activity?” The answer was “no”. I improperly assumed we had the intelligence assets to detect the activity. Once I wised up, I started asking, “Do we have a means of detecting this type of activity at this location, at this time….and if so, did we detect anything?” By checking my assumptions, I was better able to avoid decisions that would allow the enemy to bite us.

Write out the question. Some leaders do their thinking outside of their brain. One particularly extroverted commander would go through his personal problem-solving matrix aloud for all to hear. While this provided an interesting behind-the-scenes view of his thought processes, it was difficult to keep up with the series of questions he asked. Which ones did he eventually answer in his own thinking? Which ones required research? Whether you take the team on a guided tour of your thoughts or not, you can do everyone a favor by writing down the question or task. Writing disciplines thought and your questioning skills.

The German writer Goethe was right when he said, “If you want a wise answer, ask a reasonable question.” Before launching on a time-consuming research task, consider one of these models for drafting a complex question or problem statement. You may follow an academic approach with a research proposal stating the explicit question, the importance of the question, preliminary hypotheses about what the answer might reveal, and a summary of known past work in the area. If you prefer, adapt the military approach with a planning order spelling out the mission, the commander’s intent, assumptions, as well as constraints (activities must be done) and restraints (activities that are forbidden).

Dedicating this level of effort to every question consumes lots of time, but the more important the answer is to you, the more this disciplined approach helps. If you don’t have time to get the question right, do you have time to waste in pursuit of a worthless answer?

Bonus tip: If your boss is a bad questioner, forward this article, and in the meantime, read back the question by drafting the clear guidance you wish you had received. This gives a leader the chance to correct any incorrect assumptions and ensure you are aimed at the right target.

Make sure your future actions can be shaped by the answer you receive. One of life’s disappointments is producing a well-considered answer only to realize that no matter what answer you came up with, the outcome was not going to change. In some cases, this happens because the question is not yet ripe. In pilot training, I heard a story, likely only 10% true, about the most calm and collected pilot ever. While his aircraft was still tumbling down the runway following a bad landing, he received a call from the tower…”Do you need any assistance?” The nerves-of-steel pilot responded in his best radio voice, “I don’t know, I am not done crashing yet.” No matter what the pilot said in response, the tower was going to roll the fire trucks for a rescue…so, why ask?

Before you assign a time-consuming question, ask yourself….what answer would cause me to change (or make) a decision? Maybe you want to explore alternatives or check your intuition...that’s great. But, you owe it to your team to let them know your intent. Letting them know you have an idea but are purposely looking for information to reveal alternatives lets them know their work is not in vain.

Ensure the answer will actually address the problem. I led a team to address the problem of small toy-like drones being used to drop grenades on friendly forces. Our first attempt to define the question was “How to stop enemy drones from attacking friendly forces.” Seems simple enough. All of the solutions, however, were not within the span of control of the team I was working with. It wasn’t practical to use fighter aircraft to shoot down toys, and other headquarters had the responsibility of stopping the drone when it was close enough to threaten our forces. There were already dozens of innovative technical solutions to this problem being implemented as quickly as they could be delivered. None of our answers would have made an impact. Instead, we worked harder and found a better question: “How do we prevent the enemy from improving their drone capabilities?” This question opened unexplored avenues for new solutions and eventually yielded concrete results.

Too many times, staffs working hard to develop thoughtful answers to questions that miss the point. A common one is, “Where do we want to prioritize our resources?” Any answer to this question, however, is irrelevant until you decide what you want to achieve. Your team’s creative energies would be better spent setting objectives first.

Voltaire recommended we “judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” By realizing the question you ask determines the answer you get, you have the opportunity to compensate for the cognitive biases your question imposes. Spend the time to draft a clear question with clear assumptions, then consider whether any answer to that question will impact your behavior or the problem you are trying to solve. With a little questioning discipline, you can ensure your team focuses its energies on worthwhile pursuits while not being bitten by the innkeeper’s dog.

Stuck on Stuck Street provides 115 ways to shake your creative mind out of its rut. Designed to be read cover-to-cover or thumbed through on a break, it will help your mind find new creative connections and keep moving forward. A great gift for yourself or any creative person in your life. Don't let the Amazon price scare you (it is a full-color book with captivating photos throughout). If you are stuck, email me with your story, and I will send it to you myself at a discount.

Thanks, Dan.

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