Asking Better Questions

  |  November 10, 2011   |  Comments

Consistent asking of empowering questions changes corporate culture and gets people taking on more responsibility.

When Ryan Caplan, CEO, ColdLight Solutions, spoke at last week's Web Analytics Association Symposium in Philadelphia, he shared a Harvard Business Review article that was well worth repeating. On a side note, if you have the chance to see Ryan speak, do yourself a favor and spend the time. He's smart, funny, and knows his stuff.

The article in question was a blog post by Judith Ross called "How to Ask Better Questions" and, as Ryan did for us in person, I will summarize for you in print.

Judith advises us to ask questions that "inspire people to think in new ways, expand their range of vision, and enable them to contribute more to the organization."

Here's Judith's (paraphrased) list of what makes for great questions. You can recognize the most effective and empowering questions because they:

  • Create clarity. Delve into the problem to see it from more sides. Get the person you're working with to reveal more and thereby understand the problem better herself.
  • Improve working relations. Rather than putting people on the spot, frame the question in a way that proves you are on their side. Instead of, "Why did the project fail?" ask, "What can we do better next time?"
  • Help people think analytically and critically. "What are the consequences of going this route?" "What other benefits might we garner?"
  • Inspire people to reflect and see things in a fresh, unpredictable way. These questions get people to see things rationally rather than emotionally. They encourage lateral thinking. "What if we approach this issue from the other end?"
  • Encourage breakthrough thinking. Waaay out-of-the-box thinking. "Can that be done in any other way?"
  • Challenge assumptions. What if...the budget were different?...there were fewer restrictions?...we had to get it done sooner?
  • Create ownership of solutions. Ask questions that give the problem identifier authority over the process.

Consistent asking of empowering questions changes corporate culture and gets people taking on more responsibility for problems, solutions, and responsibility for outcomes. It lets those around you feel more valuable.

Judith Ross' post delves into asking open-ended questions as a management style for teasing insight out of employees. We can learn from this to ask better questions of the data we collect.

And beyond just thinking about how to get more insights from the data you're collecting, don't forget to help the people in your organization feel more insightful and train them to ask better questions as well. Everybody wins.

Many thanks to Ryan Caplan for the pointer. It inspired me to think in new ways, expand my range of vision, and contribute more to my readers.


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Jim Sterne

Jim Sterne is an international consultant focused on measuring the value of the online marketing for creating and strengthening customer relationships. Sterne has written eight books on using the Internet for marketing, produces the eMetrics Marketing Optimization Summit and is co-founder and current chairman of the Digital Analytics Association.

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