The Power of Why: How Asking the Right Questions Can Change the Future – Feb 2021

February 23, 2021

So last week I was in the grocery store (which, like many or most of us these days, represents the extraverted highlight of my week), and I overheard a young kid – maybe four or five years old – ask, who I assume was his mother, if he could get some cookies.  She said no, to which he inquired why not.  She made a comment that they hadn’t had lunch yet, so it would spoil his appetite (I swear I wasn’t eavesdropping; you know how loud kids talk).  He was persistent: if we get it now, he promised not to eat it until after lunch – would that be ok?  She eventually acquiesced and let the child get a box of cookies.  Either the kid simply wore her down (many of us have been there), or maybe it was in his line of questioning that she realized he had a better argument!

There is great power in inquiry – in asking the right questions to seek understanding, create breakthrough change, or improve performance.  In fact, I’d argue that finding the best answers – in business and in life – largely is the result of asking the right questions.  Business leaders and psychologists alike would seem to agree:

  • Carl Jung: “The right question is already half the solution to a problem.”
  • W. Edwards Deming: “If you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing.”
  • Thomas J. Watson (IBM CEO for 40 years): “The ability to ask the right question is more than half the battle of finding the (right) answer.”
  • Oprah Winfrey: “Ask the right questions, and the answers will always reveal themselves.”
  • Albert Einstein: “If I had an hour to solve a problem…I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper questions to ask, for once I know the proper question, I can solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

I guess the consensus running through those insightful quotes is: if you don’t ask the right questions, you can’t get the right answers.  I believe that that applies to people, leaders, and organizations.

We all start with that inquisitive tendency.  As my grocery store example illustrated (and I’m sure we can all think of a young child our lives), kids are filled with constant lines of inquiry.  Some of them are obvious (for adults, at least): Why is grass green? Why do I have to take a bath every day? Where do babies come from?  And some are a little more profound: Why is my skin a different color than yours?  If I have two eyes, why do I only see one thing? In the old days, was everything black and white?

Children ask questions to seek understanding – to learn more about their world and how things work.  Usually, they’re unfiltered and they don’t think twice about asking (My belly hurts…am I pregnant?).

But somewhere along the way, kids learn the value of knowing answers over continuing to raise questions – maybe it’s our educational system that evaluates and rewards kids on how much they know versus how inquisitive they are.  Or maybe it’s because parents or other adults signal that answering so many questions is fatiguing or burdensome.  Or maybe kids just change their perspective as they mature, forming their own worldview and solidifying their beliefs and understanding such that they don’t feel the need to ask as many questions.  Whatever the reason, society begins to place more value on answers than questions somewhere along the way, and our natural tendency to be inquisitive starts to erode.

It’s too bad, really, as there is incredible power in asking the right questions.  Think about the benefits of asking good questions:

  • they help facilitate learning and discovery – about how things work, and…
  • they help solve problems by exploring why things don’t
  • they stimulate innovation, helping to identify new ways of doing things, new models, new solutions
  • they help eliminate confusion and misunderstanding, in other words…
  • they provide context for groups and teams, helping to facilitate level-setting, collaboration, and eventually consensus
  • they demonstrate humility, express empathy, and help form deeper relationships
  • they guide conversations – like a good tennis match, then facilitate back-and-forth flow
  • they challenge the status quo, opening up possibilities, shaping bold visions of what could be, and as leaders…
  • they facilitate others’ learning (there is more power in asking a question of a teammate than in providing an absolute answer), and finally…
  • they develop capacity and potential in others – they create those “aha moments” in your team and with your team members, allowing for self-discovery (and oftentimes group discovery, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts is greater than the sum of the parts – all of us is smarter than any of us).

Clear, penetrating, thoughtful questions not only help us all – as professionals, as leaders, and just as human beings – seek understanding of how things are, but they also challenge us to innovate and imagine how things could be.

If you’ve bought in so far (and you’re still reading, so there’s a chance!), I have two resulting insights to share – one for us as leaders and humans, and one for organizations.

First, we all need to do better in asking better questions – as leaders, certainly, but also as professionals and teammates (and I suppose the same is true as family members, friends, and productive members of society).  Here are some tips (mainly from Why Asking Questions Can Help You Be a Better Leader) on how to ask better questions:

  • Be curious – leaders who ask their team questions set a tone of imagination, discovery, and exploration (rather than appearing to know everything).  Being curious encourages input, contribution, and collaboration and almost always results in better solutions and decisions, because they’re the product of the team, not the individual leader.  Furthermore, questions facilitate buy-in, so in the very act of soliciting input, you are building and facilitating the case for change.
  • Ask open ended questions – we all have biases, experiences, and worldviews that lead to assumptions.  And assumptions can shut off discussion and lead to premature (and oftentimes suboptimal) solutions.  Asking open ended questions reserves judgment and allows for more free-flowing dialogue, helping the team get more to the why – the root cause(s) of a situation.

Root cause analysis is a simple, but highly effective tool: ask “why” five times to get to the real cause of issues.  Why did our shipment arrive late? Because the order was delayed.  Why was the order delayed? Because we were waiting on a part…and so forth.  This line of inquiry almost always gets you to a specific (and appropriate) process or an activity that can be changed to improve future outcomes.

  • Be engaged – when you ask a question, actually listen to the answer!  Stay in the moment; probe for further understanding.  Active listening is key to true understanding.
  • Constantly question – as leaders, don’t assume but constantly ask questions.  And if you’ve done the first three tips above, your line of inquiry will be well-received by your team – a means to discovery and understanding, rather than viewed as judging or blaming.  Always ask questions: Why do we do it that way? What change in this process would create more value for customers? What change in our work environment would cause you to be more exited to come to work? And so forth.
  • Use a process – it’s probably no surprise that I’d mention this one: everything in an organization is a process, and so is how you ask questions.  Some of these processes are simple, like a concept that comes out of healthcare where physicians conduct “rounds” with patients and other workers and ask the same questions to try to better understand the aggregate situation.  Or a simple process of embedding the same meaningful questions in a planning process or a performance review or an interview guide – all of these are examples of making inquiry systematic.

And there are other more sophisticated tools to help facilitate questioning.  One that has been around awhile and has proven effective is Appreciative Inquiry, a strengths-based approach that uses a four-step process of Discovery (appreciating the best of what is); Dream (envisioning what could be – a future state); Design (bringing life to the future vision by co-constructing a new model); and Destiny (sustaining the new and rediscovering again).

So my first (hopefully valuable) insight is that better questions can lead to better team performance – they create a foundation of trust, which leads to better team engagement, more innovation, and better results.  But there’s a second conclusion I’d like to share, regarding how the power of questions help at an organizational level.

As many of you may know, the Baldrige Excellence Framework is a set of open-ended, non-prescriptive questions – about 270 of them, in fact.  These questions change every two years by incorporating what the highest performing organizations in the country are doing to achieve and sustain high performance.

Some of the questions (about 30) begin with the word what, indicating that the answer(s) are statements of fact – they can be derived from data or consensus within a team.  Some powerful examples of what questions in the framework include:

  • What are your organization’s core competencies and what is their relationship to your mission?
  • What are your key market segments and customer groups, and what are their key requirements and expectations for your products, services, and operations including any difference among the groups?
  • What key changes are affecting your competitive situation, including changes that create opportunities for innovation and collaboration?
  • What are your strategic challenges and advantages?

These questions have answers, though many organizations haven’t intentionally taken the time to reach consensus on what the real answers might be. (Try this at your next staff meeting: ask your team what your organization’s – or department’s or team’s – strategic challenges are, and you may find several different answers, an indication that the team is not completely aligned.)  To create better alignment, focus on the right things, and allocate resources to your true strategic priorities, organizations need to answer those what questions in the Baldrige Framework.

The rest of the Baldrige Framework are how questions, each one representing a process – a systematic, effective way of doing something in your organization.  Examples include processes for ensuring effective two-way communication; leading and governing; setting or implementing strategy; building customer relationships; monitoring progress or making decisions; managing and engaging the workforce; and designing, managing, and improving operations.

The power of the Baldrige Framework is that it is nonprescriptive – it doesn’t tell you how to design these processes (which is appropriate, because after all, no two organizations are the same – they have different core competencies, different strategies and goals, different customer expectations, and so forth).  But finding answers to these questions allow organizations 1) to better understand how their current processes are performing, and 2) facilitate the potential for evaluation and improvement of those approaches.

Here’s the thing: organizations have hundreds of processes that occur daily – some are short and simple, while others are sophisticated and complex.  And oftentimes processes aren’t optimized: they produce inconsistent (or undesirable) outcomes, waste resources, and/or conflict with other processes within the organizational system.  Therefore, sitting down as a team and asking the question of how your organization does something (how it builds relationships with customers; how it manages change with its workforce; how it builds and manages knowledge; or how it ensures ethical behavior in all stakeholder transactions) is a powerful first step in understanding the current state and then discovering new and more effective ways at accomplishing tasks.  After all, there is power in the questioning.

The 2021-22 Baldrige Framework was just released last month and includes three new areas of focus: organizational resilience, ensuring equity and inclusion, and digitization (including artificial intelligence, cloud computing and smart technologies).  Whether your organization or department ever formally pursues a Baldrige-based Award (or even conducts a formal Baldrige-based assessment), there is power in reflecting on the Baldrige questions.

In fact, I would submit leaders don’t have a choice to “opt out” of using Baldrige – all organizations have leaders, customers, workers, measures and data, a strategic plan of some sort, and operations.  The questions of the Baldrige Framework simply help leaders better understand how things are working and on what improvement priorities they should focus their precious resources.  There is power in those questions.

For more information on diagnostic organizational assessment, visit here.  Or to order a copy of the Baldrige Framework, visit here (or email me directly for a discounted copy).

What other insights do you have regarding the power of questioning? Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment.  And follow me on Twitter @LassiterBrian!

Stay healthy and never stop improving!

Brian S. Lassiter

President, Performance Excellence Network

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