The power of asking the right questions


For a leader, a large part of a workday will be spent asking others for information, yet a very few leaders consider how asking the right questions could make conversations and teams more productive.


The ability to ask the right questions is a skill that spurs learning and the exchange of ideas. It can fuel innovation and performance improvement, build rapport and trust among team members, and it can mitigate business risk by uncovering unforeseen pitfalls. The more questions we ask, the more answers we receive and the more solutions we uncover. Questions that haven’t been asked before can open the possibility of having many different answers and ways to solve a problem. By asking questions leaders also communicate that questioning is important, inspire people to identify new opportunities and to ask for help when they need it. This in return creates a culture of learning.


Building connections through dialogue


Over 10 years ago, Domino’s Pizza started receiving negative feedback from customers about their pizza. Whilst many organisations might have tried to work behind the scenes to correct the problem, Domino’s made the feedback public and asked for suggestions on how they could improve the quality of their pizzas. This open question generated an avalanche of suggestions that proved very helpful in improving the products. But beyond an open innovation success, the impact was even more fundamental - showing vulnerability helped to build trust with their customers, as the company demonstrated that they were willing to acknowledge they had a problem and asked for help in addressing it.


But not all questions are created equal. Research by Harvard Business Review suggests that there are four types of questions: introductory questions (“How are you?”), mirror questions (“I’m fine. How are you?”), full-switch questions (ones that change the topic entirely), and follow-up questions (ones that solicit more information). Follow-up questions, in particular are very impactful as they signal that we are listening, care, and want to know more, leading to our conversation partner feeling respected and heard.


Team members can be more forthcoming when being asked questions in a casual way, rather than in a formal tone, and they are more likely to be forthcoming when given an “out” in a conversation. This might explain why brainstorming sessions can be so productive - in a whiteboard setting, where anything can be erased and judgment is suspended, people are more likely to answer questions honestly and share opinions that they wouldn’t share otherwise.


Asking ‘Why’


Another powerful type of question is ‘Why”. Questions starting with ‘why’ are typically thought provoking and lead to more in-depth conversations and more follow up questions. These questions can shift people’s perspective, create opportunities, and take them to a level that was once thought to be impossible.


The best-known technique that uses the power of question ‘why’ is the one developed by Sakichi Toyoda, founder of Toyota Industries. Developed in the 1930s, Toyota still uses this simple technique to solve problems today. The method is based on asking the question ‘why’ five times to drill down to the root cause of the problem, and when a counter-measure becomes apparent, the cause can be followed through to prevent the issue from recurring. The method is most effective when the answers come from people who have hands-on experience of the problem in question.


At Acumen, we pride ourselves in offering development that gives managers practical tools to help solve real-life challenges. We offer an extensive menu of courses, workshops and coaching programmes, ranging from communication skills through to executive leadership development. In most cases, we design the interventions specifically for each client, but we also offer a wide range of off-the-shelf programmes for those who prefer this approach. For more information about our programmes please contact Simon at simon@askacumen.com.