Asking Questions

In science, there’s always another question. No matter how many questions a good researcher answers, or how much data is gathered, there are always more things to ask. In fact, there seems to be a geometric relationship between answers and questions, with each answer prompting multiple new questions. Richer, more subtle, more complex questions. Sometimes questions that shake the underlying assumptions that first provided answers.

Business is no different. There are always more questions, new questions, better questions and yes, questions that sometimes shake some of our most cherished assumptions. What there are not in science or in business are definitive answers, answers that should no longer be questioned. Yet we constantly tell ourselves that there are. Thousands of times, if not millions of times a minute in every working day, business people sit in meetings drawing firm conclusions, conclusions that are no longer questioned, conclusions that no one is allowed to question, that no one dares question.

Those who make such pronouncements (which includes virtually all of us at one time or another) think it makes them look “knowledgeable” and “smart” and “experienced”. It’s a perception so widely shared, that we commonly find ourselves competing to see who can make the strongest, most unassailable, most unquestioned observations.

And we wonder why we don’t have more innovation?

The surest way to stop learning is to conclude that we already have all the answers. When the objective is to “know” stuff and know it firmly, we lose our sense of curiosity. When we focus on always having the right answers, we stop asking questions, we stop having new ideas, we stop experimenting, we stop learning, and we most certainly stop innovating.

Questions open us up to new possibilities; observations tend to define our limits. We sometimes need limits. They’re a necessary part of doing business. We face legal and ethical and financial and technical boundaries that are quite real. Yet we create many more boundaries than we need, and over time those boundaries can imprison us inside our own assumptions and presumed certainties.

Want to sound truly incisive in your next business meeting? Ask probing questions.

Instead of making an observation or offering an opinion, try exploring options in ways that open the discussion to greater possibilities. Instead of focusing on what you already believe to be true, ask (yourself) what you don’t know that you’d like to. What useful information could you obtain with further investigation? About your customers’ preferences or unmet needs? About your competitors? About your operations, or your vendors or market trends or countless other things about your business that you don’t know? How might you investigate? How valuable might those answers be?

A word of caution is in order here: Questions can be used to bludgeon people (and as a former reporter, I know exactly how). Your objective should be to welcome ideas and advance the discussion, not shut people down, humiliate someone, or put him or her on the defensive.

Try using more phrases like, “What I’d like to know is…” or, “How do we know that?” or, “If that’s true, what could we do to change it?” Then, when you begin to answer those questions, ask yourself what new questions those answers raise.

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