What’s the Secret to Success? Questions!

We all want better answers, but first we need to ask the right questions.

July 14, 2014

Questions RR

“Questioning is more important today than yesterday—and will be even more important tomorrow—in helping us figure out what matters, where opportunity lies, and how to get there,” says Warren Berger in his book, “A More Beautiful Question.” 

“We’re all hungry for better answers. But first, we need to learn how to ask the right questions.”

Berger’s scintillating read says as children we ask hundreds of questions daily to learn about our surroundings. Yet as adults we lose this tendency.

Given that asking questions leads to knowledge, improved processes, or increased understanding, why ever would we stop asking?

Berger suggests four reasons:

  1. A focus on answers.
  2. Timing is everything—and opportunity to ask fails to present itself.
  3. It is challenging to determine the right question to ask.
  4. Avoidance of uncertainty: the question asked may have no answer.

However, “People who are good at questioning are comfortable with uncertainty,” and “one of the hallmarks of innovative problem solvers is that they are willing to raise questions without having any idea of what the answer might be,” observes Berger.

This week, let’s focus on questions rather than answers—because asking the right question at the right time can yield the “right” result, even if the answer is not what we expect—or does not exist at all.

‘Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.’ –Voltaire, French writer and philosopher

Do you know how to formulate a question? “Good questions can move your business, organization, or career forward,” says Fast Company.

Follow these guidelines to get your conversation started:

  • Avoid multiple-choice questions and rambling.
  • Do not ask leading questions.
  • Reframe questions that are not addressed.
  • Begin with “who, what, when, where, how, or why?” for informative answers.

Don’t Know What to Ask? Secrets of Good Questioners” are revealed by Bloomberg.

This article notes that curious people “define clear objectives, identify potential opportunities, and create more focused plans to reach a goal.”

To expand upon the innovative process, ascertain the challenge—“problems worth solving are driven by deep emotional undercurrents.”

Also, write down all your questions, concentrate on asking yourself questions rather than seeking answers, and reflect upon your many inquiries and determine a few “worth answering.”

Who do we ask? Various contacts might provide suggestions and answers. Do you know “How to Exploit Your Network” to “collect useful insights… without betraying confidential data or plans?”

In this Forbes article, six questions are identified that “pass the safety test.” Among them:

  • Who are the new entrants in the marketplace?
  • Who are the key players?
  • What is customer sentiment—and has it changed?

‘The important thing is not to stop questioning.’ –Albert Einstein

If you need a starting place to help define challenges or objectives, see these broader questions posed in “77 Questions Every Banker Should Ask.”

A few examples from this extensive list:

  • What is it like to work here?
  • Who uses our products and service in ways we never expected?
  • How can we become the bank that would put us out of business?
  • Are we relevant?
  • Are we a bank that has technology or a technology company that owns a bank charter?

Since technology is noted as an important consideration in business operations, let’s use it as an example and explore various ways to develop questions about it to identify possible opportunities and make plans.

First, consider broad technology trends. “The Next 20 Years Are Going To Make The Last 20 Look Like We Accomplished Nothing in Tech,” says Business Insider.

Some changes we might expect include increasing automation, tracking, and surveillance, and that “Everything really will be about ‘big data.’”

It might seem overwhelming, as a futurist summarizes: “Every time we use science to answer a question [the] insight or answer provokes two or three other new questions,” and “asking the right questions will become more valuable than finding answers.”

‘It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.’—James Thurber, American writer

Narrowing focus will keep us on target with our technology planning example. How can we do this?

One consideration: Who is our audience? What does it need to know to plan?

See, for example, “The Do or Die Questions Boards Should Ask About Technology,” by McKinsey & Company.  Think about research purpose and assume the board’s questions will be different than those of IT staffers.

These technology questions are particularly pertinent to boards:

  • Are technology investments in accord with threats and opportunities?
  • How will information technology (IT) benefit agility?
  • Do we have necessary capabilities to deliver IT value?
  • What is necessary to exceed customer expectations?

The end goal is “allowing boards to guide management by asking the right questions about technology.”

Another relevant line of questioning for planning purposes might address one particular facet of technology—specifically in financial services environments—and its impact. See “12 Questions: The Role, Relevance and ROI of Social Media in Banking” by The Financial Brand.

Questions posed (and advice offered) here include:

  • Why should financial institutions invest in social media?
  • What are the biggest challenges posed by social channels?
  • What specific strategies do smaller institutions incorporate in social media to find success?

These questions are open-ended and may yield a variety of responses for consideration.

Asking questions is not necessarily an easy or intuitive process as we consider our goals, audience, and ways to frame our inquiries.

Further, “Anything that forces people to have to think is not an easy sell,” says Berger, “which highlights the challenge of questioning in our everyday lives—and why we don’t do it as much as we might or should.”

It is important to keep in mind as you frame your “beautiful question” that you ultimately hope to ask about something that “can begin to shift the way we perceive or think.” That’s the foundation for progress.

Don’t be afraid to ask your question. As Berger also notes, “Good questioners tend to be aware of, and quite comfortable with, their own ignorance.”

LORA BRAY  is an information research analyst with CUNA’s economics and statistics department.