The Art of Good Questions

Are you a bit overwhelmed by the barrage of data you feel compelled to sort through and consume?  Dumb question, huh? It is not news that there is an overwhelming amount of noise in our lives –  from your computer screen, from the quarterly business review you just attended, from flashing digital signage in the grocery or on the highway, and increasingly from your hip pocket where that handy smart phone hangs out.

The quantity and availability of this data are often inversely related to the ability to reap quality insight from all of that noise.  The role of senior leaders to stay on top of what is important to their enterprises is increasingly important and overwhelming.  Cloud, social media, and big data to name a few, are capabilities that are intriguing in their promise to deliver better, faster, and cheaper IT or marketing.  But what is probably more pressing to business leaders is what these technologies offer as alternatives for business model innovation and the related disruptions that are now possible to nearly any industry and cause on the planet.  There are enormous potential implications for business leaders that do not pay attention.  So in the midst of all the noise, the ability and intention to ask good questions is a simple but powerful tool for a business leader.

Of course there are an abundance of questions that any astute business leader should be asking of his or her team and confidants for day-to-day survival.  How does the sales data look? Are we still the only company offering our customers “x”?  Did we lose another young leader to competitor today? Are our supply chain partners going to miss a beat due to the natural disaster in <country>? All of these are very valid and essential to the business, but these are not the type of questions I am suggesting are often missing.

When it comes to making decisions for the future of the company, insight is what leaders seek. Questioning to glean this insight, the true nature of the “thing” is a critical skill in today’s complex and noisy world. I have observed that good leaders (or even parents, teachers, sales people, mentors, therapists, for that matter) almost always have a knack for using questions effectively.  But the standouts are those who have actually mastered the art of questioning. They ask artful questions which ignite discussion, welcome debate and difference of opinion, inspire passionate responses, create engaging conversations well beyond the initial posing of the question, and ultimately lead to understanding in ways far more valuable than questions that seek a specific right or wrong answer or even worse seek an answer the leader “wants” to hear.

As a leader, parent, mentor, teacher, even a friend, don’t miss the opportunity to ask a question today with an honest intent to glean insight.

Oh, one more thing… after you ask, be sure to stop talking and take the time to truly listen without agenda or prejudice to what you may hear. Chances are you will walk away with a very valuable nugget of meaningful information.

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