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Effective Leaders Ask the Right Questions – Part 2

How an organization finds solutions to problems says a great deal about its culture, and its leadership.

In Part 2 of this Blog about how effective leaders ask the right questions I’ll explore how leaders can ask questions in positive ways that inspire teams to find hopeful solutions.

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How an organization finds solutions to problems says a great deal about its culture, and its leadership.

In Part 2 of this Blog about how effective leaders ask the right questions I’ll explore how leaders can ask questions in positive ways that inspire teams to find hopeful solutions. And then I’ll write about a technique outlined in the book Make Just One Change that teams can use to develop the right questions so they can work together more effectively toward getting the best results.

Problem vs. Solution-Based Questions

In an article Lead at Your Best published in the April 2014 McKinsey Quarterly by Joanna Barsh and Johanne Lavoie, the authors describe for the reader how leaders need to balance fear and hope. While leaders may have to use fear to actually get people to change, so, too, they need to use hope to balance it. There is a time and place for both.

In the article Barsh and Lavoie take the reader through an exercise where they ask you to think about a problem at work and then have a partner ask these five questions of you:

  1. What’s the problem?
  2. What are the root causes?
  3. Who is responsible for this problem, who is to blame?
  4. What have you tried that hasn’t worked?
  5. Why haven’t you been able to fix the problem yet?

Then you stop and start over again. The partner asks you these questions instead:

  1. What would you like to see (and make) happen?
  2. Can you recall a time when the solution was present, at least in part? What made that possible?
  3. What are the smallest steps you could take that would make the biggest difference?
  4. What are you learning in this conversation so far?

As you can imagine, when you stop and de-brief after both sessions the feelings both the questioner and recipient feel are very different in each scenario. The first are problem-focused questions and work well for technical, linear issues that have “right” answers. The second are solution-focused questions and engage people in finding solutions and instills hope along the way.

Barsh and Lavoie wrote about one plant manager who placed cards with solution-focused questions on them around the plant. He encouraged his teams to use them every day as they searched for solutions to various issues. We can easily imagine the culture in that plant was very different from the culture in a plant where leaders used problem-based questions regularly. As Barsh and Lavoie wrote, “Look for problems and you’ll find them; look for solutions and people will offer them. By choosing our questions thoughtfully, we can shift our mind-set.”

Teach Groups to Ask Their Own Questions

Recently when reading A More Beautiful Question that I wrote about in Part 1 of this Blog I discovered a technique developed over many years by Dan Rothstein and Luz Sanatana, which they describe in their book Make Just One Change. These techniques are now used to teach students how to ask more effective questions and to teach other groups how to tackle problems. Here is their technique in six steps.

  1. Leader writes a problem statement on a whiteboard that is only a few words long.
  2. Within a time-limit, group then comes up with as many questions as possible that pertain to the statement. (Rules – questions must be written down, no debate or discussion about questions.)
  3. Group goes through questions and makes open-ended questions closed questions and vice versa. This teaches group how they can narrow-down some questions and expand others. Rothstein says that during this stage people learn “the way you ask a question yields different results and can lead you in different directions.”
  4. Group then prioritizes questions and chooses three questions they believe the answers to which can move toward finding the right solution.
  5. Group develops next steps for learning the answers to the three questions.
  6. Group discusses what they learned during the process.

Two things are for sure – it takes an open culture for leaders to practice any or all of these techniques and asking the right question can focus people on the right answer, which may very well surprise us.

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