The power of good questions

Many times in business (as well as in daily life) when dealing with an issue, we tend to quickly go into “question-answer mode”, instead of taking time to assess whether this question is the most relevant and powerful one. Hence, often, we give quick good answers …. to the wrong question.

If you stop for a moment and take time to further interrogate the question, before jumping into answers or conclusions, you may be more effective in your actions. The way we frame questions may open or close our ability to find solutions.

Below are some easy to follow tips to generate more powerful questions:

1. Don’t stick to the first question articulation. Stay in “question mode” a while before jumping into “answer mode” and try to re-frame the original question. For instance, “ladder up” and broaden your perspective by asking “why?” When coaching a brand team on the re-launch of a large sliced bread business, we got stuck with a business question: “How to get rid of the bread crust that consumers reject?” The solutions implied a drain of operational effectiveness, impacting negatively on margins. We played with the original question a bit and re-framed it as, “Why do consumers not like the crust on breads?”, leading to answers related to tastelessness, for example. Solutions like adding flavors, toppings, colors, smells to the bread crust emerged and ended up in one of the brand’s most successful ever re-launches

2. Dare to ask naïve questions…about things we recognize as part of the context, even though they might not have to be like that; challenge the “obvious” assumptions. For example, when a wine brand worked on how to recruit younger consumers by making wine more affordable, the team challenged the assumption that wine had to be sold in bottles. Doing this enabled the wine makers to sell wine in cans and expand their offers to younger segments.

3. See questions in 360º: explore “the B-side” of each question. There is always a different story if you change perspectives. Think of how end-consumers, stakeholders or trade buyers would articulate the question. For example, when working on how to get adults to reduce smoking, the team hit a roadblock when asking direct questions to the smoker, such as “How can we stop smokers like you from smoking?” When the team talked the kids of the smokers they uncovered the fear that their parents would die, and this message proved to be more powerful to smokers.

4. Don’t be scared to live with contradictions and paradoxes: it is much better than forcedly sorting things out to recover the false feeling of certainty, at the expense of richness. For example, imagine you want to read more books, but can’t find time to do this. We could re-work the original question of “How to read more books with no more time?” into “How can I learn more from books with no more time?” This second and more powerful articulation allows us to expand the span of possibilities, by finding answers like, “Listening to podcasts in the car while driving to/from work”.

So, next time you face an issue, try not to stick to the first problem definition but play with alternative ones and choose the most powerful. Much better a decent answer to the right question than a great answer to a poor question!