How to Fix a Bad Question

I recently worked with a group of managers employed by a Fortune 100 insurance provider. We spent the day on the topic of getting unstuck by learning to ask better questions. One manager in the session so dramatically transformed the question that had him stuck, it has become one of my favorite examples of the power of overhauling a poorly constructed question.

The insurance company mainly sells its products through local agents. The agents are most comfortable selling automobile insurance, but the company would like the agents to cross-sell its other insurance products (e.g. homeowners insurance, life insurance, etc.). “Cross-selling” is when a company offers an existing customer a different, but related product. When Amazon informs you that people who purchased the toothbrush you just ordered also purchased dental floss, Amazon is cross-selling.

The manager in our session that day walked in feeling stuck. He had been tasked with increasing the sales of products other than automobile insurance in California. He started the day with the question, “How do we get our agents to cross-sell our insurance products?”

Before we step through the process of “fixing” the question, let’s remind ourselves of the four criteria by which we determine whether one question is better than another. We refer to the four criteria as the Unstuck Minds Imperatives:

  • Avoid solving the wrong problem
  • Reduce the risk of missing something important
  • Make it easier for people to take concerted action, and
  • Increase the novelty of our options

Like any professional remodeling project, we have to start by understanding the existing state of disrepair. The form of the question, “How do we get our agents to cross-sell our insurance products?” is the most common form of the question I hear from organizational leaders. Essentially, the question reads as a complaint about other people who need to adopt a different behavior in order for the leader to meet an objective. Other than the topic, the question sounds a lot like a parent lamenting, “How do I get my teenage daughter to keep her bathroom clean?”

One way to begin fixing the question is to uncover needs and interests. The idea of framing a question around an insight about what people need is a tenet of Human-Centered Design. You could say that one way to fix a question is to make sure the question doesn’t presuppose fixing other people. A poorly constructed question will emerge from a strategy to alter the behavior of others in pursuit of your own needs. A better question will emerge from a strategy designed to explore shared interests

You can tell that you have identified a need or an interest if the people at the heart of your question change their attitude toward helping you answer it. I’m unlikely to get much enthusiasm from my daughter if I start a conversation with, “Let’s talk about how I can get you to keep your bathroom clean?” On the other hand, she might be happy to participate in a conversation about how to reduce the amount of nagging going on at home. You can tell immediately that the second question is an improvement because both parent and daughter would willingly take time to answer it. Similarly, the insurance company will have limited success putting on a training program called, “How to cross-sell.”

The manager considered what the company’s insurance agents care about. “The best agents” he told me, “want to be seen as community leaders.”

After more conversation and a few revisions, we came up with a different question, “How might we help our agents become their neighborhoods’ trusted, go-to resource for protecting against the costs of injury, damage, or loss?”

When it comes to the Unstuck Minds Imperatives, the remodeled question about insurance agents is clearly better. More importantly, if agents truly want to be seen as community leaders, they would be motivated to learn about becoming a “trusted go-to resource.” The question also opens the door for innovations that may have nothing to do with cross-selling insurance products.

Uncovering Your Client’s Requirements: Four questions for connecting services and solutions to wants and needs

Changing the way we refer to things says a lot about our changing mindsets. For example, our organizations used to “train” people, now we “develop talent” through “blended learning experiences.” Companies that once employed “salespeople” responsible for closing deals, now have “business development teams” that form relationships with customers and clients.

Our changing descriptions of organizational roles and functions signify more than a gentrification of the way we talk about business. In the case of the interactions formerly known as “sales” and “training,” the change in language represents a shift from thinking in terms of transactions to thinking in terms of connections.

Once, we asked for coffee, received it and paid for it. Now we interact with a skilled and knowledgeable barista who assesses how much conversation will be required to meet our coffee needs, including the needs we didn’t realize we had: We can make your cappuccino frothier. Next time order it “dry.”

We no longer transact business. We connect services and solutions to wants and needs.

Our internal and external clients and customers no longer want our prefabricated widgets, our generic training programs, or our one-size-fits-all professional service methodologies. Even health care systems have started personalizing treatment plans to meet individual patient needs.

Sometimes, I have a very specific coffee order and I’m not interested in exploring my options. Similarly, sometimes, a client or customer simply wants to transact business with you. They know what they want and they’re looking for the best value. Before your scoping conversation, ask yourself (or even better, ask the client) about the importance of what Unstuck Minds calls, “The Four Imperatives.”

Find out the extent to which your client needs to…

  • Reduce the risk of missing something important

  • Avoid solving the wrong problem

  • Make it easier for people to take concerted action

  • Increase the novelty of their options

If the imperatives matter, you’ll want to walk into the scoping conversation with better questions. There are four primary questions that will change any scoping conversation from a business transaction into a conversation that connects services and solutions to needs:

What is changing? Start your scoping conversation with a question that demonstrates the importance of context. By the time you have been invited into a scoping conversation, your client has already decided that something needs to change or improve. To avoid being trapped by a discussion of the features and functions of your solutions, find out what has changed in the internal and external environment that triggered the scoping conversation. By asking. “What is changing?” you reduce the risk of missing something important.

What does it mean? After hearing about what is changing, find out how your client has interpreted the changes. Consider other explanations for the identified changes. Why has the client’s current interpretation of the changes become a priority? By finding out what the change means to your client you avoid solving the wrong problem.

How do others see it? You have heard one perspective on the context and rationale for the client’s stated need, now it’s time to find out about the thoughts and feelings of others in the organization. Be suspicious of a client who describes strong alignment on a consistent set of needs. The scoping conversation should include a discussion of what people may end up losing when the client’s needs are met, not just what people stand to gain. Finding out how others think and feel helps make it easier for people to take concerted action to meet the client’s requirements.

How else might we define the challenge? The client engaged you in a scoping conversation by framing a request. If you’ve had a productive dialogue prompted by the first three questions, it’s likely that new information and perhaps some new insights have emerged. In asking the fourth question, you are adding value to the conversation by broadening the solution set. You may even uncover needs that set the stage for future scoping conversations.

The Unstuck Minds Compass: How to recognize and avoid thinking traps

Imagine you have a persistent and mysterious stomachache. Your family physician is stumped. Now imagine that you could convene a dream team of health professionals to sit together like a panel of experts and ask you questions about your condition. Maybe you would select a gastroenterologist, a psychologist, a nutritionist and a mind-body healer. Each expert takes turns posing questions about your condition. As you would expect, each of them asks questions based on their training and worldview. You will be drawn to some questions and you will reject others.

In the same way, the Unstuck Minds Compass comes at your most persistent dilemmas from different directions. Four different thinking systems ensure a comprehensive approach to understanding the nature of your dilemma. The four strategies of the compass don’t supply answers; they introduce questions you haven’t been thinking about. You will be drawn to some questions and you will reject others.

Critical Inquiry

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Critical inquiry helps us get unstuck by ensuring we don’t take problems at face value. For example, we can take medicine to relieve a headache. The medicine makes us feel better, but we are left wondering why we periodically get headaches. If we take action to resolve a problem and the problem returns, then we start looking for patterns. Critical inquiry helps us recognize patterns in our persistent problems and helps us explain why the patterns exist.

Critical inquiry helps us avoid solving the wrong problem.

Contextual Inquiry

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Contextual inquiry helps us get unstuck by encouraging us to look at the big picture. Sometimes we follow our comfortable routines without ever questioning whether the routines still make sense. For example, improving the durability of a video cassette is a waste of time if people stop buying video cassette recorders. Contextual inquiry helps us notice changes in the environment that alert us to what’s coming. Contextual inquiry allows us to reevaluate how we prioritize our attention and resources.

Contextual inquiry reduces the risk of missing something important.

Collaborative Inquiry

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Collaborative inquiry helps us get unstuck by drawing our attention to the networks of people and groups that might play a role in improving our situation. When ideas and feedback feel unwelcome or when sharing them feels unsafe, the organization can only recycle familiar opinions. Even a high quality strategy or solution won’t improve things if people are committed to maintaining the status quo. Collaborative inquiry reminds us of the power of social networks and the value of hearing what people are thinking and feeling.

Collaborative inquiry makes it easier for people to take concerted action.

Creative Inquiry

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Creative inquiry helps us get unstuck by provoking insights and surfacing hidden needs. Sometimes we get stuck because we insist on a business case for new ideas rather than encouraging experimentation and learning from failure. If the only ideas we are interested in are the ones that feel like a sure thing, we will only hear about ways of improving the status quo. Creative inquiry encourages us to question our assumptions about what people need and about our self-imposed limitations.

Creative inquiry increases the novelty of our options.

Using the compass helps you think differently about your dilemma while simultaneously teaching you how to deal more effectively with complexity and uncertainty. When people use the compass together they not only develop their thinking skills, they develop an appreciation for how others in the organization think and feel about the situation you want to improve.

Four Imperatives for Crafting Better Questions

Since I’m in the business of helping people ask better questions. I shouldn’t be surprised when someone asks me, “What makes one question better than another?” That’s actually a good question. Before I describe why I think it’s a good question, let’s have a look at some classic categories of second-rate questions:

Questions that are actually advice or judgment masquerading as a question: Shouldn’t you unplug the toaster before trying to unjam that bagel with your knife? Just because it’s good advice, doesn’t make it a good question.

Questions that beget questions instead of answers: What should we do? Unless the situation in which this question arises is dire, the appropriate response is, “that depends, what is happening and what do you want to have happen?”

Questions that constrain rather than liberate: Should we build it ourselves or outsource it?

Questions that make it unsafe to answer candidly: The boss asks forcefully at the conclusion of a meeting, “I don’t see any reason why we can’t meet this deadline, do you?”

I apply four criteria when evaluating the quality of a question. I refer to each criterion as an imperative. Better questions satisfy four imperatives.

Imperative 1: Will answering the question help you avoid solving the wrong problem?

To avoid solving the wrong problem you must recognize the influence of underlying structures and cultural norms. It’s tempting to solve problems as they arise without questioning the cause, but when the problem persists or regularly reemerges, efforts to solve each problem in isolation become counterproductive. I can take an aspirin to make my headache go away, but if the headache keeps coming back I will need to understand more about what’s causing it.

“What can I take to get rid of this headache?” is not as good as, “Why do I get a headache every time I drink red wine?”

Imperative 2: Will answering the question reduce the risk of missing something important?

Being attentive to our environmental context and the competitive landscape reduces the risk that we will miss something important. The overwhelming amount of information available to us conspires with the relentless pace of work to narrow the aperture through which we learn about the world. If we keep our heads down and focus only on our functions and our objectives, we may miss emerging trends that could make the way we are currently framing our questions irrelevant.

“How do we leverage social media?” is not as good as, “What influences how our future best customers make judgments about a brand?”

Imperative 3: Will answering the question make it easier for people to take concerted action?

The answers to our most important questions involve and impact others. Crafting questions that are considerate of people who will be impacted by the answer is not just an ethical thing to do, it avoids unanticipated conflicts in priorities and improves your answers by including diverse perspectives.

“How do I get people to focus more on our customers?” is not as good as, “What conditions encourage helpfulness?”

Imperative 4: Will answering the question increase the novelty of your options?

Questions that allow for multiple and diverse options inspire fresh thinking. Those who value learning from mistakes ask different questions than those looking for options that simply improve the status quo.

“How will that work?” or “What are the benefits and risks of that approach?” are not as good as, “If we experimented with that idea, what would we learn?”

#betterquestions