Are You Asking the Right Questions?
By Holly G. Green
As a business consultant, behavioral scientist, and keynote
speaker, much of what I talk about runs counterintuitive to
conventional leadership thinking. Identify and discard the best
practices that made you successful but are no longer relevant to
I constantly urge business leaders to slow down to go fast.
Unlearn to learn. Stop making stuff up (or at least be aware when
you are). Regularly challenge what you think you know about your
customers, your markets, and your industry. Here’s another one:
stop trying to have all the right answers and start focusing on
asking the right questions.
A generation ago, when the world didn’t move so quickly,
leaders had ample time to gather information, analyze the data, and
make informed decisions regarding the strategy and direction for our
organizations. Fully armed with all the information, we could look
out into the future and come up with the answers needed to achieve
our strategic goals.
But times have changed. The increasing speed and complexity
of our world now makes it impossible to have all the information we
need to make fully informed decisions. That’s why today’s leaders
must develop the critical skill of asking questions rather than
having all the answers. The trick is coming up with the right
Too often, leaders ask questions that keep people focused on
problems and obstacles rather than on solutions. We don’t do this
intentionally. It’s just that we almost never pause to think about
whether the questions we’re asking are producing the results we
For example, suppose your company has set a target of 20%
sales growth but the numbers keep lagging behind the goal. The
typical approach involves asking the sales team questions like: Why
aren’t you selling more? Why can’t you work together more
effectively? What are you going to do differently to sell more and
catch up to plan?
On the surface these seem like reasonable questions. The
sales team isn’t performing, so it makes sense to ask them what is
causing the problem and what they intend to do about it. In
reality, these types of questions usually produce negative rather
than positive consequences. First, they focus everyone’s thinking
on problems rather than solutions. They also cause the sales team
to feel attacked, which puts them on the defensive. This, in turn,
causes them to look for scapegoat answers that have nothing to do
with achieving the goal.
“Customers aren’t buying right now. We’re in a down
economy. Our competitors keep undercutting our price. Our
marketing collateral sends the wrong message.” The litany of
excuses goes on and on. If you hammer the sales team hard enough
with these kinds of questions, sales may go up. But more likely
you’ll end up with continued sluggish sales and a demoralized sales
How do you ask the right questions? It starts with a process
I call “success
visioning.” This involves focusing on where you want to go (your
target destination) and then picturing what it looks like when you
get there. Not if you get there, but when you get
there. Once you have a clear picture of what winning looks like for
your organization, ask a series of future, active, past-tense
questions that presume the target has already been achieved.
For example, ask
have achieved our sales growth rate of 20%:
How did we
conduct outreach to our customers?
did we use?
did we sell most effectively?
What words or
phrases did we use to clearly differentiate ourselves?
Who did we
build the strongest relationships with in the market?
What does our
did we use to track and support our progress?
testimonials did we leverage?
How did we
deepen our contacts at each client?
How did we
monitor and respond to changing market conditions?
See the difference? Asking people why they aren’t selling
more focuses their brains on the problem. It keeps them stuck on
what they are doing now rather than what they need to be doing to
get the desired results. Asking future, active, past-tense
questions focuses their brains on filling in the blanks of what they
did to achieve the goal.
Success visioning, coupled with future, active, past tense
questioning works because it shifts your attention from what is
stopping you from reaching your destination to what you are doing
when you have gotten there. It asks, “When we have done this
(achieved our 20% sales growth target), what are we doing and what
does it look like? How did we get here?” Your brain then begins to
fill in with all sorts of options on how to achieve success.
So, first get crystal clear on what winning looks like for
your organization. Then use open-ended questions to get people
thinking and acting like your future desired state is already
happening. This process works equally well with the organization as
a whole or with divisions, departments, teams, or smaller business
It can also be used on organizational tools, processes, systems,
customers, market share – virtually any aspect of your business.
In a world where you can no longer predict the future with
any degree of accuracy, the success of your business may hinge upon
your ability to ask the right questions at the right time. What are
the right questions for your business, and when do you plan to ask
Read other articles and learn more about
Holly G. Green.
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