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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 today’s world.

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 questions.

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 want.

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 team.

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 “When we have achieved our sales growth rate of 20%:

  • How did we conduct outreach to our customers?

  • What channels did we use?

  • What products 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 brand mean?

  • What systems did we use to track and support our progress?

  • What 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 units. 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 them?

Read other articles and learn more about Holly G. Green.

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