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Are You Asking the Right Questions?

As a business consultant, behavioral scientist, and keynote speaker, much of what I talk about runs counterintuitive to conventional leadership thinking.

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. But 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. 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. However, they usually produce negative outcomes because 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.” 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. 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. 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.

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?

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