The Power of Asking the Right Questions
Insurance Experts' Forum, March 16, 2011
During a recent conversation with a colleague, she expressed frustration about how things were failing to progress at her company. Projects were behind schedule, recommendations that had been enthusiastically approved 12 months earlier were, in hindsight, turning out to be mistakes and project team members were under constant stress to deliver. The resulting impact was poor morale and lack of execution, leading to eventual project failure and an operating environment in a constant state of crisis.
Often in times like this, management’s approach to problem solving is to ask questions like:
• Whose fault is it?
• Why are we behind?
• Why can’t we get this right?
• What is taking so long?
• Why can’t you get this?
• What are you going to do to fix this?
Unfortunately, these types of questions often have the undesired effect of being devastating and disempowering. Their embedded negativity often ends up contributing more to the problems than leading to solutions.
An alternative approach is to begin by asking the team, “What will it take to bring this project in on schedule?” Focusing on the needed outcome can lead to the development of an action plan that enables the team to finish on time and within budget. Using this approach usually has a positive effect on the attitude of each participant as well. Persistently keeping management’s attention on successfully completing the project, rather than the little things going wrong, can improve morale and productivity, leading to finishing ahead of schedule and well under budget.
Consider how the questions listed above would make you feel. In an environment where these questions are the norm, team members are typically resistant to change, lack creativity and are afraid to make decisions. Unfortunately, when organizations find themselves in a crisis, these are often the questions that are asked in an attempt to “fix” the problems. Yet the negativity of these questions stifles success at the very time new ideas, energy and commitments are needed most.
Instead, consider a different set of questions—ones that have a positive, forward-looking focus:
• What aspects of this project are working well?
• What are we trying to accomplish?
• What do we need in order to reach our goal?
• What ideas do you have that will help us move forward?
• What needs to happen to get this project completed?
• How can I help?
• What accomplishments can we celebrate?
These types of questions are powerful tools for bringing out the best in people. Notice how you feel when you read these questions—they are positive and energizing. When forward-looking questions are used, people let down their barriers, communicate openly and take personal responsibility for the outcome. We tend to move toward whatever we focus on. If we focus on the obstacles, we spend more time addressing the obstacles than moving toward the goal. When we focus on the end goal, we tend to do whatever it takes to get there in the most efficient manner.
The positive impact of using this approach can commonly be seen when dealing with young children. Tell them not to spill their milk, and more often than not, they will spill it. The focus is on spilling milk. If instead they are told to hold the cup with both hands, more often than not they won’t spill the milk. The focus changes to the desired outcome and away from what is trying to be avoided.
In today’s increasingly complex world, it is very easy to get distracted by the negatives and get caught up in the “crisis.” This can result in a spiral of activity that amplifies the problems instead of solving them. Taking a step back, the solution can be as simple as changing the approach used, the questions asked, and the focus of attention. I suspect you will find the positive impact and improvements are worth the effort.
Steve Murphy is a senior consultant at The Robert E. Nolan Co., a management consulting firm specializing in the insurance industry.
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