My first manager routinely asked a question that turned out to be a powerful teaching tool and a life-long reminder to pause before leaping. The question was, “Have you thought of everything?”
While “thinking of everything” in a literal sense is impossible, her intent wasn’t to push us down to ground level in an endless field of details (as interpreted by my colleagues), but rather, it was to push us to think through and around a situation in as thorough manner as possible.
Pat was pushing us to identify the questions that had to be answered over time to succeed with an initiative. She taught a discipline that blended the scientific method with today’s “Lean Start-Up.” The questions defined the points of investigation and experiments, and drove a process of learning and continuous refinement.
Rather than jump to assumptions or approaches, there are a number of key situations, where questions create the foundation for actions.
5 Areas Where the Questions Always Come First
1. Strategy. From understanding who you are serving/with what/why they’ll buy to understanding how you’ll make money and how this differs from the actions of your competitors, strategy is all about asking and answering questions.
Before diving in to the solutions, take time with your strategy team and identify the questions you have to hold yourselves accountable to answering. Some can be answered through research and others (most) define the experiments you’ll need to run to evaluate whether your strategic thinking hunts with your target audiences.
2. High-Stakes Meetings. Any meeting where the stakes are high and the responses/reactions not locked in, merits the “think of everything” filter. In this case, we’re interested in understanding and anticipating the mood and concerns of the participants and on identifying the means to “manage the psychology” of the meeting to our advantage.
If you anticipate the desired outcome of the meeting, you can build a series of questions that must be answered to move individuals and the group from the blurry front-end through the issues, opportunities, risks and approaches to either a specific conclusion or at least to a set of options that work for the situation and for you. If you want to see this in action, spend some time with your top salespeople. They do this routinely as part of their business development work.
3. Replacement Hiring. Too many hiring decisions are made based on long-established job descriptions created under circumstances and business models that are long gone. Managers lose one person and seek clone to execute on the historic tasks.
In reality, a job opening is the time to “check your premises” and determine whether you and your firm might be better served by doing something completely different. The next time you or one of your hiring managers shows up seeking approval for a replacement requisition, ask them to think through the true needs of the business and their function before moving ahead with the process.
4. Risk Identification. While often referenced in the context of project management, everything we do in business is about attempting to understand and manage risk. From assessing and anticipating what might happen to how will we monitor, identify and respond to risks, it’s incumbent upon us as managers to constantly be asking ourselves where things might surprise. Risk identification is one situation where paranoia truly pays.
5. Business Performance Measurement. Gaining a true sense of organizational health requires much more than looking in the rear-view mirror at financial statements. Thanks to tools such as the Balanced Scorecard, many managers and firms recognize the need to identify measures that showcase progress, direction and organizational coordination. All scorecard efforts start with a series of questions about what success means and what progress looks like over time. Because the process of creating a scorecard is iterative, the questions never go away.
The Bottom-Line for Now
Instead of jumping to ideas and solutions, approach each initiative by identifying the questions that have to be answered. While it might seem like you’ve slowed things down, in reality, you’ve taken a great step toward strengthening team learning and reducing the flailing that surrounds so many of our initiatives.
This blog originally appeared at artpetty.com.