If you ain’t got the right questions…

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…You don’t have a snowball’s chance in &^$$ of getting the right answers. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had this discussion with CEOs and other senior executives. Or, as my friend Pete often says – “The most common source of mistakes in management decisions is the emphasis on finding the right answer, rather than the right question”. Or, as my other buddy Al says – “The formulation of a problem is far more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill”. Those would be Peter Drucker and Albert Einstein.

Asking the right questions is a critical competency that very few people pay attention to or develop. How many times have you been involved in futile number crunching or mind numbing analytical exercises that as soon as you’re done, someone decides that it wasn’t the right analysis and let’s go do another one? Often referred to as the “get me a rock” exercise – where the executive says “go get me a rock” and as soon as you bring in a rock, it’s not the right one and you have to go get another rock.

We often run a team simulation where we give the team all kinds of data and they have to answer a question. If the team took the time to examine the problem and identified the right set of questions, the answer can be had in 2-3 minutes. We’ve had teams take 45 minutes and not even be close – they keep crunching the data and formulating all kinds of analysis and spinning their wheels and validating their wild guesses every 5 minutes and getting more and more frustrated. And the teams that do the worse are the ones with the high achievers, the analytical super horses etc. etc.

We were just at a client meeting where the client was jokingly showing fake exasperation with all the questions we were bringing up and was wondering what value we were bringing since all we did was ask questions and we were getting paid for it. The conversation turned serious when I explained that the first job of any good consultant was to make sure that ALL the RIGHT questions had been asked. Only then should the consultant start working on potential solutions. The client admitted that the questions we had been asking were driving them to do some serious thinking – we were working on their core value creation and delivery process and the questions led them to a strategy to leapfrog their competition.

And there are techniques you can use to improve in this area. An example is The Minto Pyramid and the associated MECE principle. So slow down, stop, and reflect! Make sure you have all the right questions first – otherwise you will be headed on the fast train to nowhere.

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Dalip Raheja
Dalip Raheja is President and CEO of The Mpower Group (TMG). Dalip has over 30 years of experience managing large organizations and change initiatives. He has worked across the spectrums of supply chain management, strategic sourcing, and management consulting.
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