One of the most underrated yet important traits of successful entrepreneurs is the ability to ask and answer pertinent questions. It might not seem all that important but it is an important skill if you want to succeed in business. The ability to be precise in the questions you ask about your products, your services, your customers and your employees can be critical to success. This is not something that typically comes naturally to everyone but it is a skill that you can hone with training and practice.
In this article, we will be examining Microsoft’s Precision Questioning and Answering approach. It involves seven different types of questions that will give you the ability to drill down and focus on what matters in your business. As you become more familiar with the seven types of questions and how to use them you can use them to sharpen your skills and manage your business better. Rumor has it that the Precision Questioning and Answering Approach originated with Bill Gates. He would ask so many questions of his executives at Microsoft that they needed to be trained in precision questioning and answering in order to handle his questions. If it can help them handle Bill Gates it can certainly help you with your boss, your employees and your customers.
- Go or No Go: Is this a problem worth tackling?
To go or not to go, that is the question. Well, that is not quite what Shakespeare wrote but it is where we start. Whenever an issue arises the first question to ask is whether it is an issue worth tackling. After all, in business and in life, time is money. Time is the only thing that we can’t replace or buy back, not even with a great deal of money. It is a finite asset in business that we need to use wisely. You should always start by asking if an issue is worth the time and energy it will take to resolve. Once you decide to tackle a particular issue you should decide how much time and attention you should devote to it.
Deciding where to focus your attention is a common problem in business. As you grow your business you will often have to prioritize issues that come up. Tim Chen, the co-founder of the company NerdWallet has an interesting way of putting it. He says, “Don’t spend your time plugging a leaky boat, spend your time switching boats.” Sometimes you have a lot of small issues (like leaks in a boat) that aren’t a big deal on their own but together can threaten to overwhelm you. That is when you want to focus on what is important and not allow yourself to become swamped with all the little things.
- Clarifying and understanding the issue: What does this really mean?
Business meetings are notorious for being boring. They are also notorious for people getting lost in the weeds as they waste time debating issues. Asking precise questions about an issue will everyone to get on the same page regarding what the issue is and how to tackle it. This means that it is imperative to be able ask concise questions that are designed to clearly frame an issue and elicit answers that will further define the issue.
How can this be accomplished? Clarifying questions are designed to encourage the person answering them to describe their viewpoint more fully. They include responses such as, “I’m not quite sure I understand what you are saying,” and “When you said_____, what did you mean?” They are usually non-judgmental and open-ended questions that invite personal analysis from the person answering. They repeat and amplify what the person you are questioning has said. For example, “You said_______, does that mean you believe ________ ? In this way, you build a consensus around what the issue is.
- Breaking down assumptions: It this true or based on assumptions?
What is truth? This an age-old question with no easy answer. However, discerning truth is a process that allows us to work together as a team and come to some consensus on the facts surrounding an issue. That can be a difficult process at times. It isn’t always easy to get a group of people to agree on the facts surrounding an issue. Breaking down assumptions involves asking if there is evidence to support a conclusion. That is where the real meat of the debate is.
This process begins by looking at the issue under debate and the conclusions you have reached. It is an exploration of how you know what you know about an issue. For example, suppose that the issue under debate is the efficacy of a specific marketing strategy. If the person speaking is in favor of using the strategy then the questions asked should be aimed at uncovering specifically what evidence there is that that the strategy is (or would be) effective. There should be more than an assumption that it would work.
- Critical Question. How do we know this is true?
We have arrived at the point in the questioning where it is time to ask how we know a particular premise is true. This is when you know that a particular premise is based on facts and not just assumptions. Once you have established that it is time to drill down and take a close look at all the facts that support a premise. It is time to test how we know those facts are true.
It can be critical to ask where the facts that support a premise come from. For example, suppose that someone is speaking in support of a company expanding into a new geographic area that it hasn’t been in before. The speaker has numbers from research that shows the geographic area has an underserved populace that will be eager to use the company’s services. That makes expansion seem attractive and worth the money it will take to expand. That is when it is time to look behind the numbers and find out how the researchers arrived at the numbers. Testing the validity of the numbers will help to determine if the proposed expansion is a good idea.
- Basic questions: What caused this?
Everyone in business knows that issues will arise every day that effect your business. Sometimes those issues will have a negative effect on your business and you must determine what went wrong. Sometimes things go well and you should examine why things went well so you can continue to duplicate that success. In either case, you should be asking the basic question of what caused this and when or where did it start.
Asking the basic question of what caused something to happen can be a bit more complex at times than it might seem. For example, suppose that a sandwich shop has an issue with frequent customer complaints about long lines at certain times of day. An easy explanation for what causes the long lines might be that the long (slow) lines occur during lunch time when a lot of customers are coming in during a short period of time. Specific questions might uncover more specific reasons for the complaints.
Questions could uncover that the complaints began when the decision was made to cut back the number of people working the lunch shift by one or two and that slowed down the lines. That would show when the issue started. Or perhaps a change in the menu that added new dishes slowed things down during the lunch rush because the new dishes take longer to make. That would show where the issue started. Asking the right questions uncovers the cause of the issue.
- Effects: Who and what will be affected by this problem?
The next question to ask is who and what will be affected by the problem. After all, it is critical to determine both who the issue effect and what areas of your business are affected by it. It is important to make these determinations before you try to figure out what actions to take in order to solve the problem. As with the five previous steps, this is all about asking better and more focused questions.
When discussing an issue at this stage you want to ask careful questions that are aimed at determining who “owns” the problem and who will be affected by it. For example, if the issue is a decline in sales numbers then the first place you might look is the sales department. Your sales agents will be affected by changes designed to boost sales. However, asking more focused questions about why the sales numbers have declined might uncover that changes are needed in the marketing department or in production in order to reach customers and serve their needs. That would mean they are affected by the decline in sales.
- Action: Based on everything we have so far, what can we do?
Now we arrive at the final question. The question that pulls everything together and asks, “What’s next?” This is where you crystalize all the other focused questions you have asked about and issue and all the active listening you have done into a plan of action. Notice that you create that plan of action only after asking all the critical questions that will give you the information you need and build support among your team members for that action.
When you have asked all the questions designed to determine the importance of an issue, what the truth of the issue is, how you know that truth, what caused it, and who is affected by it then you can start to ask questions designed to create a plan. For example, if you have determined, through questioning, that production could be improved by investing in new equipment and what that equipment should be, you can then start to question where the company will obtain the new equipment and how you pay for it. By using the Microsoft precision questioning and answering method in that way you can be confident in the action you are taking to address issues as they arise.