Ask the right questions to get the best outcomes
“The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he is one who asks the right questions.” – Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908 – 2009)
Claude was a French anthropologist and ethnologist, and has been called, along with James George Frazer and Franz Boas, the “father of modern anthropology”. He argued that the “savage” mind had the same structures as the “civilized” mind and that human characteristics are the same everywhere. These observations culminated in his famous book Tristes Tropiques, which positioned him as one of the central figures in the structuralist school of thought, where his ideas reached into many fields in the humanities, as well as sociology and philosophy. Structuralism has been defined as “the search for the underlying patterns of thought in all forms of human activity.”
And Claude was right. Asking the right questions is the essence of good science, design and problem solving. Insightful questions can challenge accepted models, and turn the way we think about a concept on its head. You still need a curious, inquiring mind to come up with the right answers – but some of the most exciting science discoveries would never have happened, without that initial spark of inspiration from someone asking a really good question.
Research into Award Winning Work
After more than 250 interviews and 10,000 descriptions of award-winning work analysed as part of a comprehensive study on great work. When they traced the genesis of innovation and value creation back to its source, the surprise was to see how many times it began with ‘asking the right question’.
The right question can be a disruptive agent, cutting through years of complacency to redirect a team or a organisations focus. It serves as a pointer, aiming us in the direction of the answer.
As Einstein put it: “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would use the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”
From the research, the following three practical assists can inform and enhance the quality of the questions we ask, and lead to great work.
When a person opens their mind to the kind of ideas that come quietly they unveil the deeper, richer thoughts that are too easily chased away by the adrenaline of taking immediate action. Spend some time alone with your thoughts. Pause to let the purpose of your initiative marinate, percolate, and simmer. In the early stages of a difference-making quest, the simple act of paying attention to your thoughts can provide the few degrees of adjustment that brings about the greatest innovation. Everyone has hunches, impressions, and the fragile beginnings of new ideas still forming. Absorb them. Listen to them. Take counsel from them.
2. THINK ABOUT THE PEOPLE
Who will the work or the product benefit? What are they trying to do? What do they value? What do they hope for? I love the question Clayton Christensen posed in The Innovator’s Solution, “what is the job this [product] is being hired to do?” What is hoped for, what outcome is desired, and what benefit will this solution provide to the beneficiary of your work?
3. WHAT DIFFERENCE WOULD PEOPLE… LOVE
What would the beneficiary of your work really love? Not just like. Not just feel better about. But what difference would they love? That question in particular seems to activate a deeply human power of creative energy inside us. It seems to open our minds beyond the ordinariness of what “is” in favour of what “could be”.
In most of our interviews we were intrigued by how many unique versions of this root question appeared, and the impressive effect it had on outcomes.
The effect of asking the right question is statistically profound
The research showed that asking the right question increased the odds by:
- 4.1 times that someone’s work would have a positive effect on others
- 3.1 times that the outcome would be deemed important
- 2.8 times to create passion in the doer and perhaps most significant to organisation leaders
- 2.7 times more likely to make a positive impact on the organisation’s bottom line
The right question will significantly influence your ability to produce the kind of products, services and outcomes that people will love.
– Research David Sturt, with the O.C. Tanner Institute, is the author of the New York Times Bestseller book – Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love.
“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” - Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)
Albert Einstein was a German-born theoretical physicist revolutionised our understanding of Physics and of the Universe. One of the greatest physicists in history. Albert Einstein, Time Magazine’s “Person of the Century”. His name is now synonymous with genius, we all understand what a phrase like “he’s not an Einstein” means. He developed the general theory of relativity, one of the two pillars of modern physics (alongside quantum mechanics). While best known for his mass–energy equivalence formula E = mc2 (which has been dubbed “the world’s most famous equation”), he received the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics “for his services to theoretical physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect”. The latter was pivotal in establishing quantum theory. Lest we forget he worked in the patent office, as an assistant examiner. So you never know were genius ideas are going to come from.
“The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong questions.” - Peter Drucker – Men, Ideas & Politics
Peter Ferdinand Drucker (1909 – 2005) was an Austrian-born American management consultant, educator, and author, whose writings contributed to the philosophical and practical foundations of the modern business corporation. He was also a leader in the development of management education, and he invented the concept known as management by objectives. Drucker’s 39 books have been translated into more than thirty-six languages. He also penned a regular column in the Wall Street Journal for 10 years and contributed frequently to the Harvard Business Review, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Economist.
“Unlike top management at Enron, exemplary leaders reward dissent. They encourage it. They understand that, whatever momentary discomfort they experience as a result of being told they might be wrong, it is more than offset by the fact that the information will help them make better decisions.” – Warren Bennis New York Times, 17-2-2002
90% of getting the right solution is putting your efforts and total focus into understanding and defining the problem correctly while asking the right questions. From that the solutions will flow and become much more obvious. Remember: Experts usually have all the right answers to all the wrong questions.
“Get the right people in the right environment asking the right questions” – Wayne Larkin
The number 3 priority is ask the right questions.