Ask the right questions. Drive the right outcomes
I’m sure I’m not the only one finding the world’s getting faster. We’re all trying to get more efficient at getting more things done. But that doesn’t mean we’re getting the right things done. It's only when we stop, pause, reflect and start asking the right questions that we get to the bottom of things.
At AFFINITY, we love asking questions. We find asking the right questions helps you uncover the core issues. This can be in every-day interactions with others or in getting under the skin of a complex client brief.
But how do you choose the right questions to ask? How many do you ask? And what do you ask? Here are six guiding principles we work by:
1. Think about your audience
Who are you speaking to? How senior are they, what’s their role, and what are the differing needs they have? Your question set will change based on the audience, and what you need to get out of it.
2. Have a mix of closed and open-ended questions
This is pretty obvious, but closed questions often give you closed answer: Yes or No. So, an open-ended question opens up the person to elaborate further. If you do ask an open-ended question, be sure to practice active listening to help with developing follow-up questions.
3. Use follow-up questions to probe deeper
Follow-up questions are critical, especially when you get a superficial answer or one that didn’t fully answer the original question. A simple follow up in this situation might be: Why do you say that? Tell me more about what you just said? I’ve found follow up questions to be the most important. Recently on a customer acquisition project, we changed tack when we realised acquisition was secondary to a bigger problem for the client – poor advocacy. Customers simply weren’t recommending them. We needed to fix this before looking at acquisition, an insight that only came about by asking a follow up.
4. Practice Active listening
Active listening is a process of listening attentively while someone else speaks, then paraphrasing back to them what has been said as a way of getting clarity or further information. I’ve found this to be a great technique when you’re unclear of someone’s point of view or their expectations on a project. It show’s you listen, but you also get clarity.
5. Think about the core outcomes you want from the questions.
Make sure there’s a reason for each question you ask. That way the answers you get will be useful and you can act on them. If you’re not going to do anything with the question, don’t ask it.
6. Probe, don’t interrogate
While it’s important to have a structured list of questions, don’t feel you need stick to it too rigidly. The conversation can end up feeling scripted and unnatural (or worse, like an interrogation). I find if you do need to ask lots of probing questions, set the expectation first and explain the benefit of these questions. And most importantly thank them at the end.
Following are some of the areas I like to start with, to help you get started:
1. Probe around business objectives. What are they, how are measured, and is the project directly linked to reaching them?
2. How will you judge this activity as a success? This helps get beneath the core metrics.
3. What’s the underlying reason or trigger for this brief? This helps understand any additional reasons why the activity is being undertaken.
4. What’s the single biggest opportunity you see? This might help if your client has a pre-conceived view, or there’s a ready-made solution out there.
5. What are the biggest challenges you see, and why?
I hope you’ve found the above useful. And of course, if you have a question for me I’m always open to answering one. I don’t mind if its open-ended or closed!
Better input always leads to greater outcomes
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