Ask Better Questions, Get Better Answers

Last week I wrote about the time and place for a more directive leadership style. The leadership pendulum has swung heavily toward facilitative leadership in the last decade or two, favouring a consultative and empowering approach to strategy and change. Despite this, it remains critical, even in 2019, for leaders to be able to provide clear boundaries, direction and expectations in times of change and uncertainty.

For those of you who were deeply uncomfortable with the idea of telling, you’ll be pleased that this week I’m talking about the time to ask.

The thing about asking, though, is that not all questions are created equal.

All too often, I see misdirected or shapeless team or community consultation. Leaders come out with a new strategy or initiative and then ask for ‘feedback’ or include questions like ‘is this right?’ or ‘did we miss anything?’

Here’s my quick thoughts on questions like that:

1.       Going to the effort to tell people about a new direction and then immediately undermine it by asking if it’s right is a bit dumb

2.       If you didn’t engage with parts of your business to develop your priorities and direction in the first place, it’s a bit late now.

Instead, we need to be asking questions that get useful answers and outcomes, and provide clear scope for engagement.

Because when you ask better questions, you get better answers!

I wrote recently about making meaning in the context of letting go – allowing people the autonomy to shape their own version of your reality. Making your thinking meaningful to others is one of the most important steps in driving new behaviours, because, a bit like election promises, strategy and change only starts to appeal when people can understand what it means for their own lives and how it connects to the bigger picture.

“We run this company on questions, not answers.” – Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google

When it comes to change communication, the logic works the same in the other direction as well - feedback for leadership teams is only meaningful in the context of what it will mean for your people and organisation.

In plain English, it’s about saying: “Tell us what this means, so we can better understand what our thoughts look like in practice.”

To say my youngest daughter is strong-willed is the understatement of the century. If I don’t make an effort to understand her frustrations and address them, there is no chance of meaningful communication between the two of us.

My eldest girls will swallow (bitterly, at times!) the occasional “because I said so” but Harriet? No way. If I don’t take the time to understand the source of her problem (and there’s a lot of them. The food I serve. The clothes she wears. The order we do anything in…) then we both wind up upset, disengaged and not liking each other very much.

What I’ve learned with her is that it really only takes a few good questions and a genuine attempt to understand her fury to change the game entirely – and that authenticity is critical. She’ll smell a token question a mile away. And so will your teams.

I was going to write you a little list of good ‘asks’ and then I realised that one of my teams has done a far better job than I could have!

Here’s a great collection of questions from a team at Auckland Council who are rolling out a new strategic direction to their wider management team.

The question they were asking was  “What do our teams need us to ask them?” (good question eh…)

How can you ask better questions, to get better answers?

When to Ask:

-          When it’s time to make change more real and meaningful to your teams

-          To add more detail to the ‘how’ part of your strategy implementation planning

-          When there is some scope for nuance and change

-          When you have time to reflect on the feedback

-          When teams are competent and autonomous

Til next week!

-          A