Asking the right questions

January 19, 2019

ONE of my favorite comedy scenes involves Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau. He checks into an inn and sees a dog on the lobby floor. He asks the doddering, pipe-smoking innkeeper “Does your dog bite?” The innkeeper says “Nope.” Clouseau bends down to pet the dog, which suddenly growls, jumps up and bites his gloved hand. Clouseau, shaken, tells the innkeeper, “I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite!” The innkeeper replied nonchalantly, “That is not my dog.”

Asking the right questions take skill and wisdom. Wrong questions lead to wrong answers. Wrong answers lead to wrong actions. Wrong results can lead to more than the loss of a full set of fingers. In my day job, I learned to ask three crucial questions to help make operations more effective. Give them a try in your own workplace and let me know how they worked out. I would love to know!

Find the joy. Perhaps the toughest job of a leader is to motivate his troops. Just after taking over a factory, I gathered the operators in one room and asked them, “What gives you the most joy in your job?” Know what? None of them said anything about money. Rather, most of them said they love working with colleagues they like. One stand-out was the operator who said he looks forward to training sessions. Further observation showed that his not only has a heart to learn, but a heart to teach. Then, I pull the right motivational levers such as fostering camaraderie and learning.

Kill the spider. Perhaps you heard about this humorous but insightful anecdote in church. There was a prayer meeting and one guy kept intoning God, “Lord, my life is full of cobwebs. Please take away my cobweb of greed. Please clear up my cobweb of fear. Please heal my cobweb of insecurity...” And on and on he went until some exasperated prayer partner shouted, “Lord, please kill the spider! Kill the spider!”

So when you are facing a chronic problem, one good question to ask is, “Where’s the spider?” Engineers have a more precise language, “What’s the root cause?” Sometimes we don’t ask questions deeply enough. We ask “What happened?” only once and stop there. Then we slap a solution that may in reality be the proverbial band-aid over a festering wound. Don’t stop there. Ask several “why” questions. Solicit unvarnished feedback. Verify each assumption. Then when you finally find that spider, squash it without mercy.

Milk the now. Every morning, I have a decision to make: Should I go outdoors and do some brisk walking… or stay indoors and scroll down Facebook? I have to keep asking “What’s the best way to use the time I have now?” For example, I do things that require a lot of brainwork in the morning, such as writing a report or planning a project. Then I tackle the relatively low-maintenance tasks after lunch, such as typing data in a spreadsheet. That way, I milk every hour for all its worth.

Ask the right questions. Be aware that you may be harbouring assumptions you are not even aware of. These will help you to probe for clarity and purpose. These are quite indispensable in resolving human problems. They are equally effective for business problems, too.

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