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Performance Consulting Tips: Ask Powerful Questions

Wednesday, June 21, 2017
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Ask Powerful Questions
I want to share a story with you about an internal HR consultant I know. This individual, whom I will call Phil, is an HR business partner in a large, for-profit organization. 

Phil’s primary internal client is the executive vice president for a major line of business within the organization. This executive requires Phil to attend monthly operating team meetings with other executives and senior leaders in this line of business. 

In these meetings, Phil is a participant—not an observer or a facilitator. Phil is at the proverbial table, contributing to discussions and helping make decisions. When I asked the executive why it was important to him that Phil participates in these meetings, he said, “Because Phil asks us questions that we did not even know we had, and then helps us to answer them.” 

Phil is addressing strategic issues within the business not because of what he tells executives, but because of what he asks them. As performance consultants, we need to be highly successful at influencing others when discussing business and performance issues. And developing skills to ask powerful, thought-provoking questions is a capability we need to hone. 

What Is a Powerful Question? 

A powerful question is one that causes a leader to respond with some version of, “I’m not certain of the answer, but that’s a good question.” Obtaining answers to questions that focus on human performance and business issues is what performance consultants do. When a leader indicates seeing value in obtaining answers to questions that have been raised, we are in a great position to indicate how we can help in collecting the information needed. 

Powerful questions have three characteristics: 

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  1. They are open ended. 
  2. They are focused. 
  3. They are solution and cause neutral.

Powerful Questions Are Open Ended 

Powerful questions cannot be answered with a yes or no. They will require a series of statements. Questions that begin with words like is, are, or do will be met with a binary response. What we need to ask are questions that begin with words like what, why, or how

Powerful Questions Are Focused 

This is a critical, but not necessarily easy, characteristic to support. Examples of unfocused questions include, “What’s going on?” or, “What keeps you up at night?” In each instance, the leader can respond in a wide, or narrow, manner—and even with information that is not relevant to the question. For example, I once observed a performance consultant ask a leader, “What keeps you up a night?” The response was “my 16-year-old son, who just got his driver’s license and is not good at getting home on time.” Interesting, but not relevant to the business issue at hand! 

There are three categories of questions performance consultants want to focus on: 

  1. What should be occurring? This is the desired state for the business, as well as for human performance. 
  2. What is occurring now? This is the current state for the business and for human performance. 
  3. What are the causes of any gaps between what is and what should be occurring? 

Let’s consider a situation where a vice president of manufacturing wants to discuss an increase in safety violations that are occurring. Questions we might ask from a business perspective include: 

  • “What are the operational metrics you are using to measure safety, and what are our goals for each of these?” (the should) 
  • “How are we tracking now against these goals? What are our actual results at this time?” (the is) 
  • “What factors within or outside our organization make it difficult to achieve the safety goals you have outlined?” (causes) 

Perhaps we learn that the supervisors are key to achieving safety results; here are some focused questions we could ask regarding their performance: 

  • “Are there any supervisors who continually meet the safety goals established for their area of responsibility? If yes, what are they doing to achieve these good results?” (the should) 
  • “How does this compare with what supervisors are typically doing now?” (the is) 
  • “Why do you think supervisors are having difficulty achieving safety results?” (causes) Focused questions help us determine what is known and unknown about a situation. Then, as performance consultants, we are able to collect information that is currently unknown but critical to have if we are to identify the real problem and the appropriate solutions. 

Powerful Questions Are Solution and Cause Neutral 

Consider these questions: 

  • “What do you want supervisors to do more, better, or differently after attending the leadership program?” 
  • “What do you want supervisors to do more, better, or differently?” 

The second question is the more powerful because it seeks information about the desired state and makes no assumption that there will be a training solution. Many managers are solution focused, so we don’t want to reinforce that bias in early discussions. Through powerful questioning, we want to determine what is known, and what is unknown but necessary to determine if we are going to implement the appropriate solutions. 

It is frequently stated that 90 percent of identifying the right problem and solution is the result of asking the right questions. As performance consultants, it is not our job to have the answers, but rather the right questions, and then partner with leaders to determine and implement solutions. Make asking powerful questions a part of your toolkit!

About the Author
Dana Robinson is a recognized thought leader in the areas of performance consulting, strategic partnering, and human performance improvement. She has co-authored seven books with her husband, Jim Robinson. The most recent is the Performance Consulting, 3rd edition, co-authored with Jack and Patti Phillips and Dick Handshaw. Dana is currently lead performance consultant with Handshaw Inc. and can be reached at dana.handshaw@handshaw.com.
1 Comment
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Fabulous article Dana! I like what you share in the examples of unfocused questions. You have to be specific so as not to get a response that's not relevant to the conversation. Someone once suggested if you ask "what's keeping you up at night", include your business in the question. Love the line... "it's not our job to have the right answers, but rather the right questions."
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