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Powerful Questions Drive Great Decisions

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Powerful Questions Drive Great Decisions
By Jeffrey S. Cohen


Senior leaders often have to make big decisions, and they are judged by the consequences. Examples of decisions that countered conventional wisdom but appeared to be right include then Merck CEO Richard Clark's decision to fight Vioxx lawsuits one at a time. Another big decision that is less familiar is Bharti Airtel CEO Sunil Mittal's decision to outsource his entire phone network to 3 European companies, enabling his company to remain the market leader during the explosive growth in the Indian market. Former President Bush referred to himself as the "decider" when speaking of a proposed change in strategy for the Iraq war.

Making decisions and taking responsibility for their effect will often define a leader's reputation and legacy. In ambiguous times, there are always several choices on how to proceed. Followers look to the leader to sort alternatives, make and communicate decisions, and release the energy that comes from clarity, focus and direction. When the way forward is clear to the leader, it is often best to be clear in communicating that direction, mobilizing resources with minimal consultation and debate. Creating an appearance of seeking input when your mind is made up tells people that the debate is not really open, and many times this leaves followers feeling manipulated or deceived.

However, finding the right path is often not obvious. At the top of today's businesses, the leaders' reality is one of tough decisions where the "right choice" is uncertain. In this context, the leader might embark on a listening campaign, seeking out a variety of perspectives and insights from within and outside the company. Yet we know that getting the straight story at the top of an organization can be very difficult. Politics, brown-nosing, and insecurity can lead colleagues in and outside the company to serve up what you want and not what you need. Seeing this happen time and again, it leaves me with a question: how does the leader insure that input gathering yields top quality information and results in excellent decision-making? The answer is largely in the quality of the questions the leader asks, the degree to which the leader has a genuine commitment to learning, and in maintaining honest receptivity to information and perspectives different from his or her own. This kind of questioning and openness to what is heard is unfortunately rarely written about and as a result, our ability to learn this skill from others is limited.

Why are good questions so critical to decision-making? The use of questions is at the core of how adults learn and how all businesses thrive. Questions enable questioners and learners to expand understanding, test assumptions and create neurological linkages that reveal deeper patterns and facilitate better decisions. For business leaders, the process of deepening their personal understanding is only a part of the equation, and I would maintain, the lesser part. The business leader must also allow and promote decision-making in the organization, not just be a great decision-maker. If, in a business of any real size, the CEO makes all the key decisions, the limit to that business' growth has been established. Powerful questions — and their answers -- are the highly renewable fuel for great decisions and business growth.

What does a powerful question look like? A powerful question is designed to promote learning (defined as the ability to do something new or better), discover new information and/or reveal hidden assumptions that may be limiting or jeopardizing the business. Questions are also used to draw others out and get them to reveal their thinking and point of view on a critical issue. A well placed question and the resulting dialogue with others gives the leader insight as to whether others are ready to make a critical decision or, if not, often indicates to the others what needs to done to demonstrate the understanding and judgment the decision requires. Leaders need to be competent at powerful questioning to be successful. So what is a powerful question?

Let's use a common business situation, the review of a business plan, to illustrate ever more powerful questions. In this context, the leader might ask a specific question (#1 or #2 below) about a strategy that is being presented. The questions are deceptively simple, yet encompass tacit knowledge, experience and intuition. The leader has absorbed the strategy, considered possible limitations, and challenged thinking by pushing her colleagues to consider a downside that does not appear to have been factored in. As a result, others are better equipped to address this particular issue. Yet the question might not be optimal as it could limit the learning potential in the situation.

Question #1

Question #2

Question #3

How will you overcome the potentially negative publicity that is a likely side-effect of this strategy?

What if your strategy causes your competitor to trigger a price war? What are your contingency plans or ways of avoiding this scenario?

What do you see as the most critical downsides or limitations to the effectiveness of this strategy?

Consider the impact on others of the third question above, which may reveal more critical information to the leader and his or her people. For example, the response and resulting dialogue may well illuminate downsides and limitations seen by some but not all and even reveal new insights that no one had. This question is more likely to help the leader understand how thorough the thinking is and if it is sufficient for the challenge of this situation. The response to question 1 or 2 may well be thorough within its somewhat narrow scope, demonstrating due consideration and potentially convincing the leader that the proposed strategy is robust. However, the answer to question 3 is more likely to be comprehensive and may well yield better information. In the case of question 1 or 2, if the response reveals a lack of appropriate consideration, the leader sets direction, challenging the individual to return with a plan that considers not only this possibility, but also others that are most critical to the strategy. Yet with the use of question 3, if the response is lacking, colleagues are more likely to discover the gaps for themselves and as a result, set their own direction for what else is needed. A good decision is likely, and it will be a decision owned by many. All three questions are powerful and the third is the most powerful.

Faux Powerful Questions and Others Ways of Limiting Decision-Effectiveness
Leaders also need to know when a question they intend to be powerful is not received as powerful by others. One illustration of this is when a potentially powerful question succumbs to the temptation of intelligence testing and is experienced as a "gotcha." Questions that begin with "Don't you think …" are really not questions at all. They are opinions cloaked as questions and rather than yielding learning and insight, produce argument and defensiveness. A leader will get better information and stronger ownership if others experience her questions as both challenging and supportive rather than as an illustration of how smart she is.

There are other ways that a leader diminishes learning and decision effectiveness when speaking with her reports. In his book, What Got You Here Won't Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith refers to the habit of "adding too much value." In this case, the leader can't resist the temptation to add in more ideas and suggestions, failing to ever ask herself if this comment really will add any value. Often the leader adds perhaps 5% more value but diminishes ownership of the decision by 50%.

As a next step, prepare for an upcoming meeting by crafting a few powerful questions and then use them. Observe the reaction you get as well as the insight and alignment that is generated. Learn from the experience and apply it to another situation. Pretty soon your use of powerful questions will be more unconscious and the resulting decisions should be stronger.


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