Logan Dunn

How can I ask better questions?

This post is a much smaller post than the others I included in my personal strategy. The purpose of this post is to rehash effective strategies to asking the right questions that I picked up in my MBA 580 Strategy class taught by Paul Godfrey.

First off, why is it important to “ask the right question?” Isn’t it better to be able find answers? While answers are important, not all answers are created equal. The answer is only as right as the question you are asking. What happens if you find an answer to a questions that is irrelevant to the current situation? Obviously it is not going to help. “But I’m not that stupid. I’m not going to go after irrelevant information,” you might say. Wrong! Boston Globe reporter Leon Neyfakh studied this topic and claims we do this all the time:

“Adults tend to rush through [complex mental maneuvers that children naturally do], perhaps because they seem like second nature. But figuring out what makes a good question—or rather, what kind of question will get us the information we want—isn’t such a simple thing, even for grownups. It requires stopping to think about what we’re trying to find out, what the person we’re talking to might know, and what words we should use to coax them into helping us. …

“That can get harder as we get older, in large part because we grow more confident that we understand the world around us, and lose the capacity to see past our own beliefs. This is a particular concern in the business world, where companies hunger for advice on how to break out of their patterns.”

Leon Neyfakh, Boston Globe

So what makes a good question? Good questions are open-ended and answer one or more of “the journalist’s six”: what, how, who, where, when, and why. Good questions go beyond the obvious, they are penetrating, they unmask the hidden, they open new alternatives, they are specific, they challenge assumptions, they are timely, and they demand commitment. In contrast, bad questions are simplistic, leading, preloaded, and shut down rather than open up.

So how can we ask better questions? In an optional session on asking questions, Prof. Godfrey gave some sound recommendations:

  1. Be like Sherlock HolmesYour questions are only as good as your knowledge. One must pay attention to the details (both what you see and what you don’t see). As you gain knowledge, you must suspend judgement until you have all of the facts, or at least as many as are possible to gather.
  2. Be like a toddler and play the “why game.” Ask “why?” at least five times and don’t stop at the “adult reason” (see above).
  3. Be like Winston Churchill. Study the history behind the topic at hand so you understand the borader context.
  4. Be like Paul Van Riper. Avoid information overload and seek out forecasts rather than current conditions.

But while those suggestions are great, it is definitely easier said than actually becoming like Sherlock or Churchill. Perhaps the biggest factor we discussed in the session was the need to budget 1-2 decades to the effort. Asking good questions is a skill that gets picked up over time, to the point that in a “blink” we can understand a situation and formulate the right question. We discussed a couple of ways that we can begin to cultivate experience and expertise, so we can be excellent question askers as we progress throughout life:

  1. Be more diverse. Cultivate other perspectives, build a network of diverse people, and touch the elephant in different places. Diversity is critical to asking good questions. This allows you to have a broad range of experiences and perspectives to draw from, so you can avoid the problem mentioned above of “seeing past our own beliefs.”
  2. Seek to continuously learn. Never go on a plane without a book. My favorite quote from Prof. Godfrey on this subject is to “read promiscuously,” that is, seek out many, diverse “partners” when it comes to literature: philosophy, science, geology, history. If it is interesting and it will broaden you, read it.

I love to learn, in fact I have goals to read a certain number of books over the summer, but where I really lack is diversity. I am from Idaho; I went to school there; I moved to Utah for work… Yeah, you get the point. I did spend a few years in Venezuela on an LDS mission, which was a perfect opportunity to cultivate diversity, but I still need to be more diverse.

So what can I do to be more diverse? Here are a couple of ideas:

  • Travel. Nothing exposes you to diversity like putting yourself in another’s culture.
  • START SMALL. You don’t need to be a globetrotter tomorrow.
  • Eat out at different restaurants (or even order something out of the ordinary).
  • Watch diverse movies and read a varied selection of books.
  • Go to cultural events (plays, celebrations, etc.).
  • Say “Hi” to new people. Put yourself out of your comfort zone and meet more people.