Weak Questions Leaders Ask
Questions may be the most powerful way to make progress on anything because they provoke thinking, and because the answers that result can give guidance for precise action. Of course, the key is to ask good questions, which is much easier said than done. That’s because all of us approach them with pre-conditions and assumptions.
We all have things that we’re unwilling to change no matter what. The tendency is to take those things as given so much so that we forget that they are there. Their influence, however, cannot be overlooked because they act as a kind of filter or lens through which we see everything. In other words, we don’t really evaluate anything as objectively as we think we do. The result is subjective thinking, which often leads to weak questions.
Weak questions are a by-product of weak thinking which comes from failing to challenge the assumptions that we make. One way to expose weak thinking is by examining the questions that we ask. In this article, we’ll consider six of them. Some will seem fairly innocuous. Others will be worded in a way that reveals their inherent weakness.
1. How can we improve our bottom line by doing what we’ve always done?
Leaders won’t say it like this, of course. They may not even think it in so many words, but their attitude will be that they have to figure out how to make improvements without fundamentally changing what they do.
No doubt this will remind you of the famous quote which says that “it’s a form of insanity to do the same thing every day and expect a different outcome.” This statement is quoted so often that it’s accepted as an established fact. The truth, however, is quite different. Here it is: It’s insanity to expect anything else! And that’s because the world isn’t going to sit still while you do what you’ve always done. The world isn’t going to let you get the same results by maintaining the status quo. Instead, it will militate against your efforts. It will do all that it can to make sure that the results you get become less effective the more that you do them. It’s simply nuts to assume that things will get better by themselves, or that they won’t change. They will. And they will especially if you refuse to change.
2. How can we raise our game to the industry standard?
The wording in this question is subtly worded. Did you notice that?
The operative word is to, which makes the answer to the question reactive, rather than proactive. The person who asks it wants to know how to become as good as the accepted best in their industry.
Now, if you’re well below it, you may think that that is a good question because it will get you going in the right direction, but what would happen if another competitor changed the game? What would happen if someone who’s doing something that’s quite different suddenly took the lead? Would you have to shift gears so that you could chase that standard instead?
Raising your game to the industry standard is nothing more than asking what best practice looks like, and there are still plenty of managers who think that it has merit. The idea behind best practice is that there’s one best way to do something and when you figure it out, then you should do things that way, too. This is nonsense, of course. Industrialized nations around the world do a lot of things differently, not least strategy and production, and they all succeed. And that’s because, to use an American expression and with apologies to those who have pets, “there’s more than one way to skin a cat.” The Americans don’t have all the answers any more than the British do or anyone else.
Although it’s common for leaders to ask how they can help their organisations to go from wherever they are to wherever is considered to be the industry standard, that approach will always and only ever mean that you’re playing catch-up. You’re never going to be the one who creates the standard. Instead, the best that you can hope for is to be second best, and those who are content to be second are followers; not leaders.
3. How can we sell more?
Perhaps you’re thinking that this is a good question because when you sell more, your profits improve, and shareholder value increases. As these things are desirable, why is it considered to be weak?
It’s weak for a number of reasons. One is that organisations that seek to earn the most profit are less profitable than the ones who don’t, something that was discussed in another article.
A primary reason, however, why it’s considered to be weak is because it assumes that insufficient sales is the problem. It’s not. And that’s because when a sale is made, it’s a result; not the cause. If you want more of a particular result, then you have to generate more of the thing that causes it.
Fundamentally, what causes people to buy?Isn’t it a combination of felt need and a no-brainer opportunity to solve it?
Consider this simple, but effective example.
How often has your mechanic contacted you about having your car serviced? Annually? Periodically? Never?
This is such a simple thing.
Whether the firm is a Mom and Pop garage or a dealership, they should know who their customers are and be able to estimate when they’ll be due for the next service.
By tracking the annual mileage. That information is available by visiting the MOT website. You can see what the annual mileage has been on any car during the previous decade, and that ought to be all the information you need if you’re a mechanic. You estimate when they’ll need the next service based on their mileage history, and then send them a reminder when you think it’ll be due. And you could follow it up with a phone call, too.
Would garages sell more services if they did this? Undoubtedly, because most people need to have it done. They simply don’t think about it until there’s a problem.
The reality is that few car mechanics do it, and this is only the car servicing industry. There are so many other areas where if companies took a personal interest in the needs of their customers, that they could get the extra business that they claim to want.
To get it, however, they have to stop thinking about sales and focus on anticipating and meeting needs.
4. How can I motivate my staff?
One of the perennial problems in organizations today is how to motivate staff. And if you think about it, you’ll immediately see why this is a weak question. In case you missed it, it’s because motivation is also a result. You saw earlier that if you don’t change the cause, then you won’t get the result that you want.
The problem isn’t how to motivate them. Instead it is to discover what demotivated them. There was a time when they were motivated. You may still remember when they were, which is why you can’t understand why they aren’t any more.
Maybe you’re relying on the same things as you did at the beginning: incentive bonuses, for instance, or making them feel welcome on the team, or being friendly to them - showing them the ropes, and so on. But now, six months or a year later, they don’t seem to have the same drive as they once did.
For one thing, the “honeymoon” period is over. The honeymoon period occurs within the first several months of a new job. It’s a time when people are excited about their new position. The newness makes it challenging and, because they love to learn and want to get on in the company, they rise to the occasion.
After awhile, however, it gets boring. They get the hang of what they need to do, and they can do it easily. They discover that there are fewer promotion opportunities than they thought there would be or were led to believe, that training and development isn’t considered all that important, and that the senior people tend to take all the credit for any innovations, whether it was their idea or not. Soon they feel forgotten or even ignored. Is it any surprise that they lack motivation? All the things that excited them at the beginning have failed to materialise or become worse.
If you want your staff to be motivated, then you have to continually look for ways to challenge them at work. That doesn’t mean giving them impossible tasks, by the way. Instead, it means that you give them opportunities to grow, to become more valuable to the organisation as well as the industry. You give them added responsibility and pay that’s commensurate with it, and ou recognise their contributions.
You see, if you ask how to motivate staff without understanding why they’re demotivated, then you’ll never be able to uncover the reasons why they aren’t.
5. How can we increase employee productivity?
This weak question could be included in the previous one if it was only about motivation. But it’s not. And that’s because there’s more to it.
Productivity isn’t limited to motivation. It includes autonomy. In other words, too much management can prevent it.
Not only that, but it implies that there’s the capacity for it. It could be that your organisation is as productive as it can get given the way things are, and that it’s wishful thinking to expect greater capacity where there is none.
Another problem with this question is its imprecision. Are you looking for an increase of 1%, 5%, some other value? And how will you measure what it is now, or what it is later especially when everyone’s jobs are so intertwined?
You not only have to quantify what an increase looks like, you also have to do that for each part of the process, something which may be impossible to do.