23 01 2011

In amongst all the questions, make sure you are asking the right ones

Part of the challenge of acting as a consultant is in ensuring that when conducting consultation on behalf of clients we do not end up with responses which either take us nowhere or, worse, take us in the wrong direction.

Indeed, the difference between a good consultant and an average one is often in the quality of the questions asked, in ensuring the right response as oppose to simply a response.

That ability crosses many professions and yet is a skill which itself is rarely questioned. As long as someone is doing the asking, we rarely ask; “are these the right questions?”

I recall watching a coach working with an athlete on improving a skill a number of years ago. At the conclusion of a set of drills the coach asked, “how did that feel?” gaining the response, “not right.” Without pausing for breath let alone consideration the coach said, “okay, try it like this……”

The coach had asked a question but had he gained any real intelligence with which to work? What if he had followed up his initial question with; “in what way didn’t it feel right?” Might his next instruction have changed? Possibly, even probably, for in not gaining sufficient intelligence to make his decision, any advice/instruction offered was, in part, based on guesswork.

The same is true wherever information is being gathered whether by open consultation, cross-examination in a court or a public enquiry. Consider the enquiry into the Iraq War which has recently been back in the headlines. During the first round of questioning Gordon Brown was asked whether Britain had sufficient helicopters with which to go to war. His response? An emphatic “yes!”

He might well have been correct however the important question went unasked. In the same way that the coach overlooked the important follow-up question, the enquiry panel also failed to gather the correct and full intelligence they sought. We are left to wonder what the former PM’s answer might have been had he been asked, “…and how many of those helicopters were serviceable and ready for action?”

Of course, asking the right question can be awkward, even difficult and can make the person asking unpopular but, provided the reasoning behind the question is genuine, that should not prevent the question being asked. Indeed, Cowan Global have, on occasion, been employed to conduct consultations which the client knew may prove unpopular thus allowing the client to keep that unpopularity at arm’s length!

It may be that the recent student demonstrations across the UK were as a direct result of poor questions being asked by the powers that be; not that asking the right question would have proved any more popular. For instead of asking by how much student loans need to be raised to ‘balance the books’ in our new economic reality, perhaps a more pertinent first question might have been, “how many student places can the nation afford to support at the current level of student loan?” or even, “how many graduates (and in what) does the national economy require on an annual basis?”

Assuming a disparity between current numbers and the response to the question and ignoring the quality of many graduates (both issues for many employers), the door opens on many more questions and, potentially, very different (but probably equally unpopular) Government policies. Even if the decision were to maintain current volume (quantity) but to tilt funding in favour of specific requirements (quality), it is likely unpopular policy would result. It could even be argued the route actually taken is the one likely to be the least unpopular!

Ignoring the benefits of proper, in-depth consultation (i.e. using the right questions) can also be a crafty tactic when it suits a larger purpose to ‘create’ two deeply entrenched but opposing views. By creating a situation where it is option A or option B with no alternative the supporters of both options forget that there might have been an option C (or D, E, F…) had better questions been posed. Indeed, those merely opposed to one option will naturally side with the opposed view on the basis of being against the alternative.

This is a tactic used by so-called ‘Modernisers’ in many sectors. They present their vision of the future and those opposed are instantly painted as dinosaurs, people opposed to change. The debate becomes about old versus new which suits the ‘Modernisers’ strategy well. What is frequently overlooked is that only one vision of the future, of change, has been presented making consultation and consensus at best artificial, at worst a sham and the divisions created can last for years and all for the sake of asking the right questions.

In our own field, that of helping clients create and execute effective, efficient and economical strategies whether for business growth or the development of sport, it is often overlooked that the success or failure of a strategy often rests in the consultation that preceded its creation. Get enough of the questions right and the answers provide a solid foundation on which to build vision, goals and action. Overlook or avoid the right questions and the foundations are, at best, shaky and the strategy will struggle to deliver.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, 2011

Twitter @cowanglobal



One response

5 02 2011

[…] a couple of weeks ago we published a blog titled; ‘The Importance Of Asking The Right Question’. The article was intended to point out how simply asking questions when consulting, researching […]

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