My four-year-old grandson, Oliver, is full of questions. He asks what something is, or what we are talking about, or why we are doing whatever we are doing, or how come there are so many cheese wrappers in my office trash can. (Well… not all of his questions are comfortable to answer!)

Turns out he’s fairly typical — at least according to this SmartLeaders blog post which suggests that a typical four-year-old asks more than 400 questions per day! That is one of the charming — and sometimes exasperating — things about spending time with him. Compare that to the typical 44-year-old who, again according to SmartLeaders, asks just six questions each day (lawyers, investigators, and yes, consultants, notwithstanding).

Asking questions, of course, is one of the primary ways we learn. However, it seems that the more we learn, the less we believe we have to learn. Add in the fact that there is more recognition and positive feedback to be had by knowing an answer and it’s no wonder that question asking as a pastime drops off considerably as we move into adulthood.

So, what’s the problem? I’m glad you asked!

One problem, memorably (and awkwardly) stated years ago by then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who popularized the term “the unknown unknowns,” is that we assume we know more than we do; we take our assumptions as facts.

Examples of this in the business world are legion: Blockbuster Video managers confident in the knowledge that the Netflix model of mailing DVDs would not satisfy customers. Industry leaders in the mobile phone business who knew that “those computer guys” (aka Apple) would never be able to manage the complexities of the phone business. Whatever the specifics, failing to challenge your assumptions can be dangerous.

Not asking enough questions can also lead to overlooking important, sometimes critical, insights.

For example, one nonprofit client of mine, faced with a membership base whose median age was over 60, was not initially concerned. After all, in philanthropic ventures, most significant donors tend to be older. However, as we asked more questions and dug further in, we learned that the median age among their members had been steadily increasing — it was seven years younger just a dozen years ago. It certainly changed their perspective about where they need to focus attention.

Using Questions to Your Benefit

Three suggestions…

1. Challenge your assumptions

Asking questions rather than assuming you have all the information you need is important. Our confirmation bias makes us inclined to hear what we are expecting to hear and thus, stop inquiring. Asking clarification questions may help you hear something different.

2. Ask the right questions

Years ago, I was asked to help a music venue with its growth plans; they wanted to expand their facility so they could increase revenues. But as we looked deeper, we found that their financial situation was dire — they were at risk of running out of cash. Rather than investing in growth plans, we helped them concentrate on reducing expenses and sharpening their focus, both of which got them back on their feet.

Whenever I discuss a possible engagement with a prospect, I always start by trying to make sure they are asking the right questions. Often, organizations do their own quick assessment of a challenge, anticipate what they believe to be the way to address that challenge, and then seek help executing their solution. But if they have diagnosed the situation incorrectly, the work they seek will not help.

3. Keep digging

In my early training as a consultant, I was taught to ask Why? five times. The idea was that by continuing to dig further and asking “next level questions” (without making your exploration feel like an interrogation!), you would be more likely to uncover the root causes of a situation.

In my experience with new clients, the first few questions often lead to easy, pat answers. When we dig further, the responses are less well rehearsed and often more difficult (if not uncomfortable) to answer. That’s when the real issues emerge — the ones we ultimately work to resolve.

Reflections

An article in the Harvard Business Review — Relearning the Art of Asking Questions — suggests that while 70-80% of kids’ dialog with others was comprised of questions, the number is just 15-20% in adult interactions.

Kids are information sponges, always looking for answers and not shy about asking “Why?” until they get a satisfactory response. As businesspeople seeking to improve and innovate, there is much to be learned from their example.

Now about those cheese wrappers….

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