Effective Leaders Ask the Right Questions – Part 2


makejustonechange_223How an organization finds solutions to problems says a great deal about its culture, and its leadership.

In Part 2 of this Blog about how effective leaders ask the right questions I’ll explore how leaders can ask questions in positive ways that inspire teams to find hopeful solutions. And then I’ll write about a technique outlined in the book Make Just One Change that teams can use to develop the right questions so they can work together more effectively toward getting the best results.

Problem vs. Solution-Based Questions

In an article Lead at Your Best published in the April 2014 McKinsey Quarterly by Joanna Barsh and Johanne Lavoie, the authors describe for the reader how leaders need to balance fear and hope. While leaders may have to use fear to actually get people to change, so, too, they need to use hope to balance it. There is a time and place for both.

In the article Barsh and Lavoie take the reader through an exercise where they ask you to think about a problem at work and then have a partner ask these five questions of you:

  1. What’s the problem?
  2. What are the root causes?
  3. Who is responsible for this problem, who is to blame?
  4. What have you tried that hasn’t worked?
  5. Why haven’t you been able to fix the problem yet?

Then you stop and start over again. The partner asks you these questions instead:

  1. What would you like to see (and make) happen?
  2. Can you recall a time when the solution was present, at least in part? What made that possible?
  3. What are the smallest steps you could take that would make the biggest difference?
  4. What are you learning in this conversation so far?

As you can imagine, when you stop and de-brief after both sessions the feelings both the questioner and recipient feel are very different in each scenario. The first are problem-focused questions and work well for technical, linear issues that have “right” answers. The second are solution-focused questions and engage people in finding solutions and instills hope along the way.

Barsh and Lavoie wrote about one plant manager who placed cards with solution-focused questions on them around the plant. He encouraged his teams to use them every day as they searched for solutions to various issues. We can easily imagine the culture in that plant was very different from the culture in a plant where leaders used problem-based questions regularly. As Barsh and Lavoie wrote, “Look for problems and you’ll find them; look for solutions and people will offer them. By choosing our questions thoughtfully, we can shift our mind-set.”

Teach Groups to Ask Their Own Questions

Recently when reading A More Beautiful Question that I wrote about in Part 1 of this Blog I discovered a technique developed over many years by Dan Rothstein and Luz Sanatana, which they describe in their book Make Just One Change. These techniques are now used to teach students how to ask more effective questions and to teach other groups how to tackle problems. Here is their technique in six steps.

  1. Leader writes a problem statement on a whiteboard that is only a few words long.
  2. Within a time-limit, group then comes up with as many questions as possible that pertain to the statement. (Rules – questions must be written down, no debate or discussion about questions.)
  3. Group goes through questions and makes open-ended questions closed questions and vice versa. This teaches group how they can narrow-down some questions and expand others. Rothstein says that during this stage people learn “the way you ask a question yields different results and can lead you in different directions.”
  4. Group then prioritizes questions and chooses three questions they believe the answers to which can move toward finding the right solution.
  5. Group develops next steps for learning the answers to the three questions.
  6. Group discusses what they learned during the process.

Two things are for sure – it takes an open culture for leaders to practice any or all of these techniques and asking the right question can focus people on the right answer, which may very well surprise us.

About Steve Wood

Steve Wood is the President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Leddy Group and Work Opportunities Unlimited Inc. He has been a member of the adjunct faculty team at Southern New Hampshire University since 1994. In addition, he teaches Leadership and Managing Organizational Change regularly at both the graduate and undergraduate level and periodically teaches Strategic Management, Finance, Entrepreneurship, and other management courses. He also served on the University’s Strategic Planning Steering Committee. For more information, visit his blog at www.SteveOnLeadership.com

Business Tips

Is Your Business Haunted? Probably


haunted hallway with female figure

Haunted businesses are everywhere. It doesn’t matter if the business is brand new or well established, they are out there. Just like the cartoon “Casper, the Friendly Ghost,” some ghosts are good to have around. But like the movie “Ghostbusters,” some are dangerous. They can cause havoc or they can inspire you. The main thing is not to ignore them — they really don’t like that. You won’t either.

Every Business Has at Least 9 Ghosts

CWS Ghosts: Could, Would, Should

These are sad ghosts and they are very hard to exorcize. They are the past and the future. I don’t know of any business owner without regrets about what they could, would, or should have done. Do you know how to spot these ghosts? Listen to the words you hear yourself and your staff say. I hear it all the time when owners talk to me about their business hopes and dreams. “I could do this,” a CEO of an established software company told me. “But,” he added, “my former partner talked me out of it before he stole my company.” Then there’s the designer who told me she “knew she should run her business like a business but then she wouldn’t be able to do what she really wanted to do — design.” Maybe they are right or maybe they need to put these ghosts to rest or take a job instead of trying to grow a business.

You may hear those “C, W, S” words coming from your staff when you want to change or add something or someone. Sometimes these ghosts are explanations or justifications for why something wasn’t done, why it was done differently than expected, or why the results were an unpleasant surprise. They can also appear as hopes or desires, requests for help, or even commands.

  • “I would do this if I were in charge.”
  • “I wish I could move mountains.”
  • “Should I finish this without the marketing in place?”

Listen for these ghosts that are questions because they are excellent warning signals. You do need to be prepared to make a decision, offer training, or some other kind of assistance. Watch out for the commands or you may find you have someone looking to replace you.

These ghosts are as real to staff as yours are to you. Be nice to these ghosts. Pay the right attention to them and you can prevent their constant presence and interference, and lessen regret. Ignore them or deal with them improperly and they can stagnate the business, stop innovation, and cost you customers and employees.

Ghost Competitors: DIY, DNAA, UC

You can learn a lot from ghost competitors. They keep you focused on always selling to Platinum Profile Customers™. They help you avoid the Radio Active Waste Customers™ who like to be self sufficient Do-It-Yourselfers (DIY) or would rather Do Nothing At All (DNAA). These friendly ghosts encourage you (sometimes through stark terror) to find the right message and best way to position your company and its products and services.

They allow you to stay ahead of the Unfair Competition (UC) that use their nonprofit, government, or tax exempt status as their top benefit, and the top reason why your customers should choose them over a for-profit business like yours. You might want to check out the Business Coalition for Fair Competition for ideas and further actions. You can’t fight them so you need to be vigilant and get out of the way. They seem harmless or well meaning. But, beware!

The last 3: Colleagues, Competitors, Customers

It’s easy to see how your regular competitors might be business ghosts. They come unbidden into demos and sales calls. They can seem to be in control of your entire business world.

Colleagues and customers are ghosts of the past. They can bring a smile to your face as you remember those you’ve worked with who have moved on to other companies, retired, or passed away. They can inspire you and your staff. I’ve been fortunate to have had the benefit of wonderful people who helped me grow my business and make me a better owner.

These ghosts also can bring regrets or sadness to you and your staff. You remember the customers killed in accidents or who died in the service of others. Probably the hardest of these ghosts to deal with long term is the death of a team member. Triggers of all kinds can bring those feelings back months or even years later.

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About Jan Triplett

Jan Triplett, Ph.D., CEO of the Business Success Center, uses tools and systems she created to ramp up and scale businesses throughout the US and abroad. She is the author of several books and the former moderator for KUT’s nationally syndicated radio program, “The Next 200 Years.” She has been a keynote speaker for hundreds of national and international trade associations and presents free monthly webinars business development topics. She has served on state and local boards and commissions, created a chamber for women, won many awards, led international trade missions, and been a local, state and national small business activist for many years. She was the Governor’s delegate to the White House Conference on Small Business and an NFIB delegate to the Congressional Summit. In addition to writing her own blog, she writes for the Business Bank of Texas’ Resource Center. She hosts several Meetup groups, including an online one for bloggers, and leads the First Looks Mentoring Forum, a joint project with Texas Entrepreneurs Network. She is currently working on setting up a podcast radio network, BOSS-Talks Radio Network.

Business Tips

Focus On Conversion Optimization, Not Just More Traffic

By Brian

I typically hear this statement from clients, “I require more traffic so I can produce even more earnings”.

Stop Thinking That Traffic = Profits

More Traffic - Focus on Conversions

Everybody desires to make even more cash however many businesses set about it in the wrong method. They put all of their efforts into more Pay Per Click, Search Engine Optimization, article writing, and so on

. They think that the more traffic they create, the more profits they will make. This can be a domino effect since, often, the money they take into these efforts does not revive a substantial ROI (roi) and often returns an unfavorable ROI. (more…)

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