Reflecting on all that is going on in the world at the moment — severe weather from climate change, a pandemic forcing quarantine, widespread economic uncertainty — it is clear to me that the global community is taxed with finding solutions to a set of escalating challenges. The novelty and severity of the issues and the fact that we seem unequipped to handle them lead me to believe that a new kind of thinking must apply. The old ways got us to where we were, new ways will lead us forward.
The quality of our solutions is based on the quality of the questions we ask. As I mulled over the state of the world, I remembered a quote, attributed to Albert Einstein, “If I had an hour to solve a problem my life depended on, I would spend the first fifty-five minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”
I love this quote—permission given by a genius to slow down, to consider the options, to imagine the best possible question to ask in order to arrive at the best possible answer. What good is a good answer to a bad or useless question? I think a lot of misunderstandings start with a lack of agreement on the fundamental question. For example, how you design a plan of action in the face of a pandemic depends on whether the question is, “How do we keep our population safe in the face of a highly infectious disease?” or “How do we keep our economy thriving in the face of a highly infectious disease?” The answers have the potential to create conflict between those asking the questions.
For business to thrive right now, it is especially important to ask the right questions. One of my clients, using a push from the pandemic to break into a new business, landed a meeting with a potential high-level client. We spoke before her meeting and she said, “I am a nervous wreck that he will ask me something I can’t answer.” I challenged her, “What if you had the best questions in the room?” She did her research and attended the meeting armed with five insightful questions.
“Thank you,” she said when she called me after the meeting. “Asking those questions showed them how I can help his company think through its problems on a different level, and he signed on with me.” That client became the cornerstone of a thriving new business.
Whatever you do—as an employee, an entrepreneur or a small business owner—your business will benefit from time spent learning to craft better questions. Here are three simple practices to help you, as Einstein said, to “determine the proper question.”
- Carve an hour in your schedule at the same time every week to ask questions about your business. Shut off your phone and email and protect yourself from interruptions. Consider the state of your business and write 5 questions to think about over the course of the week. I do this every Monday morning at 9am.
- Figure out what kind of questions will move you forward. For example, do you need a question that provides a tactical solution or one that fosters innovation? Will a new email platform do the trick, or do you need a completely different technique to keep in touch with clients?
- Enlist the ideas and perspectives of all stakeholders in the decision. Hold a “question storm” meeting where participants can ask questions, but not give answers. Email a list of all the questions to each person to review before a second meeting to determine the best questions to ask.
Whose business couldn’t use a little advice from Albert Einstein?