“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” – Albert Einstein

In a past blog reflecting on the biggest lessons learned in my first year as Javelina’s CEO, one part in particular elicited a strong reaction:

“I asked myself the wrong question. I asked: “What is the best way for me to get comments on this from the team?” Instead, the question should have been: “What method of giving comments will encourage and enable all team members to give meaningful feedback?”

Many of you reached out with your own examples of questions that could have been phrased in a more impactful way, and others asked about the best ways to ask common questions. So we thought it would be helpful to share some of our favorite questions that we use in our team. These are questions that we have discovered over time – a certain way of phrasing things that generates the best answers and solutions for ourselves, our team and our clients.

Instead of asking “When will you have that done by?”, ask “How are you going to complete that task on time?”

Deadlines and deliverables are central to every workplace. Meeting them is crucial to meeting your goals and keeping your bosses happy. If your team is anything like ours, then time, task and project management are essential to getting things done well and on time.Yet these are tough skills to perfect, and challenging for even the most seasoned professional. When there is a lot going on (and when isn’t there?) keeping track of everything can be pretty hard.

When discussing deadlines, we used to ask each other when tasks would be compete by. We discovered over time that this question is problematic for two main reasons:

1. It forces the person to provide an answer on the spot, which gives no time for assessing how long the task will take or when the best time to complete the task would be. The key to meeting deadlines is effective planning, and this question gives no room, time or respect for planning. It assumes we all have the ability to magically pull a deadline out of thin air without any thought at all – and stick to it! We wish the world worked that way. 

2. It sets the person up to tell you want you want to hear. If you’ve been asked when you’re going to deliver on something, chances are you feel instant pressure to perform. This leads to words tumbling out of your mouth that you think will please the other person. “Um….tomorrow?” The other person smiles, and leaves happy. And you leave stressed, wondering how on earth you’re going to get another thing done.

Instead, if you ask how someone will complete a task, they are more likely to think about the time and resources they need to do it. This means that by the time you’re finished with your conversation, they already have an action plan for completing the task. This takes out a whole action step that people often find difficult to do alone.

Once your teammate has told you how they plan to complete the task, you should have an accurate idea of how long something will take. Together, you can establish a deadline.

You’ll both leave feeling far better about the chances of that deadline being met.

Instead of asking “What went wrong?” ask “What did we learn?”

In any work environment, things are going to go wrong. Failure is simply the thing that happens on the way to achievement. Listen to literally anybody’s success story, and there is a litany of failures and mistakes left in their wake on the way to the top. It’s going to happen.

When it does happen, however, it rarely feels good. You’re unlikely to cheer your failure. “Yay! We messed up! We’re getting there!”

Instead, blame, shame, guilt and regret abound. It’s possible you’ll turn on each other, demanding to know what went wrong. It’s easy to point the finger at others to absolve ourselves of blame. It’s sucky, but it’s human nature.

But, as we’ve discovered from personal experience, it doesn’t really achieve anything.

All it does is waste energy and make people feel bad.

A much better way to reflect on what went wrong, or why they did or didn’t take a certain action, is to ask: “What did we learn?” Implement it in this formulaic way:

1. When things go wrong, take a deep breath and know that everything is going to be ok. Keep it in perspective and know that a month from now – maybe sooner – you will NOT be thinking about this.

2. Take any actions required to minimize any damage caused by the mistake or incorrect action.

3. Give everyone involved time to breathe.

4. After an appropriate amount of time (maybe an hour, a day, a weekend…) gather everyone together and discuss: “What did we learn?” Without blaming or shaming anyone, discuss the circumstances that led to this failure, and identify any particular action items or next steps that will minimize the chance of this happening again. Then make a plan for integrating these changes by asking: “How will we get these changes done?”

Instead of answering a specific question from a team member, ask “What are the options?”, “What would your recommendation be?”, or “What would you do if I wasn’t available to answer?”

This one is particularly for those of you managing other people. Whether you have one person reporting to you, or a team of 15, they are likely to come to you on a regular basis with a whole host of questions. It is tempting to answer those questions. While providing answers gives your team member what they need in the immediate moment (and lets you return to what you were doing as fast as possible), it does little to teach or develop that person. This only means you’ll get the same question the next time.

Next time a teammate seeks your permission on something, instead of providing the answer put it back on them. Try asking “What would you recommend?” or “What do you think is best?” If they’re not sure, try having them think about it and come back with a proposal instead of a question. You might have been told when you were starting out to never come to your boss with problems, but only solutions. This is the same idea as that.

In no time at all, your team will start to anticipate what your questions will be, and come to you with suggestions rather than a query. This not only develops your team, but saves you time.

We do suggest you use this one a little carefully. There are times when it will be most helpful to your teammate to just tell them your opinion. Good scenarios for just answering the question include when your team is facing a tough deadline or when your opinion is unique or invaluable in some way. Honestly, though, these scenarios are rare.  

The key to the world-changing answer is a powerful question. Before you open your mouth and let an inquiry tumble out, take a second and consider if it’s the right question. Will it set your team member up for success?

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