Project Management

Seek Better Questions, Not Answers

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by Cyndee Miller

It’s not often I’m told to act like a 4-year-old—and by the executive director of the MIT Leadership Center, nonetheless.

But stick with me, there’s actually a sound business case here. Anyone who has ever been around a 4-year-old knows they ask lots of questions. And apparently, it’s a trait they share with CEOs at some of the world’s most innovative companies, from Pixar to Salesforce, explained Hal Gregersen.

“Questioners are truth seekers. They can’t afford errors. They have to get to the truth of the matter—and often it’s the tough fearless question that gets us there,” he said at PMO Symposium.

To be clear, we should strive to be innovative 4-year-olds as adults—and that means not only asking lots of questions, but better questions.

“The way we build better systems, better organizations and a better world is by asking the better question,” he said.

So how do you do it? Default to ask, not tell, Mr. Gregersen said, whether it’s an individual conversation, a team discussion or a customer interaction.

And you better make them good questions. That means devoting time specifically to coming up with questions—just as you would for brainstorming answers. Sit down with your team. Set a timer. And then write down as many questions about the problem as possible.

Now the whole point of asking questions is to take the time to learn, not act. So listen up and flex the power of the pause: Wait three to four seconds after someone stops talking—that’s typically when you’ll start to get the good stuff. 

“In the hectic world of projects and leadership, we sometimes don’t stop enough,” Mr. Gregersen said. “But that’s how we build the trust to get the data in order to not get blindsided.”

It all boils down to one key question: “What are you doing to actively figure out what you don’t know you don’t know before it’s too late?”

Listening was also the lesson at the closing session of PMO Symposium. During an interactive musical performance by The Music Paradigm, maestro Roger Nierenberg urged the audience to tune into the dynamics of the orchestra—and observe the behaviors that allow the ensemble to succeed as a team.

“Musicians have the ability to play and listen at the same time,” he said. “It makes us alert and capable. It makes us very agile.”

And that goes for leaders most of all.

“As a conductor, when I was clear and dictatorial, I thought I was being kind by telling the orchestra exactly what to do. But it killed the listening,” Mr. Nierenberg said. “And that’s a precious thing.”

And that’s an official wrap for me. See you next year at PMO Symposium, 8-11 November 2020 in Orlando, Florida, USA.

I’ll be back on the event beat. As a reporter, I’ve spent years honing my questioning (and listening) skills, but I’m always looking for new ideas. What’s your top tip for asking the right questions?

Posted by Cyndee Miller on: November 07, 2019 02:18 PM | Permalink

Comments (8)

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Dear Cyndee
Very interesting this reflection
Thanks for sharing

Excellent question:"What are you doing to actively figure out what you don't know you don't know before it's too late?"

As important as asking is listening carefully (called empathic listening)

Some of us focus on what we are going to answer (I think the vast majority of people) ... the big challenge is listening, just listening and understanding

Interesting timing. I literally was having a similar type of conversation yesterday afternoon. It was centered around not just listening, thinking there is an understanding, then providing a solution, BUT rather ask additional questions to get at the core rationale of where the ask is coming from. There could be opportunity to take them down the same direction, though, a slighlty different pathway and provide a more useful and sustainable solution.
Anyway, good stuff. Thanks, Cyndee.

Hi Cyndee, indeed, the underlying reason of getting questions across to is to learn from people diligently.

Agree with Luis's suggestion of empathic listening to be open-minded in receiving answers or feedback and truly build mutual understanding.

We need to be clear in explaining the context of the question relating to listeners' background, as well as be objective in shaping the words and projecting the tone of question.

Hi Cyndee: I was privileged to be in the audience for this meeting at the recent PMO Symposium 2019 in Denver, Colorado and I really appreciated not only the presentation, but the time where we broke out into groups of 2 and shared a challenge we currently face with the other person. After sharing the challenge we wrote down at least 15 questions - this was an eye opening exercise and I left the session with some good ideas to bring back to my team. This meeting, along with the TED talks meetings were definite highlights for me. I have also been trained in motivational interviewing, which is a technique born out of behavioral health where you ask questions in such a way that it makes the other person think more deeply, but also in a way that is inspiring or motivating. I wish this was something we could incorporate in project management training because it is so valuable!

"Musicians have the ability to play and listen at the same time,” he said."

Cyndee - as a church choir member, you just reminded me of that unique ability we have to play/sing and listen at the same time.

This quality should help a lot on the project management field as well. As we lead with passion, we need to also pause and listen with passion, the concerns and great contributions our stakeholders bring to the table.
Thanks for sharing!

Interesting reflection Cyndee!...Thanks for sharing...

Very interesting article, thanks for sharing.

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