Change Your Life! Ask Questions!

By framing the right question, Satya Nadella directed his team’s attention to searching for the right answer, which opened up a treasure trove of new business opportunities, which would have remained undiscovered but for framing the right question.

Rajesh Srivastava, who has 35 years experience working in industry before he started conducting corporate workshops, believes that jobs are evolving rapidly.

We cannot yet predict what future jobs will look like.

His guess is that ‘Industry 4.0 is creating ‘thinking and reflective’ jobs which can be labelled ‘green-collar’ jobs, because the colour signifies growth’ and one should gear up for being the material for these kinds of jobs.

If you qualify for a green-collar job, then it is assumed that you own special higher level skills that sets you apart from the average employee — ‘cognitive skills, self-management skills, social skills and emotional skills’.

When it comes to cognitive skills, Srivastava says there are several kinds of cognitive skills like creativity, innovation, the powers of critical thinking, smart problem solving. To that list he adds: The ability to frame the right question.

Why is the talent to ask the right question so key?

‘It will lead to the right answer,’ says Rajesh, ‘which will open up a treasure trove of new business opportunities that would have remained undiscovered but for the right question.’

An alumnus of IIT-Kanpur and IIM-Bangalore, Rajesh spent many years at Diageo India creating brands, and subsequently as president at JK Helene Curtis. In this excerpt from his recent book The Ten New Life-Changing Skills, Rajesh delves deeply into the crucial business of asking the right question.

By March 2020, the world was in the grip of COVID-19. The business world was adversely impacted, resulting in large-scale layoffs and a mammoth pullback in investments.

Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, was asked by reporters how he was dealing with this crisis. He pondered for a moment and replied, ‘I am not concerned about the large-scale layoff or the massive pull back in investment. I am focussed on how to capture the “new demand” that is created by millions and millions of people going to work from home.’

By framing the right question, Satya Nadella directed his team’s attention to searching for the right answer, which opened up a treasure trove of new business opportunities, which would have remained undiscovered but for framing the right question.

Power of the right question

The right question can determine the way we perceive or think about something — and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.

It taps into human memory, which is set up so that a piece of information serves as a cue to draw out related information, which can help in arriving at a solution.

Here is an example: If I ask you to imagine a cocktail, you will quickly retrieve information about it, and think about bartenders, spirits, juices, modifiers, glasses, stirrers, margarita, daiquiri and the good time you had. You don’t have to expend much effort to recall this information. It surfaces spontaneously because of the initial cue.

If you want to retrieve something else from memory, you need to change the cue. If I now ask you to think about cricket, your mind will recall information about Virat Kohli, T20, Indian Premier League or M S Dhoni, even though you were thinking about cocktails just a while back.

The right questions also tap into ‘the collective memory of the people who are working on the problem, believing that someone working to solve the problem knows something that will help them find a solution. They just haven’t realised yet that they know it.’ It is one of the most cost-effective and repeatable problem-solving approaches.

Why do people refrain from framing questions?

There are many reasons. Here are a few of them:

  • Many people believe that they already know the answer. Sometimes they are right, but mostly they are wrong.
  • Many people are ignorant about the advantages that a well-framed, right question can offer. So they make no effort to learn the art of framing the right question.
  • The education system does not teach students the art of framing the right question. Instead, the system frames the questions and students are expected to provide answers.
  • Many people are fearful that they may frame the wrong question, which may invite ridicule and present them in a poor light.
  • The ‘command and control’ style of leadership holds sway in corporations. The ‘top’ decides and the ‘bottom’ executes. This style does not encourage employees to question the boss or the system. Those who do are subjugated into submission. Hence, the majority of employees do not acquire the art and skills to frame the right questions.

How to frame the right question

Framing the question in obvious, conventional ways often leads to obvious and conventional solutions. Framing a more interesting question can help teams discover more original ideas.

Here are pointers to frame the right and more interesting question:

  • How can we do this?
  • How should we do this?

Instead, frame questions with ‘might’: ‘how might we?

  • How might we do this?
  • How might this be done?

‘Might’ opens avenues for possibilities and can generate better solutions.

  • Option 1: We already have a dominant 60 per cent market share. Devise a strategy to gain additional 5 per cent market share.
  • Option 2: We have lost 40 per cent market share to competition. How might we gain an additional 5 per cent market share from them?

Chances are that option 2 will motivate the team to come up with an effective strategy, because it frames the task as a ‘loss’. Loss looms larger than gain, says Daniel Kahneman, because it is believed that the pain of losing is psychologically about twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining. And ‘might’ has the power to generate better ideas.

If you are still struggling to frame a question, then follow physicist Edward Witten’s advice: ‘Frame a question that is hard (and interesting) enough that it is worth answering and easy enough that you can actually answer it.’

If this also does not help, ask yourself how a ten-yearold will frame it. The answer will give the question you were struggling to frame.

Derailers in the path of framing the right question

Here is a partial list of derailers that can thwart attempts at framing the right question.

  • A question should not have the answer embedded in it. For example, ‘We will become the world’s number 1 brand.’ Here, the answer is present in the question. Such questions will obviate the necessity for a debate. But when it is framed, ‘How might we become the world’s number 1 brand?’ then it will spark discussion, debate, and invite suggestions.
  • A question which is designed to identify who committed the mistake will be met with resistance. For example, ‘Can we find out who committed the mistake?’ or ‘Who is responsible for this mistake?’

How to get the best answers?

Once you have accomplished the difficult job of framing the right question, acquaint yourself with guidelines to ensure that you get the best answers.

  • Ask the question in a casual way rather than in a formal tone. It will motivate people to be more forthcoming with answers.
  • Inform people that they can change their answers at any point. This will encourage them to answer questions honestly and say things which they might otherwise not. It will also get them to open up more–even though they may rarely change their answer.
  • Do not interrupt people when they are answering.
  • Learn to listen to them with the intent of understanding them, not replying to them.
  • Do not listen in complete silence. Punctuate it with ‘yes’ or ‘hmm’ to indicate that you are indeed listening, not merely hearing. If you have not understood a point, ask your colleague to explain it again. At the end, summarize important elements of the conversation to make sure you have understood what was communicated to you.
  • Use body language to convey that you are interested in listening to their answer. You can achieve this by:

Being close to the person who is answering.

Leaning towards the speaker. It will indicate that you’re interested in listening to them. On the other hand, leaning backward indicates that you dislike the person and their ideas.

Face and maintain eye contact with the person who is answering. This will make you appear interested in their answer.

Nod and tilt your head. Both these gestures will indicate that you are giving them an ear.

Open your posture by keeping your legs apart instead of crossed; keep your arms open and your palm facing up. These gestures indicates that you are asking them to share their ideas.

Make it a point to smile while you are listening. It will encourage them to speak more openly.

Excerpted from The Ten New Life-Changing Skills by Rajesh Srivastava, with the kind permission of the publishers, Penguin Random House India.

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