The Right Questions Can Reveal the Right Problems

by | Jan 17, 2024 | Change Management, I-O Psychology, Organizational Development, Workplace | 0 comments

Leverage effective inquiry tactics to diagnose organizational needs

As a Certified Management Consultant (CMC), I belong to the Institute of Management Consultants (IMC USA) and the IMC Chicagoland Chapter. This past Friday, as part of their “IMC Challenges Breakfast,” the group discussed questioning as a method for data collection to diagnose different types of business situations. We included topics such as questioning styles, techniques, and tools. I thought I might share some insights and support some of the ideas we generated with research. In all cases, the consensus of the group stated that no single set of questions or style of asking acts as a standard for each situation. Experience, along with education plus critical thinking, helps consultants and business leaders to ask the right questions for each unique situation. Frameworks do help to guide the process.

In the dynamic fields of organizational development (OD) and change management (OCM), a consultant’s ability to ask the right questions plays as crucial a role as having the right answers. In fact, one might argue that the quality of an answer relies on the nature of the question. Effective questioning can unlock doors to hidden problems, foster open communication, and pave the way for innovative solutions. The nuanced art of questioning requires a balance between inquiry and insight.

As consultants, a large part of our competencies stems from our abilities to gather information and leverage deductive and inductive reasoning to create solutions to business problems. Using good questioning tools and techniques can set one consultant apart from the pack. Great consultants tend to leverage listening and empathy as pathways to understanding, diagnosis, and solution development.

The Power of Effective Questioning

The heartbeat of organizational analysis and development lies in a consultant’s ability to ask questions and truly listen openly and objectively, as Hodges writes in “Consulting Capabilities for Organizational Change” within the Management Consulting Journal (2021). Thoughtful inquiries can either open avenues for honest dialogue or barricade them. The right questions encourage teams to think critically, challenge assumptions, and collaborate on finding solutions. In contrast, poorly framed questions can stifle creativity, evoke defensive responses, and hinder the flow of vital information.

The Pitfalls of “Why” Questions

Among business people, Simon Sinek’s Start with Why book often enters into conversations around questioning. However, while asking “why” can serve as a provocative means for critically thinking about our own issues, the use of “why” questions can become a pitfall in the realm of organizational consulting, such as “Why are you doing this?” Such questions, though well-intentioned, can cause the stakeholder receiving the inquiry to perceive such a remark as accusatory, putting individuals on the defensive. They can imply judgment, suggesting a wrong or misguided decision or action. For instance, a team leader may interpret, “Why did you choose this approach?” as judgemental criticism rather than genuine curiosity.

Appreciative Inquiry: A Double-Edged Sword

In dialogic organizational development practices, appreciative inquiry has emerged as a powerful tool. This approach focuses on identifying and leveraging an organization’s strengths rather than concentrating solely on its problems (Bridger, 2018). Questions in appreciative inquiry, such as “What successes have we experienced in this area?” denote positivity and often lead to generative images of ideal organizational states.

While appreciative inquiry can create a positive atmosphere and foster creative thinking, it also has its limitations. By focusing primarily on the positive aspects, consultants and their clients run the risk of overlooking or downplaying significant issues and roadblocks. This omission can lead to a superficial understanding of the situation, neglecting underlying problems that may require attention. Alongside asking, “What are we doing well?” one should also consider asking, “Where do we see room for improvement?”

Crafting Constructive Questions

To navigate these complexities, consultants must craft insightful, non-threatening, and dialogue-conducive questioning. Here are some strategies:

  • Use Open-Ended Questions: Encourage exploration and discussion. Instead of asking, “Why did you do this?” consider, “What were the objectives of this strategy?”
  • Employ Reflective Questions: Facilitate self-assessment and reflection. For example, “How do you feel this approach aligns with our goals?”
  • Ask Clarifying Questions: Seek deeper understanding without implying judgment. A question like, “Can you walk me through your process?” is more inviting.

Leverage Empathy in Inquiry

Constructive questioning encourages a culture of openness, fosters innovative thinking, and promotes a deeper understanding of challenges and opportunities. When leaders can elicit responses from a standpoint of authenticity by being their authentic self, while also exercising empathy — attempting to understand the way others feel — employees feel heard and understood (Els & Jacobs, 2023). This leads to more engaged, more motivated workers which develops a more resilient and adaptive organization.

Effective questioning in organizational development consulting requires a delicate balance of inquiry, reflection, and understanding. By mastering this art, both internal and external consultants can facilitate meaningful discussions, uncover deeper insights, and guide organizations towards positive change. Remember, one must not just ask questions but ask the right questions in the right way.

Do you have effective questioning tools and techniques? We would love to hear them, if you have a willingness to share. What have I omitted from this article which might help leaders and consultants approach questioning in a more effective way?

About IMC USA and IMC Chicagoland

This group of consultants meets frequently on a regular schedule on Friday mornings, usually three times per month at 7:30 a.m. As a rather cohesive group, we rely on each other for support and guidance, and we often tap into the collective power of diverse thoughts to solve problems for each other, for our clients, and for the organization itself.

The second session of the month bears the title “IMC Challenges Breakfast” which involves consultants bringing forth their own unique problems or questions to be discussed and answered by the group. Business leaders have adopted this Mastermind style of idea generation for several decades, and it truly works to solve issues with feedback from different perspectives. I enjoy the camaraderie within the group, and we have together created some highly effective solutions.

References

Bridger, E. (2018). Employee Engagement: A Practical Introduction, Second Edition. Kogan Page.

Els, B., & Jacobs, M. (2023). Unraveling the interplay of authentic leadership, emotional intelligence, cultural intelligence and psychological well-being. SA Journal of Industrial Psychology, 49 doi:https://doi.org/10.4102/sajip.v49i0.2095

Hodges, J. (2021). Consulting capabilities for organizational change. Management Consulting Journal, 1(1). https://doi.org/10.2478/mcj-2018-0002

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