Skip to main content

How to Ask the Right Questions Part 3: A Framework for Asking

Your goal is to get information. You want to get as much information as you can. You can always eliminate nonessential and irrelevant information when you analyze the information you have obtained after you have gotten it. Considering that the only way that we can be sure we will ask the Right Question is by getting the right answer, and the only way we know we got the Right Answer is by getting as many answers as we can. During the process of getting the information, we need to do everything we can to increase the flow of information and that includes preparation for asking as well as the actual act of asking the questions.

Whoever gets the most information wins

We need to gather as much information as possible. The more information we get, the better able we are to determine what the Right Answers are. However, given the time constraints of a normal business initiative and the limited amount of time we will get with the business stakeholders, we need to adopt a process which will give us the most information in the least amount of time.

In other words, we want to adopt the attitude of being a sponge (listening, observing, sensing, and absorbing all the information we can get) while at the same time keeping the information as focused on the business problem and solution as possible. This is not an easy task. This requires you to do everything you can to increase the flow of information from the responder to you while at the same time guiding and directing the responder to give you information that helps you both achieve the goal of solving the business problem.

Preparing To Ask the Right Question

First let’s make sure we create the best possible environment to ask the right question.

Just as we prepare for the entire information gathering process, we also prepare for the individual Information Gathering Session. We don’t simply think of a few questions to ask as we are walking to the interview or meeting. If we want to ask the Right Question, to get the Right Answer, we take some time before we engage in the session to determine what we want to know. The preparation stage of the information gathering session may take place well in advance of the session itself, or immediately beforehand. Generally we want to allocate approximately half the time scheduled for the session itself to spend on the preparation.

Why are we Doing This

Start with the objective of the session. What is the purpose for taking this person’s time (and yours, of course)? What is the Big Question you want answered when you leave the session? This is your objective. All information gathering sessions have an objective. The top reporters, journalists, detectives, and others who make their livelihood asking the Right Questions have an objective to be achieved when they conduct an interview or other information gathering session.

Where does the objective come from? The Information Gathering Plan (see Part 2 of this series which describes creating an Information Gathering Plan). You have established in the Information Gathering Plan what information you need to understand the problem domain or define a solution. Now you are getting that information, so each item in the Information Gathering Plan becomes an objective in an Information Gathering Session.

The Questions to Ask

It’s easier to come up with the questions that we are going to ask during an information gathering session if we have an objective to achieve. Once we defined the objective, we can more easily think of questions to ask that will achieve that objective. The key aspect is to write the questions down. In that way, we imprint the questions on our brain so that the questions come to us more naturally during the actual session. Even if we leave our written questions behind, we will likely end up asking those same questions because we wrote them into our thinking. Once we have the list of questions, we reorder the questions so that they are listed from easy questions (those that don’t require any thought or concern to answer, such as “how long have you worked here?”) to more difficult questions (those that require more thought, or explanation, or which may cause an emotional reaction in the responder, such as “do you think you’ll be laid off when we implement the new system?”) And then back to easy questions to wrap up (such as “Are you going to the holiday party next week?”)

The Information Gathering Plan (from the previous article) has “what is the process of doing vendor voucher entry” as an item. Your objective in an interview or meeting with the voucher entry clerks becomes: “Determine the process of doing vendor voucher entry”. You then list questions that will achieve your objective, such as: 

  1. What triggers the voucher entry process?
  2. Where does the information that you key in come from?
  3. What does the form of information look like?
  4. Can you show me the screen that you use to enter the information into?
  5. What do you do first to get started?
  6. Then what do you do?
  7. Why did you do that?
  8. Do you always do that?
  9. What if you could do this instead?
  10. Do you like doing that?
  11. Can you expand on that?
  12. What if that doesn’t happen?

And so forth.

This is an unordered list and contains no introduction or closing questions. Notice that we don’t ask: “Will you tell me the way you do the process of voucher entry?” Instead we ask questions that will give us this answer. In this way, we gain significantly more information and don’t turn the session over to the responder. While we do want the responder(s) talking most of the time, we still want to regulate the information received.

Setting the Table

An information gathering session consists of three basic stages: the introduction, the body, and the close. Each of the stages is important to the goal of increasing the flow of information to get the Right Answers. Let’s start with the Introduction in which we set the “frame” for the session.

Introduction: The Frame

Social Science and Psychology have given us the concept of the “frame”. When you frame your information gathering session, you establish a boundary within which you want the responder’s responses to remain. So framing saves time by keeping the responders (and you) focused.

Instead of starting out the Information Gathering Session by stating the objective you wish to achieve with the session, (as in, ‘‘Hello, Charley, I’m Steve. I am here to understand how you enter the vouchers’’) start the session by expressing the following:

  • This is the problem we are here to solve.
  • This is the vision that we see occurring as the result of solving the problem.
  • This is why it is important to the responder(s) personally (provided you know why it is important to them).

The opening statement would then be something like this: ‘‘Hello, Charley, I’m Steve. I want to talk with you about the time it takes to do voucher entry. I understand that it is taking too long with all these vendor payment terms that have to be entered. We want to create a process where all of the terms are automatically entered from a database, and all the vouchers are completed quickly and you get to go to happy hour on time.’’

Framing your conversation has these effects [1]:

  • The frame (in the example, the accounts payable problem) focuses the responders’ thoughts so that each answer is made in light of the frame.
  • The responders tend to be more motivated to provide information that solves the problem because they are subconsciously thinking about how to solve it.
  •  There is less chance that the responders will get sidetracked or derailed since they are thinking ‘inside the frame’ (in meetings this tendency to stay focused takes the pressure off the meeting facilitator and moderator.
  • By observing the responder’s reaction, you can get a good feeling whether the responder has the information you are seeking. When the responder nods in agreement with the problem, acknowledging it, you know he has the information.
  • Stating the frame gives the responder a chance to orient his or her thoughts and prepare mentally for the interview. It also gives you a chance to organize your thoughts around the objectives of the Information Gathering Session.

The Rhythm of Question and Answer

Once we establish the frame for information gathering we can proceed with our questions and answers. We may get the same volume of information without the frame, but the frame helps to keep the information focused on the problem at hand and achieving the objective and therefore increases the number of Right Answers.

To get the continuous flow of information from the responders we need to establish a rhythm of asking and answering. A key element to establishing that rhythm and getting the most information flowing toward you is to focus on only asking questions and not including commentary in and among the questions you ask. Most importantly try to avoid asking questions that produce responsive questions in the responder. And if that happens, keep your response short and succinct, and get back to asking questions. Information cannot flow to you if you are talking. Once in the rhythm of ask-answer, the responder will tend to maintain that rhythm and you will get the information that you are requesting which contain are the Right Answers.

How do you get that rhythm going? By inserting a purposeful pause between the responders answer and your next question. Mentally count to four if necessary. (It’s not a good idea to nod your head with each count, or to tap your finger to keep count.) This pause has several magical effects:

  • The pause establishes a rhythm for the questions and answers that the responder will get into subconsciously increasing the flow of information. (Note that you will also fall into this rhythm and find that the asking of questions becomes easier.)
  • When you pause before asking the next question, you have time to formulate that question and increase the chance that the next question will be a great question and generate a Right Answer.
  • When you pause before asking the next question, the responder will assume that you are thinking about their answer, especially when the next question is based on their answer, and feel as though the information they are providing is being valued. When the responder feels the information is valuable to you, the responder will give you more information.
  • Most people interpret a pause, or silence after an answer, as an indicator that the questioner expects more information or that the answer given did not satisfy the questioner, and therefore will immediately add more information. Many times they provide information that you would not have thought of asking for: a Right Answer.

When you start counting the pause between answers and questions, it doesn’t take long before you find that you get in the habit of pausing between answers and questions and don’t need to count.

The Body of the Session: getting the Right Answers

Perhaps to know how to ask the Right Question, we might better focus on the Right Answers and that requires us to consider the psychology of the responder and what the responder is thinking about while trying to form an answer. Whenever we humans are in a situation of having to formally answer questions, no matter how benign the questions are, we experience a level of stress. Sometimes the stress is discernible such as when you are being interviewed for a job or new position or when, as a teenager, your parents are questioning you about the dented fender on the family car the morning after you borrowed it. Other times, the stress is subliminal. Regardless, it is always there. (Next time you conduct an interview, or an Information Gathering Session, as you end the session, announce clearly that you are finished asking questions and observe the change in body posture and actions. The responders will show visible release of stress that they may not even be conscious of: leaning forward, rolling their shoulders a bit, touching their face, change in behavior like starting or stopping tapping a pencil on the table, and so on).

Part of that stress comes from the fear that we will be asked a question we can’t answer (we don’t know the answer when we are expected to, the answer is something we would prefer not to talk about, etc.). While we can’t eliminate the stress completely, and perhaps we don’t want to, we can observe indications of increased stress when particular questions or lines of questioning are asked. In addition to changes in body language, changes in the rhythm of the responses are also indicators of change in the level of stress.

Another part of the stress comes from the desire of the responder to help the questioner by providing the information that the responder thinks the questioner is looking for. A change in rhythm such as when a responder takes longer to answer a question might indicate that he or she is searching for the answer they believe will provide you the information you are looking for (or it might indicate a hidden agenda and the responder is trying to phrase the answer carefully). This need to provide the “correct” information may stem from school training in which we were required to produce the correct answers to the teachers’ questions, or face the consequences. In other words, we have been trained to anticipate what the right answer should be and give that answer regardless of what the Right Answer might be.

The Right Answers May Not Come until after the Session

Getting the Right Answers is more than just asking questions. There is also some analysis involved. This is where the business analyst excels: applying critical thinking to the information received.

Asking the right question may not be a matter of what is asked, but how it is asked. “Often we don’t ask the right questions. Or we don’t ask questions in a way that will lead to honest and informative answers.” [3]

Probe and Clarify

Clarifying questions are those you ask for yourself. Questions that add more clarity or information to previous answers or that help you understand a topic or a facet. The responder will generally have a ready answer or response to a clarifying question and the answer could be more facts.

Probing questions are those you ask as much for the responder or group as for yourself. Probing questions help the responder to think more deeply about the topic or the problem or solution or the question just asked. The responder may not have a ready answer, or not have an answer at all, and the answer, when given, may be more opinion and conjecture than facts.

Listen to Your Questions and Their Answers

“My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions.”
– Peter Drucker

The right question is the one in which you can remove yourself from the answer and allow the responder to truly answer the question. The right answer may be embedded in a flow of information, sometimes seeming to be stream of consciousness, or it may be in the way that the answer is given, the choice of words or phraseology. In other words, listen to the answer, as though you are just hearing the question yourself for the first time.

As Gene Ballinger, director of Systems Thinking World says, “Most people ask questions with the answer already in mind.” When you have the answer already in mind you don’t really listen to the responder answering the question, or you only hear that part which confirms what you already believe. This is called “Confirmation Bias”. While you certainly should have an idea of the format of the answer (when you ask a closed ended question, you don’t expect a long winded answer, for example) you listen naively for the answer. You listen as though someone else asked the question and you are interested in hearing the answer. (More on listening to discern the Right Answer in the next installment.)

So, What Question Should I Ask?

Asking the right question is both a combination of the question and the answer. Obviously, there must be a question first before an answer will come. We should choose the questions that we ask with the session objective in mind.

The Harvard Project Zero developed the Evidence Process which is the protocol for “choosing the question.”[2]

The protocol requires you to ask yourself the following questions about the questions you are going to ask (I have adapted the questions for our information gathering purposes):

  1. Why is this question important to you and to the definition of the problem or solution? (Except in the introduction stage or the closing stage, all questions should either provide information to define or solve the problem, or move the information gathering forward.)
  2. How is it relevant to the overall discussion and/or the problem or solution domain in general? (Even with the frame established for the information gathering session, the irrelevant question may drive the conversation out of the frame and into areas that generate irrelevant responses. And once there may be difficulty getting back on track.)
  3. What connections can the responder make between the question and the problem or solution? (Be careful of ambiguous questions that might take the conversation away from the topic. Also be careful of questions that the responder may not understand. If the responder has to struggle with understanding the question to come up with an answer, the rhythm may be broken or the answer not pertinent.)

Close the Session: Ensure Another Session if Needed

It would be great if we could time questioning and the answers we receive in a way that we have asked all the questions and received all the information we need at precisely the time that the session is scheduled to close. Unfortunately that is as likely as winning the lottery twice. The most important rule of information gathering is to end the session on time. Therefore regardless of the questions we have left or the interest we have in the answers, we must terminate the session before the schedule and continue to the Close Stage. The purpose of the close stage is to make sure that the session comes to a graceful end and that the responder(s) are perfectly comfortable returning for another session, if necessary. There are three questions that you should ask after we have closed the body of the session:

  1. Do you have any questions for me?
  2. Is there anything else we should have talked about?
  3. Is there anyone else you know who might have additional information to help solve the problem?

In the unlikely event that any of these questions promote a new round of conversation that may take you past the scheduled end of the session, table the discussion to a new session. Thank the responders for their time and especially for the information they provided, and end the session on time.

After the session, analyze the information you received, eliminate the irrelevant and the non-germane, summarize the pertinent information, and send the responders the summary with an invitation to add to or change, and include any questions that might occur to you during the analysis. In this way, you might get more information which might include the Right Answers, information that came to the responders after the session as a result of ruminating on the session or discussions with others who were not in the session. In any case, it’s “free” information.

The framework of the Information Gathering Session – the introduction, body, and close – provides a structure that increases the flow of information and the chances that you will get the Right Answers.

We’ll spend some more time discussing the Right Questions themselves, how to ask them and how to discern the Right Answer in the next article.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

[1] Blais, Steven. Business Analysis: Best Practices for Success, John Wiley, 2011
[2] Senge, P., Roberts. C., Roth, G., Ross, R., and Smith, B. The Dance of Change: The Challenges to Sustaining Momentum in Learning Organizations, Doubleday, 1999
[3] Marquadt, Michael. Leading with Questions, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2014