It’s a classic scene of comedy. Inspector Clouseau, played by Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther Strikes Again, asks the hotel clerk, “Does your dog bite?”
Clerk: “No.” Clouseau reaches out to pet the dog, who attacks him savagely.
Clouseau: “I thought you said your dog does not bite!”
Clerk: “That is not my dog!!”
It’s funny, because we all see it coming, and yet we don’t. It’s funny, because we’ve all been there a million times: Asking questions to get the information we need and watching the whole scenario go horribly awry.
Asking questions–good, open-ended, collaborative, problem-solving questions–is one of the greatest skills of leaders. But too often, our questions sound like we’re the prosecuting attorney. Too often our questions are full of faulty assumptions–like Clouseau’s question to the hotel clerk. Too often we ask only the questions that will give us the information we want to hear–not what we need to hear.
And too often, we don’t ask questions at all.
Here are a set of questions I have honed over the years and use in executive coaching to help instill the habit of asking the right questions, in the right way, of the right people, for the right reason: To get at reality, truth and facts. The common denominator in all these questions is that they are open-ended, therefore they can’t be answered with a yes or no. They are also focused, yet exploratory, and therefore aimed at getting to important facts and truths in an efficient, but non-threatening fashion.
Test drive these; you might be surprised what you learn. They could save you from getting bitten by somebody else’s dog!
USEFUL QUESTIONS FOR GETTING STARTED
- Where do you want this to end? We’ve got an hour to spend on this; where do you want us to be in an hour?
- What’s the ideal outcome? What’s a home run?
- How will we measure success?
- What will keep us from success?
- How long will it take and when will we begin to see progress?
- Who needs to be involved and who needs to be kept informed?
- What do you need to get started? What do you need to see it to completion?
- What do you need from me?
- What difficulties do you think we might encounter? How do you see us overcoming them?
- What else are you working on that will compete for your time and attention?
USEFUL QUESTIONS FOR STAYING ON TRACK
- What’s going particularly well? What’s been most challenging?
- What feedback have you been getting?
- How are you monitoring/managing/quality checking?
- Who should we be communicating with more?
- How is this impacting other deadlines and priorities?
USEFUL QUESTIONS FOR GETTING BACK ON TRACK
- I got this feedback from James. How do you react to that? Whether you agree with him or not, we need him on board. How do you think it would be best to manage this situation so he feels good about the process?
- I’m very concerned about XYZ. You may have that all under control, but how can you help me get comfortable with where we are on that part of it?
- It looks like we’re about 10% over budget. Why do you think that happened? How can we get back on track?
USEFUL POST MORTEM QUESTIONS
- What worked best? What didn’t work or didn’t work well?
- What did you learn from it?
- Next time around, what would you suggest we do differently?
- If you had to delegate this project to someone else, how would you do so to make sure you got a great result?
- How could I have been more helpful tin the process?
- If you had to assign this project a grade, what would it be? What grade would you give yourself? What grade would you give me?