Misguided Questions Kill Businesses
This is a guest post by Nathaniel Greene, author of, Stop Guessing: The 9 Behaviors of Great Problem Solvers. —–
“Why? Why not?” These questions seem innocent—even helpful. But they’re quietly killing your business.
When someone hears “why” or “why not,” they are primed to justify the current situation.
Your team hears these questions when something has gone wrong. When they answer, they’re explaining why the problem isn’t their fault, or why they cannot reasonably change the situation. Teams can provide compelling reasons why something can’t be done. Those reasons will convince your business that a problem is unsolvable, and it will become an ongoing ulcer.
Justification is a waste of time when you’re solving problems. What you want to know is how to move forward and solve the problem.
You’re not solving the most important problems in your business because you’re asking the wrong questions.
Asking different questions radically alters how your business approaches problems. Next time something goes wrong in your business, skip asking your team “why,” and ask these questions instead:
- “Can you describe the problem to me?” This is a very precise form of “what’s going on?” Help people objectively describe the observable problem without blame or assumptions.
- “What have you learned about the problem?” This question primes your team to investigate the problem and learn the failure pattern, rather than guessing at what went wrong.
- “What would it take to make it happen?” When a team member tells you something can’t be done, ask them to explain what they need to get there.
These questions shift your team from justifying the current state to seeking the best next steps to resolve the problem. Their behaviors will improve, and so will your results.
What questions get in the way of solving problems?
What questions help teams solve problems?
Nathaniel Greene is the co-founder and current CEO of Stroud International, and author of Stop Guessing: The 9 Behaviors of Great Problem-Solvers. Nat has a Masters of Engineering from Oxford University and studied design, manufacturing and management at Cambridge University, in addition to executive education coursework in Harvard Business School’s Owner/President Management program.
These tips apply to careers as well!
Excellent post. Why/Why Not not only brings on excuse making but then allows the “leader” to be declarative, demonstrative, and parental. Why/Why Not leads to “you should have” and “you could have”. That is nothing more than unwarranted parental discipline.
Love the third question. We use it at our school when facing large obstacles.
Great questions? I often find myself wanting to ask “so what is the issue?” This is so much nicer!
I like the comments around describing the problem and what has been learnt as these are questions that I do get to in a round about way. However, asking “why” in the context of getting to the root cause is still important, not to apportion blame.
Thanks Steve. Any time I take a stab at the use of ‘why’ there is some push back. Thanks for standing up for ‘why’. I’m still convinced that ‘why’ is way over used and often invites unuseful responses. This is especially true in coaching. ‘What’ and “How” serve much better.
But, we should never say never. 🙂 Glad you jumped in!
I have found that “Why?” only works in problem-solving when two or more people interact around it in the way Steve and Dan are doing here. One determined to get to the root of the issue and another focused on moving forward to a solution. Together these can be a powerful combination. I wish I could say I have avoided the trap of only using “Why?” to identify causes and apportion blame before giving up!
I echo Mark’s observation as well as what has been said above. in one-to-one “what” and “how” questions are almost always more effective and generate less defensiveness. In group processing, using a tool like “The 5 Whys” can help a group more fully understand root causes or surface process issues. In coaching and supervising, I do my best to avoid asking “why?’ .
These seem like very practical approaches that can be implemented immediately. Takes you out of the blame game and lessens the need for people to be defensive. I especially like the question “What would it take to make it happen?”
Wow!!! I like this approach to problem solving. It changes the thinking process so that creativity flows rather than stifle it.
Great questions to reframe the discussion.
Good read , sometimes people need to learn ways to address issues & bring forth solutions
The name should be Eddie Owen
I’ve been trying to overcome the excuse making with my team. I recently found myself on the same side trying to answer why. Every answer was coming out as an excuse not a solution. I’ve been trying to figure out how not to come off as an excuse maker.
Now when asked why…..I can restate the problem and what I have learned from it and make changes.
As an educator, there are so many things that fit from these points. I love that the onus goes back to the ones that say it can’t be done. We do this with our students all the time, and they realize they can do so much more than they THINK they can do.
Great read! In my field of work “problems” are common and I’ve learned that they are only problems if there’s not an alternative way of moving forward, 99% of the time there is a way of moving forward.
I would be interested to learn more!
These are great questions, thanks for posting Dan.
Excellent post. Resolving the problem in this manner gets results! Spending time on why opens the door for blame. Exerting energy on pointing the finger as opposed to fixing the issue! Thanks for the insight!
Love the first question, it is a great place to start! One must decide if we actually have a problem to solve or a tension to be managed? Talking through the situation can be very helpful in determining this!
Interesting take! Why and why not are legitimate questions when used in the right situations, but they can be harmful when used in the wrong ones. Nice!
When employees are allowed trial and error in order to be innovative they have potential to grow both their skillset and the company. As long as the problem isn’t due to an egregious mistake, and was truly accidental, the real issue isn’t who to blame but how to prevent it in the future. The three questions help guide to determining the real issue and how to resolve or at least improve it.
I agree with Steve. “Why?” is a powerful question and should not be avoided. Timing, context, and tone of voice is critical as to not put others on the defensive. When trying to solve a problem it should not be the first question asked. Other questions are “What have you tried so far?” “What results did you get?” “What results do you want?”
Awesome post, would love a free copy of book!
Great recommendations. Asking questions is crucial to getting to the root of the issue and getting better but the wrong questions will put people on the defensive and cause them to shut down.
It seems that the good starting point is with the assumption that we don’t know everything about the situation.
Great approach to shifting from blame to ownership and resolution of issues!
This is awesome – it turns whiners and complainers into problem solvers!! Just a simple shift in the mindset!
Love re-framing questions. So often the response to a problem is to see who can be the most detailed about explaining (excusing) what has happened, and then the speaker sits back and expects the person ‘one-up’ from their position to resolve it. That never works as there’s no ownership and the next problem sets up the same dynamic — unless the cycle is broken and accountability on all parts is expected by the powers-that-be. And that accountability includes problem solving and action plans.
With 5-Why’s being a fairly common approach to problem solving, I think many intuitively start with why. Yet, as suggested in the post, questions such as, “what else might be going on here?” Or “How might we change the process to produce a better result,” helps drive awareness. There is a time for “why” and a meaningful way to ask. If a culture of blame exists in an organization then “why” is going to be a challenge. If a culture of focusing on the process and not people is a part of the culture, then the “why” will be better understood.
One of my former leaders used to ask the question, “How much trouble could we get into?” which the team found empowering b/c she was basically saying … let’s try it and see what happens.
This seems akin to the work I’ve been doing lately researching Lessons Learned strategies. Without a strategy in place for identifying, capturing, and disseminating LL, it’s just a waste of time too.
“Lessons Learned” is also all-to-often merely “Lessons Observed,” especially if you disband the now-gelled team after every project. Conducted early and often, and keeping teams together, lessens the need for dissemination across teams and silos, which is difficult.
How did the team get here… and how can we work together to get out of the problem?
These questions are great because it looks briefly at the past, then turns the focus to the future on what we can do differently to be more successful. It doesn’t beat people down on past performance, but looks forward to better days ahead!
The opened end approach to asking questions creates opportunities for staff reflection and engagement.
Great questions to reframe the discussion.
These are great! Love to understand more. These have so many applications.
I like the idea of reframing the questions. Oftentimes when reframing the questions, you find the issue was created by something as “simply complex” as a matter of perspective.
What comes to my mind here, is the proverb “When you’re up to your neck in alligators, it’s easy to forget you came to drain the swamp.” Great post as always.
I like Cathy Oluffson’s post – I also think it’s sometimes think it’s true that it’s easier to gain forgiveness than to seek approval! So go ahead and feel the fear, but do it anyway!
I think the key roll of some one in charge, be it a head coach, CEO, etc is to solve problems. They need to do this for themselves, their companies, and their teams.
Just these three questions have changed how I will approach certain situations. I am in collections and I believe I can also use these questions with my collection contacts. Thanks for sparking my imagination!
Q1 is really important. When people are frustrated, they know they have a problem, but don’t always stop long enough to truly define it.
A life lesson learned from a communications professor: Avoid the word “why” in business situations and personal relationships since “why” brings forth defensiveness. If the cause must be explored, use phrases similar to “help me to understand the reason” or “let’s explore the cause” … (it works!)
Great set of questions to avoid justification and defensiveness. I like the shift to What’s Next thinking. I can’t change the past but have to take steps to stop the ineffective behavior.
As someone with an extensive technical support and quality assurance background, I often use ‘Describe the problem (“Steps to Reproduce”). As a doer, I often use ‘What have you learned from the problem? ‘, but should use it more as a leadership tool. I am inspired by ‘What would it take to make it happen?’ and want to ingrain this valuable tool.
When you start to ask these questions it can totally change your mindset. Don’t encourage the blame game!
Very good info. I love the shift from feeling and assuming fault to one of searching and learning. I am a teacher and a coach and am already thinking about how I can use my “Why” questions differently.
Great ideas to get the problem at hand and not to spend time debating the who did it and why they did it. Simple and straight forward. Thanks
I like to ask “What can I…: questions for helping fund solutions or “How can I…” questions for finding ways to make a difference. Why questions of end up being circular and bringing you back to where you started.
For me, this is about staying curious rather than blaming. Asking “what” questions, or stating “Tell me more” usually uncovers new information that will help get to solutions.
I have found that instead of why, I ask how. It is very similar to the what would it take question.
The questions are great, but “why” is still essential. I’ve just learned that I get more asking that after the fact and questions like “what exactly is happening?” and “What do we need to do to get this done?” are better up front. Why do you think that happened? are better after the fact. It’s natural for people to want to deflect and this seems to help.
Excellent article. I’ve been talking to my leadership team about this very issue. We’ve been talking about avoiding the white questions start focusing on asking what and how questions. Why just simply tends to lead us down the path of blame. Asking what and how questions opens ourselves up to options and ignites our brains to look for Creative Solutions. Great article, Nathaniel. Thank you for sharing it, Dan.
The key to problem solving is always to make those who can solve the problem feel that they can be open and honsestbin their responses. Why or why not makes people defensive in their response.
These apply to any life problem. Placing blame solves nothing. Get to the root of what happened and why so it is not a problem but a learning opportunity.
Mind blown! When I hear “I can’t be done”, my first question is “Why not”…from a perspective to learn and understand but it will be changing now!
I will definitely give this a try. Interesting perspective on the “why” questions. On question #3, any thoughts on how to help people get beyond “I don’t know”.
Thanks for this great conversational thread. For me, the fundamental issue is the type of question which includes tone of voice. If a question is asked that is open (starts with who, what, where, when, how or why), with a tone of voice that is non judging then there is a message that the inquiry is based in curiosity and is not intended to blame or shame. In this context, I find ‘why’ is fine assuming the listener cannot interpret it as judging which can happen even though not intended. I find the fundamental here is judging vs non judging. If truly open to what is being said and messaging that, questions will expand possibility. When the message is judging and closed, even though the question is ‘open’, the conversation will narrow, with a sense of blame, ending the opportunity for exploration of possibility.
I’m thinking as much about the post as the new font. Not quite sure what I think of it yet 🙂
The post is good though. It’s almost scary how wrong things can go by asking the wrong question, or sometimes even the right question with the wrong tone of voice. Especially when someone already is defensive because they know they did something wrong, even though they pretend not to know (or are in denial).
By asking questions in lieu of making a statement, it doesn’t put anyone on the defensive to give their justification!
n our Leadership classes we teach our candidates that asking opened ended what, where ,how,when questions provides a lot of useful information for future movement. Why questions end productive problem solving because they imply fault ,judgement and demand justification .
Anyone who doesn’t understand that can try this experiment at home.. Ask your child “why did you do that?” I can guarantee the answer will be something like “I don’t know?” with a shrug of the shoulders. What the child really means is”you tell me”.
End of conversation start of argument.
It works the same in all organizations.
would love a copy of this book. great thoughts and insight already. love the simple switch from why to “can you describe the problem to me?” and more. thank you for always providing great ideas and thoughts on ways to improve leadership!
This post reminded me how easy it is to fall into bad habits. How the questions are asked makes so much difference, but I do find it very easy to slip back into the mode of asking questions that open the door to justification. Excellent reminder.
Excellent. Printing these 3 questions to share department leaders so they can share them with those they serve with. Behavior change is vital to growth and maintaining an atmosphere that strengthens and grows leaders.
The recommendations for how to ask questions are very helpful! It is nice to ask questions that help people to remain solution focused versus giving excuses/reasons for why something did/did not happen.
Very insightful. It causes your managers and supervisors to think for themselves and try to problem solve without being defensive.
These are great questions to get a person thinking back to the reason something got off track. I think it might be helpful to give groups some past problems that happened in the organization and use these questions to see how they would have responded and then let everyone what the outcome was. Could be a good exercise.
I like that these questions are non-threatening and non-judgmental. It can be really hard to face problems and justification is a natural fallback for protecting yourself.
Getting people to focus on learning from the past in order to make better changes for the future is key. Thanks for the insight!
It seems to me justification for why a solution needs to be adopted is part of the problem solving process. In fact it is the hardest part of the process where the rest of the organisation don’t see, or don’t want to see problems, or even The Problem. This is because of the “positive, fix it” attitude in organisational cultures where bringing problems to the senior management is seen as “not coping”. Hence justification for current state of affairs has a mirror image for future direction in negotiationg a strategy for implementing solution/s
Really useful way of thinking about how to move from explaining problems to doing something about them.
Very good information in this brief promo. I know the book must be helpful. I teach leadership skills. I could use this valuable resource
I love systems theory and this practical approach fits.
P.S. Every article is a giveaway. I learn something reinforcing, mindshifting and practical in each one. It is good to feel supported.
Great article. Asking questions to develop thinking is a critical component of a great leader.
Can’t wait to Sita break this open.
Love the article. What and how are great exploratory questions, avoiding defensiveness. Questions allowing descriptive answers allow everyone to dive deeper in search of first defining the issue, then developing alternative solutions leading to accountability
Good read and…
What’s interesting is when the team asks managers and superiors why decisions were made or not made, there is usually a quick proverbial corporate spin, a snippy quip, or glare as if it is inappropriate to ask such questions.
Is incredible how our brain reacts whit some questions, when you are using the correct one, the light on the face comes out from our team. Love this post.
We can also probably include how can the solution be better ? I believe it is important that leaders become facilitators and enablers by asking the right questions. Enabling teams to provide better solutions is important. In this context it helps every one to learn asking the right questions. My two cents.
This is one great post. I can really relate to it as problems come and go with my team also. And I must say that sometimes I wonder why same problems keep on existing. And now I know, perhaps I have been asking the wrong questions so wrong solutions were also given. And yeah, I used to ask them “why” thinking that when they can justify the existence of the problem they can solve it. But now, I’ll definitely be changing my approach- thanks to you!
Good tips. I agree that “why?” can result in defensive responses. I often ask, “what is the reason?”, this drives more specific thinking to pinpoint the problem, and thus feeds the learning.
I like how simple these are, but how they help facilitate a better discussion and hopefully output. I have some simple flash cards that I use for recording these types of things and that are easily referred to before starting a meeting
For years I have asked teams ” what problem are we trying to solve?” This post helps teams take action.
From my observations, these questions frequently stem from “deniers”, those who maintain there is no problem to solve in the first place. It’s tough to head for a solution when there is no agreement on the existence of the problem. “Just keep doing things the same old way and somehow we’ll achieve different results.”
Thanks for more great insight, Dan! I think another advantage of asking for descriptions (what and how?) as opposed to explanations (why or why not?) is the transition from personal, emotional interactions to fact-based, objective, and productive problem solving. In other words, it’s more important to get it right than to prove you’re right.
Asking these questions will also get the “constant complainers” to change from the habit of complaining to really pinpointing what, if any, the true issues are. If you come across as “Tell me…” they will have to answer without generalizing. This way you can get to the true issues! thank you!
Good insight! Sometimes you even have to reiterate these questions as many times people want to always try to answer the ‘why’… instead of asking how can we understand the problem, learn from the problem and move forward more prepared for success.
This was fascinating to me — as an auditor, I am trained to be a professional skeptic and always search for the “why”. However, by subtlety rephrasing questions, I can still get to the same answer but in a way that my client is much more forthcoming, less defensive and without making them feel they must justify their reason for doing something a certain way. Fantastic article!!!
“What would it take to make it happen?” can backfire.
In high-complexity situations, it implies that I can even know.
In low-trust environments, it’s threatening. If it doesn’t now happen, it’s all my fault, because I was given all I said I needed.
Helpful and practical tips that can make conversations intentional! Thank you!
Still enjoying these – keep up the great work!
Really nice post! It is true how a question well formulated could impact even more in a problem solving.
Great tips! I have shared them with my team. We sometimes use the 5 why approach but getting started with these questions is a much better approach!
Why is a necessary question, but it should come AFTER you know the “What”, as in “What problem are we solving?” Once you know what the problem is, you should be thinking about why. Of course, because “why” can be so often heard as casting negative judgment, you can also reframe the why as “what are the reasons this is occurring?”
Excellent TIPS to reach the root cause of problem.
Love these – another question might be what have you already done to try to solve your problem?
Excellent article. Enjoyed reading.very useful practcal tips.