Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Obtain Better Decisions by Asking Better Questions

We’re currently experiencing a reduced flow of quality feedstock into our safety culture mill.  But we did see a reference to a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article* that’s worth a quick read.

The authors’ thesis is the pressure on business to make decisions ever more quickly means important questions may never get asked, or even considered, which leads to poor decision-making.  Their proposed fix is to ask more, better questions to help frame decisions.  They suggest four types of questions, presented in the consultant’s favorite typology:  the two-by-two matrix.  In this case, one axis is the View of the Problem (wide or narrow) and the other is the Intent of the Question (to affirm or discover), as shown in the following figure.


Types of Questions to Improve Decision Making  (Source Mu Sigma)

Clarifying questions are focused on helping participants or managers understand what has happened so far, e.g., the data gathered or partial decisions already made.  People often don’t ask these questions because of cultural pressures to move forward, or they tend to make assumptions and fill in any missing parts themselves.**

Adjoining questions explore related aspects of the problem utilizing available information, e.g., how the results of this analysis could be applied elsewhere. 

Funneling questions are focused on learning more about the analysis to date.  How was an answer derived?  What were your assumptions?  What are the root causes of this problem?  The authors opine that most analytical teams usually do a good job of asking this type of question.

Elevating questions raise broader issues and create opportunities to make new connections between individual decisions, e.g., what are the larger issues or trends we should be concerned about?

There is a cultural dimension to question asking, particularly the unspoken rules about what types of questions can be asked, and by whom, in the decision making process.  Leaders need to encourage people to ask questions and co-workers need to be tolerant of the question askers rather than pushing to obtain and deliver an answer.

Our Perspective

The information in this article is hardly magical.  Most of us recognize that the best investigators and managers know What kind of questions they are asking and Why.  But we do have a few exercises for you to think about.   

For starters, look at the questions suggested or prescribed in your official problem-solving or problem analysis recipes.  Do they omit any types of questions that could add value to your immediate situation, bigger picture issues or the overall process?

What’s your problem solving culture like?  How are people treated who ask questions, especially devil’s advocate questions, that don’t add instant value to the search for an answer?

Finally, consider Millstone’s issue with a turbine-driven auxiliary feedwater pump (which we reviewed on Jan. 15, 2015).  Could more extensive questioning during the initial analysis phase have more quickly led the investigators to a correct understanding of the problem?    


*  T. Pohlmann and N.M. Thomas, “Relearning the Art of Asking Questions,” Harvard Business Review on-line (Mar. 27, 2015).  The authors are not famous professors.  They are two consultants with a Mu Sigma, a Big Data company, who are publishing under the HBR aegis.  That doesn’t disqualify their work, it’s just something to keep mind as they describe a construct their firm uses.

**  For an informative and entertaining essay on how people develop their own models of what’s going on in the world, even when they are wildly misinformed, check out “We Are All Confident Idiots.”

3 comments:

  1. Interesting.

    I'll try it.

    OBTW: The following passage caught my eye:
    "Funneling questions are focused on learning more about the analysis to date. How was an answer derived? What were your assumptions? What are the root causes of this problem? "

    I couldn't help suggesting a recognized and generally accepted good investigation practice (RAGAGIP):

    Root Cause in Glossary

    Measures shall be established to assure that if the term “root cause” or a similar term is used in the investigation report the term “root cause” or a similar term is defined in the glossary.

    Did the authors say what they mean by "root cause?"

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No. This short article is written in generalized, mid-level management-speak.

      Delete
  2. Two things:

    1. This seems oriented toward individual good practice in decision-makers - that's probably inappropriate with one exception - the final decision maker can always say "lets make a pause to see if things are moving as urgently as we imagine."

    2. Until a manager actually practices hitting the pause button and discovering that "life goes on," their subordinates are not going to be lulled into prudent risk taking by training articles no matter how clever. Decision timing in circumstances of significant uncertainty is acquired from realistic dress rehearsal and review of actual decisions, both good ones, and the others.

    ReplyDelete

Thanks for your comment. We read them all. We'd like to display them under their respective posts on our main page but that's not how Blogger works.