Asking the Right Questions

Asking the Right Questions: Life, The Universe and Everything


In the words of the late philosopher Douglas Adams, the “Ultimate Answer” is obviously 42.  However, the ultimate question is far more important and requires a bit more thought by Deep Thought.  If you are not familiar with Douglas Adams and the “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” I suggest you give it a read.  Yet, the important take away from the book is knowing how to ask the right questions leads to better results.  This applies to HR, in addition to “Life, the Universe, and Everything”. 

Asking the right questions in HR or business goes far beyond; “where do you see yourself in five years”, or “what are Joe’s sales numbers for Q4?”.  Asking the right questions, will help with getting better answers for strategic planning, process improvement, performance reviews, data analytics, and pulse surveys.  Better questions lead to quality answers and better data.  So, what does it mean to ask the “right” questions? 

Good Questions Involve Deep Thinking

Most professionals fail to ask the right questions when it comes to performance data, causing performance-related decisions to become near-sighted.  The right questions help with seeing the big picture as well as a snapshot of current states of affairs.  Performance data questions without a proper context can lead to answers that are strategic failures.  

All data needs to consider the connected parts of any process.  For example, we have a Sales Team A falling behind on meeting their daily goals of selling “x” widgets a day for the past three weeks.  However, the fall in sales is due to a production shortage in the supply chain.  But we do not ask about the contributing factors that lead to a decline in sales, instead, we ask, “what is Sales Team A doing wrong?”.  If we fail to take into account all the factors leading to a fall in sales, we might make the wrong decisions based on the right answers to the wrong questions.  This is an oversimplified example, but it illustrates the need to ask better questions to make better decisions. 

Framing Questions to Avoid Bias 

Performance reviews often contain biases, but by framing questions properly one can avoid most biases.  Setting up performance review questions properly is often the first step, but we need to ask certain questions of the reviewer as well to avoid certain biases.  There is a laundry list of bias to avoid, here are a few: halo effect, confirmation bias, idiosyncratic rater, gender bias, and similarity bias, etc.  The list is not exhaustive, but we need to understand these biases to aid in framing questions and controlling creeping biases from entering our decision-making processes from answers from bad questions. 

Without going deeper into how HR analytics and AI can help determine which reviewer is biased and how they are biased and control for it.  Framing questions, asking more questions, and creating a criterion for the reviewer to follow as well as hold the reviewer accountable for their reviews will help eliminate most biases.   

The “Right” Questions, vs Questions

Asking the right questions broadly requires understanding the context, specific details, and the perspective of others.  For every single great question, there are surely more questions.  If we frame our questions properly to help learn and educate ourselves and others about the intricacies of any process, action, or operation, we will begin to see the bigger picture.  Yet, this involves being insightful and having a proper understanding of what types of “answers” we are looking for from our questions.  There is a difference between asking; “can we expand our business”, “how do we expand our business”, “why expand our business”, and “should we expand our business”?  Each question has a slightly different answer, but the right question is based on the context of the overall picture of the companies economic and financial health, context matters.  And, you learn context by asking questions. 

As we are taught in school, “there are no stupid questions”, questions are important aspects of communication and understanding.  Learning starts with a question, the answers are not as interesting as the questions we ask about, life, the universe, and everything.  If they were, 42 would be a highly satisfactory answer to all of life’s questions.  Merely, taking time to think about the questions you ask and thinking about the processes in general in context to the whole will lead to asking better questions. 

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