Powerful questions and open listening can save your business time, effort and money. Lessons learned from a ‘trouble maker.’ (TL;DR)
The Outside Consultant
My first encounter with an outside consultant wasn’t a good one.
My then boss had a terrible opinion of consultants. He used to make jokes that they just sat there asking questions and then told you what you already knew and charged an arm and a leg for it.
I knew we were about to have a visit from a consulting firm when he would open a conversation with “We’ve got trouble.”
I believed him.
Until I started working side-by-side with one of the ‘trouble makers.’
The Presenting Problem
I was Renee’s point of contact on a company-wide project.My role was to make sure she got what she needed and to facilitate her meetings.
Every day for the first several weeks we met key stakeholders to assess the situation. At first I was skeptical. I had my old boss’s perspective – it was a waste of time and money. All we did was talk to people – nothing was being ‘done.’
She was brought in to fix a problem. We had already identified the problem. The way I saw it, she needed to get into action.
The problem we identified was an inefficient strategic planning process. Something was broken but we didn’t know what. We didn’t have time to review it so we hired Renee to map the process for the entire organization.
The Lesson of Powerful Questions
One day I had had enough. As I walked away from a contentious conversation with the executive assistant over her boss’s availability, I was starting to wonder why it mattered that we talk to him in the first place. He had already given the internal project steam his piece of the process.
Renee noticed my frustration and invited me for a coffee.
That was the beginning of my education in consulting
Renee explained to me the concept of the presenting problem and the value of solving the right problem. She explained how each person brings one piece of the puzzle and it’s her job to put those pieces together to get a full picture.
I resisted. The project team was experienced and skilled. We had already defined the problem. Why take a step backward?
Renee had been in this type of situation before, She knew the project we would implement would be costly in time, effort, and money.
“Before starting down that path,” she said, “wouldn’t it be good to know we are solving the right problem? Otherwise it would be a waste of resources and we would have to start over again. It’s better to invest time in the beginning to uncover the true problem then to put effort into solving the wrong one just to show immediate progress.”
I wasn’t totally convinced.
Renee leaned in. “I’m going to share with you the two most powerful tools a successful consultant uses. They aren’t a secret, but they do take some time to master.”
Ok, I’ll bite. What are they?
“Two powerful skills that, when used together, can determine the success or failure of any project.: 1) asking powerful questions and 2) listening openly and without judgement.”
What? Seriously? Asking questions and listening?
Renee wasn’t surprised at my response. “Give me two more days. Pay close attention to the conversations we have with these stakeholders. Write down the questions I ask and the answers they give.”
And that will uncover the real problem?
“Remember that puzzle I mentioned? Each person has a piece of it and when we look at all the pieces gathered from our conversations, we’ll get a better idea of it’s true nature.”
Powerful Questions Save Time and Money
I did what Renee asked. For two days and a dozen interviews I watched as she skillfully ask questions and slowly uncovered the true nature of the problem.
The questions weren’t complex. ‘Why’ was the question repeated most often. Sometimes she would repeat the same question over and over until she got a response she was satisfied with.
What surprised me most was the change in body language as the conversation progressed.
At first the interviewee would be stiff, arms folded, giving short answers. As time passed and the questions continued they opened up. Often the meeting ended with one or both people pulling their chairs together and leaning in.
It was clear the questions were only half of the equation. These people felt heard and understood. Renee was truly listening to them and not judging their answers.
Open Listening Completes The Skill
Over another coffee, Renee explained to me the value of the outside perspective. Many times the person asking the questions has already formulated an answer – especially if they are part of the same organization. Coming in with a clear perspective helps her listen without judgement.
“The key is to not jump to conclusions too soon. The questions you ask and the way you respond when listening all influence your findings.”
Ultimately the problem which first presented itself – a broken strategic planning process – was not the full story. The process itself wasn’t the issue, it was poor communication of the strategic plan that kept it from being successfully implemented.
If we had stepped immediately into mapping the process without clearly defining the problem, it would have been months before we came upon the communication problem. And we would have spent many hours and thousands of dollars only to have to start over again.
From that project I learned the value of powerful questions and listening and continue to use it in my business every day.
What is your current project? Are you solving the right problem in your business?
How can powerful questioning help you save time, effort, and money?
This is one of many situations in which powerful questions have impact. One small lesson with huge career impact.
Everyday Questions for Success is available now. 365 powerful questions to inspire business and personal success.