How to Ask Bet­ter Ques­tions: A Q&A With­tom Puthiya­madam

Rotman Management Magazine - - NEWS -

Karen Chris­tensen: Ein­stein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a prob­lem and my life de­pended on the so­lu­tion, I would spend the first 55 min­utes de­ter­min­ing the proper ques­tion to ask, for once I knew that, I could solve the prob­lem in less than five min­utes.” What is in­volved in de­ter­min­ing ‘the proper ques­tion’?

Tom Puthiya­madam: The right ques­tion to ask is one that will al­low you to gain more in­sight and break through is­sues that are hid­den be­neath the sur­face. In a dis­rup­tive busi­ness en­vi­ron­ment, there are four ques­tions we rec­om­mend busi­ness lead­ers ask reg­u­larly:

1. What are the big trends that will re­shape the busi­ness en­vi­ron­ment?

2. How will these trends dis­rupt our in­dus­try and busi­ness?

3. What are the high­est-im­pact, most un­cer­tain is­sues these dis­rup­tions bring — and what pos­si­ble fu­ture sce­nar­ios do they sug­gest?

4. What are the im­pli­ca­tions of these sce­nar­ios?

We’ve found that ex­ec­u­tives get en­er­gized by the in­sight shar­ing and de­bate that takes them through the first three ques­tions, but the real pay­off comes in push­ing through the fourth ques­tion. I ad­vise peo­ple to get re­ally spe­cific about im­pli­ca­tions. By the time the fourth ques­tion is an­swered, you will have de­vel­oped a for­ward-look­ing point of view, and you can then con­sider what ac­tions are re­quired to­day so your or­ga­ni­za­tion can put the trans­for­ma­tion process into mo­tion.

KC: What can lead­ers do to get bet­ter at ask­ing ques­tions? TP:

If you’ve ever spent any amount of time with a four-year-old, you know they love to ask ‘why?’ We can learn a lot from their in­sa­tiable cu­rios­ity. I ad­vise peo­ple to make a habit of ques­tion­ing their ques­tions. Just as chil­dren ques­tion all of our an­swers, ques­tion why you are ask­ing the ini­tial ques­tion, and try to peel back the lay­ers on what it is that you are seek­ing to un­cover.

If, say, a re­tail ex­ec­u­tive’s com­pany is sud­denly los­ing mar­ket share, the ques­tion to ask isn’t the most ob­vi­ous one, such as ‘Why is our com­peti­tor pick­ing up mar­ket share?’ You have to dig deeper and ask things like:

• Why might to­day’s cus­tomers ex­pect in-store ser­vices un­re­lated to what they’re buy­ing?

• Why are some com­peti­tors ad­just­ing prices in real time?

• Why do In­ter­net shop­pers want al­ter­na­tives to home de­liv­ery?

• How will tech­nol­ogy turn shop­ping aisles into show­rooms?

The an­swers to ques­tions like these can of­fer guid­ance on how to boost mar­ket share, which is what you re­ally want to do.

KC: Talk a bit about the skill of ‘fram­ing’. TP:

Think about what a frame does for a pic­ture: It fo­cuses at­ten­tion to pro­duce the great­est im­pact. Gen­er­ally speak­ing, you prob­a­bly know where and why you have a con­cern, but brain­storm­ing the right ‘fram­ing ques­tions’ can lead to more pow­er­ful so­lu­tions. As you probe deeper into a prob­lem and de­cide how to frame it, you may find a new, bet­ter so­lu­tion than what you orig­i­nally con­sid­ered.

For ex­am­ple, a home ap­pli­ances com­pany may try to build a cus­tomer bond with its prod­ucts by launch­ing a smart home app. How­ever, when the busi­ness lead­ers ask prob­ing ques­tions, such as the ques­tions listed ear­lier, they may re-frame the prob­lem and dis­cover that what cus­tomers re­ally want is per­son­al­ized, on-time ser­vice calls. That com­pany could re­spond by bet­ter train­ing ser­vice tech­ni­cians and pro­vid­ing them with dig­i­tal tools to trou­bleshoot cus­tomers’ prob­lems faster and more ef­fec­tively.

KC: Talk a bit about the role of di­ver­sity in com­ing up with good ques­tions. TP:

It’s crit­i­cal to view a prob­lem from more than one an­gle. Ev­ery group of de­ci­sion-mak­ers should be made up of di­verse peo­ple who can reach deeper in­sights to­gether. For ex­am­ple, when we work with clients, we might bring to­gether user ex­pe­ri­ence spe­cial­ists, de­sign­ers, fi­nan­cial ex­perts and ad­ver­tis­ers, all of whom shed their ti­tles and work shoul­der-to-shoul­der to cre­ate the best so­lu­tion for the prob­lem at hand. By view­ing an is­sue through mul­ti­ple lenses, the goal is to drive true trans­for­ma­tion, rather than just in­cre­men­tal change.

Tom Puthiya­madam is Dig­i­tal Global Leader and U.S. Ad­vi­sory Mar­kets and Com­pe­ten­cies Leader at PWC, based in New York City.

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