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Are You Asking the Right Questions?


CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review, I’m Curt Nickisch.

The complexity and uncertainty around business today demands a different skill in leaders, namely the ability to ask illuminating questions.

Jensen Huang, the CEO of chip maker NVIDIA has said that over time, his job has become less about giving answers to problems, and more about asking questions; that he wants his team to join that exploration with him. And it’s probably not a coincidence that his company operates at the heart of the artificial intelligence revolution. After all, now that you have the ability to basically talk to a database, it really does come down to the questions you ask of it. By the way, we talked to him on IdeaCast on episode 940, check that out.

But today’s guest says few business professionals are trained in the skill of asking questions. They don’t know the different types of strategic questions, and even when they do hang question marks, they often have blind spots.

Here to explain is Arnaud Chevallier, a professor at IMD Business School, with his colleagues Frederic Dalsace and Jean-Louis Barsoux he wrote the HBR article, The Art of Asking Smarter Questions. Welcome, Arnaud.

ARNAUD CHEVALLIER: Thanks for having me, Curt.

CURT NICKISCH: Why is asking questions, this basic conversational skill, so hard for people?

ARNAUD CHEVALLIER: Well, I think we’ve all heard it, asking more questions helps people make better decisions. But there’s a dark side. Because whenever you’re asking one question, you’re not asking another type of question. And so if you’re under time pressure, you might be probing one side of a problem or decision but not other sides. And if you look at managers compared to other professions, lawyers, physicians, psychologists, they’re trained to ask better questions. Managers, seems like we are supposed to learn on the job.

CURT NICKISCH: And many do learn it and perhaps learn a certain kind of question that seems to work for them for some time. You point out a lot of people don’t understand that there are different types of questions that you can be asking, and they just by their nature tend to ask a certain type of question but avoid other ones just because it doesn’t come naturally to them.

ARNAUD CHEVALLIER: Yeah. That’s what we find speaking with managers and leaders across organizations. I think when you start professionally, you develop your own mix of questions. Maybe you pick up a couple questions that you think are insightful from your boss perhaps. You get to learn and hone that mix and it gets you here but it’s unclear when you get promoted to your next job that what got you here will get you there.

We are trained, we are told, “Ask open-ended questions, ask follow up questions.”

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah, ask why. Ask the five why’s.

ARNAUD CHEVALLIER: The five why’s, absolutely. But what else? You get to the, “Sure, good idea. I should ask why. What else should I ask?” And usually the guidance falls flat. We’ve been speaking with hundreds of executives, trying to understand which questions they ask. We’ve been speaking with very senior people trying to understand what works for them. And out of that we came together with a taxonomy of questions that we believe are useful in making better decisions, in solving complex problems.

CURT NICKISCH: This taxonomy basically divides strategic questions into five types, investigative, speculative, productive, interpretive and subjective. It’s probably smart for us to go through them one by one.

ARNAUD CHEVALLIER: Let’s, because that’s a mouthful, right? Let’s project ourselves into big decisions that you have to make maybe as a manager or maybe as just a person. Perhaps you’re thinking about buying a new house, maybe moving the family. Maybe you’re thinking about acquiring a new firm. Whenever we’re faced with those complex decisions, pretty quickly we want to identify, “Okay, what is it that we want to achieve?”

But we realize we don’t have enough information to achieve it. We need to get into investigative mode by asking ourselves, what’s known? What’s known about the problem? For instance, the five why’s. Or what’s known about the solutions, the potential solutions by asking how may we do this? How may we do that? The first type of question is investigative, helps you probe in depth into the problem or into the solution.

CURT NICKISCH: Some of the questions that can be asked here are what happened? What is and isn’t working? What are the causes of the problem? Those are all examples of investigative questions. Are these questions that are typically asked at the beginning of a process, or can they be used anywhere in problem solving?

ARNAUD CHEVALLIER: Yes. What we’re finding out is it works better actually if we go back and forth. There’s no real segmentation because investigative gets you to a point: you drill deeper into the problem or into the solutions, but going deep is not the only way. You may want to speculate as well. The second type of question is speculative questions, epitomized by what if? Speculative questions are here to help you foster innovation by challenging the implicit and the explicit assumptions for the problem.

CURT NICKISCH: What if is really good. Examples of this are also what other scenarios might exist? Could we do this differently? That’s a way of just asking a simple question, but trying to open up a brand new avenue of thinking or problem solving.

ARNAUD CHEVALLIER: Exactly. And by doing this, you’re really expanding the space in which you operate. Investigative, you go deep. And speculative, you go wide, and you’re stretching a little bit the universe of possibilities.

CURT NICKISCH: Now, productive is the next type. Tell us about that.

ARNAUD CHEVALLIER: Yeah. Investigative, you go deep. Speculative, you go wide. If you’re a professor, that’s all you have to do. You can spend years and years on your problem but if you actually have a real job, chances are you’re asked to have some results, right? So productive is the now what questions. You’re adjusting the pace of the effort, deciding whether you know enough to move forward right away or perhaps deciding that you need to slow down a little bit before you make those decisions, to give you a chance to get even more insight into your problem.

CURT NICKISCH: Examples here that you list in your article are things like, do we have the resources to move ahead? Do we know enough to proceed? Are we ready to decide? Very tactical and the sorts of questions that bring everybody back to the realization of what needs to happen.

ARNAUD CHEVALLIER: That’s right. How are we doing across compared to project plan and should we accelerate or should we slow down?

CURT NICKISCH: I can definitely see certain types of managers would be really good at this. There are roles sometimes that are very operational or process oriented, and you almost have a traffic police officer managing a process, yeah. Interpretive was the next type.

ARNAUD CHEVALLIER: Investigative, what’s known. Speculative, what if? Productive, now what? All these gets me some information about my decision, about my problem. But information is one thing, but it’s not quite wisdom. The fourth type, the interpretative questions, the “so what” helps us convert that information into insight.

CURT NICKISCH: Examples here are questions like how does this fit with that goal? What are we trying to achieve – that really gets at so what? What did we learn from this new information? This seems very helpful at a transition point where you’ve … I don’t know, you’ve gotten customer data back or you have new information to process.

ARNAUD CHEVALLIER: I love how you phrased it because this is also what we’re discovering, the “so what” helps you transition from one type of question to another. So the five why’s, why aren’t we having better revenues? Because our clients are not buying enough of our products. Okay, so what? Maybe then that will help me transition from being investigative, asking why, to perhaps being speculative, thinking about how else we could get our clients to buy our products. It enables you to transition from one type to another.

CURT NICKISCH: Now, the last type of strategic question that you identify in your taxonomy is subjective, which was really interesting to me because it wasn’t one of the sorts of questions I expected to jump out in a strategy framework. Tell us a little bit more about subjective questions.

ARNAUD CHEVALLIER: Maybe it’s helpful to explain how we got to the first four types. We were very happy when we got there, we figured it was really clicking and then we had the catchy way of thinking about it. It’s four types but there are really three main ones, like the three Musketeers, that sort of thing. We thought we were done and then we started interviewing top leaders, people in charge of billion-dollar operations. And there was something else, and maybe this is best exemplified by this wonderful little cartoon by Jack Ziegler in the New Yorker a few years ago, where you see a little fish happily swimming around minding its own business, not realizing that right behind it there’s a huge fish about to eat it alive. And the small one is called agenda, and the big one is called hidden agenda. The last type of questions, subjective questions, are just realizing that we’re dealing with people. People have emotions, they have political agendas, and if we don’t embrace this we might just miss entirely what the problem is actually all about.

CURT NICKISCH: Examples of these questions are how do you really feel about this decision? Have we consulted the right people? Those are all things that do get at those emotions and just the real impact of business decisions.

ARNAUD CHEVALLIER: Right on. I remember specifically we were interviewing the CEO of a major airplane manufacturer. And brilliant fellow, mid 40s, everything … Former engineer, I think. We were expecting him to be very investigative. Nothing against engineers, I’m one myself. But turns out that he was saying after every big meeting he would sit down and reflect on was there a difference between what was said, what was heard, and what was meant? To him, what really mattered was that human component in the meeting.

CURT NICKISCH: Now that we have these five types, let’s go through some of the advice that you have in your article. Number one, is you really want people to understand what questions they tend to ask or what their own interrogatory typology is. Talk more about that.

ARNAUD CHEVALLIER: I think it’s fair to say that we all develop our question mix, the questions that have served us well, that we believe will serve us well in the future. I remember for example, interviewing the COO of a major car company. And he’s telling us how on Monday morning he meets his team and he’s asking them, “How was your weekend?”

But he also made it very clear that when he’s asking how was your weekend, he doesn’t want to hear about little Timmy’s baseball game, he wants to know whether we shipped on time, if there’s any issues with the manufacturers. In other words, he is in full productive mode. And that makes a lot of sense. Again, he’s a COO. His job is to get things moving. But we can also imagine that he’s doing such a good job at the COO level that he might be offered the CEO position. And here, if he’s using the same mix that is predominantly into productive, he might not see other areas, he might develop some blind spots.

CURT NICKISCH: And so number one, you can learn to mix it up yourself by understanding your type, basically keeping track of the questions that you ask and making a concerted effort to ask different kinds of questions so that you expand your repertoire. That’s one way to get started.

ARNAUD CHEVALLIER: Maybe another way is also to take the LQM test, the leaders question mix test that we are putting together on the IMD website. It takes five minutes and you’re given two batches of questions, and you tell us which one you prefer. And as a result, we help you identify what your preferred mix is. And back to your point, Curt, my preferred mix is one thing but I shouldn’t be … I need to realize as well that there are other questions, including some that I’m not familiar or comfortable with, and that what matters is not so much my preference, as much as what is needed for the specific decision or specific problem I’m facing.

CURT NICKISCH: So if you’ve assessed your current question style, you start to adjust your repertoire, it’s still a lot to keep track of. When you’re in conversations, it’s easy to remember afterwards, why didn’t I ask that question? While you’re in it, especially if it’s a heated exchange or a very pithy conversation, it’s hard to just do this in real time on the fly, really well.

So what advice do you have for somebody to practically keep track, and expand their repertoire, but also make sure that they’re not missing anything and that they still don’t have blind spots even after they try to expand the zone in that way?

ARNAUD CHEVALLIER: I think you’re describing situations that we see often with executives. And one way of doing this is by taking the LQM, the leader question mix assessment, you also get a list of questions. And you can take that list with you, especially if there are some types of questions you realize you don’t ask very naturally. You can also pick a couple of those ahead of the meeting, making a mental or written note to ask those questions over there and see what happens with those.

CURT NICKISCH: Does this work at all levels of the organization or are we really talking about leaders asking strategic questions?

ARNAUD CHEVALLIER: We’ve applied it at all levels, absolutely, and in fact what we’ve found is in teams it works even better, realizing first that we have different mixes and then identifying, so what? Being interpretive: what are we going to do with the fact that you and I, Curt, have different mixes? If I’m terrible at one type, for instance speculative, maybe I need to rely on my teammates who are better there. Or at the very least, learn to recognize the value of speculative questions, at least in some settings, not shutting down the door the moment I hear a speculative question.

CURT NICKISCH: And one point you make in the article too is that you can find people on your team to help compensate for you if you know that you have certain weaknesses. Let’s talk a little bit about the difficulty of asking questions though in business settings, because when you ask a question, in some ways you’re putting people on the spot. What advice do you have for managers and leaders asking questions in these settings where you can ask penetrating and provocative questions but not make them feel so hard edged?

ARNAUD CHEVALLIER: Yeah. I think, again, you’re putting your finger on it because if you’re the authority figure and you ask, “Why did you do this?” Chances are the person on the receiving end of that is going to feel threatened. There is what we ask and there is how we ask it and how we phrase it. And what we found with those leaders who are particularly good with these subjective kinds of questions is they’re very conscious of the way they ask things. For instance, you might not ask why did you do this, but perhaps what happened?

CURT NICKISCH: Can you give us some examples of where these questions or changing your mix, asking different types of questions, yeah, being more deliberate in your question asking, how that can lead to better business results?

ARNAUD CHEVALLIER: Well, my favorite of course is a Swiss cliche. IMD professors will tell you, of course we’ll bring it back to the Swiss army knife. And your mix really is a Swiss army knife. You should be able not to have just one blade but you have different mixes of questions and you use the mix that best fits whichever situations you’re in.

Take the example of an airline captain who’s about to land at Geneva airport. If I’m in the back of the plane, I do not want the captain to start thinking speculative questions. “Hey, what if I turn this knob here? What if I try to land the plane in a different way?” No, no, no, no. Her job at that time is to land the plane, be productive. You take the time you to decide, no more, no less, and you just get it done. But that same captain maybe a few minutes before might have to deal with an issue, maybe a passenger who had drunk too much alcohol and started to act up, and maybe she needed to on the spot think creatively and perhaps using seat belts to restrain the passenger.

And perhaps even earlier in the day when she first met the first officer who was going to assist her on the flight, she needed to create quickly an environment where they could work well together. She maybe needed to be very subjective in her question mix. We can see how the same person on the same job might have to fundamentally alter her mix just to be effective at all three decision points.

CURT NICKISCH: You also have a lot of good examples in the article of companies that … Or leaders that didn’t ask a certain type of question, and that led to a huge problem.

ARNAUD CHEVALLIER: Mmhmm. Being French, we can make fun of the SNCF who built …

CURT NICKISCH: This is the French rail company.

ARNAUD CHEVALLIER: That’s right. They ordered 15 billions worth of trains and design spec’d them on the assumption that all platforms were some standard size, only to realize that all the platforms, all 1300 of them were actually larger, needed to be respec’d. And I think in hindsight, it’s always easy to make fun and to look at deficiencies in the decision process.

However, we probably can safely assume that engineers on the problem did their utmost to get it done. Really, five question types as a way perhaps of having a checklist, of reducing the chances of having blind spots in our decision process, but realizing that those blind spots can happen even to the best organizations out there, and realizing then that if we’re not mindful about the questions we ask, we might just every now and then fail to check an important question category.

CURT NICKISCH: One question that you suggest asking is, “are we all okay with this?” Which is a powerful question. It also presupposes that you’ve got the psychological safety on the team for everybody to be able to speak up. So, questioning and asking the right questions at the right time still demands an awareness of the culture that you’re asking it in, and how these questions are going to come across, and whether you’ve created the climate for people to be able to give you the powerful answers that you’re asking for.

ARNAUD CHEVALLIER: This is a very good point. And we’ve worked with organizations where there was very little psychological safety, where admitting that anything might be less and perfect might be a big, big issue. And in those settings it’s much more challenging but there are ways of still eliciting the wisdom of the group.

One such way for instance, is to use pre-mortems and to project the organization, say, “Okay, let’s go with this decision. Let’s assume that we are picking option one and we are now three years from today and we realize it’s a total fiasco. It crashed down. What happened?” And that can help people who would probably not ask questions frontally, to put on the table some less than perfect aspects of the decision they’re seeing.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah, that’s very clever. What could go wrong? What did go wrong with this fiasco? It’s almost like this article is giving advice for how to speak, how to talk. Asking a question, it’s a conversational device. And it might seem too basic to people, why is this important and why is this especially important now?

ARNAUD CHEVALLIER: Well, questions are ways to make better decisions. We’ve all heard it, asking better questions is a way forward. We probably all develop our own mix of questions, those questions that we like, but there might be three issues associated with that. First, how do you know that your mix is a good mix? Second, when you’re asking a question, especially under time pressure, you’re not asking another type of question. There’s a cost of opportunity of asking a specific question. And are you sure that you’re using the best question for the job? And third, maybe you mix got you here but if that means that you’re doing such a good job here, you’re getting promoted, then tomorrow’s universe for you is not the same as yesterday. How do you adapt your question mix to help you be successful in the future?

CURT NICKISCH: And is there anything different about today’s business climate or the oncoming opportunity with artificial intelligence, that amplifies the ability to ask questions?

ARNAUD CHEVALLIER: I think you’re spot-on. GenAI, especially since late 2022, enables you to be a sparring partner or to have a sparring partner in having back and forth. You can indeed have a conversation with the database now, and you can’t have that conversation by proposing answers. You need to be asking questions. Clearly asking more insightful questions might unlock some value you couldn’t otherwise.

CURT NICKISCH: So for a speculative question, what does that look like in a real business setting?

ARNAUD CHEVALLIER: You hear mid managers who are often risk-averse, and then you speak with their boss and the boss is always asking for taking more risk. And you can rationalize it from both sides. Because the boss has a portfolio of a project and if some of those fail, no big deal. But if I’m the manager in charge of a project and I have it fail, then pretty quickly I start thinking that people associate me with failure. And so asking what if, having that conversation between the top team and the manager saying, “What if we didn’t care about failure? What if we were looking for – each of us managers, some of us having some failure? What if we relaxed this constraint or that constraint?” – can help us realize and realign what would be individual objectives with organizational ones.

CURT NICKISCH: Do you remember any good stories from the executives that you talked to where asking some of these subjective, what’s unsaid questions really opened up new opportunities or changed things?

ARNAUD CHEVALLIER: Yeah. And this one really gets to the human dimension. If you ask me next Monday morning how I’m doing, and I reply, fine, fine can be a number of things. Fine can be my dog died yesterday. Or fine, can be life is beautiful. What we found with some of the execs who were really good at going to the essence of it is probing in a caring way to understand the meaning behind the words, what’s kept unsaid, and remembering that you have short post people and you have long post people, some people will say fine as just an introductory but if you give them a little bit more time, they might actually expand and through that unlock a set of information you wouldn’t have had access to.

CURT NICKISCH: Arnaud, I have to ask, you’ve done all this research, I’m curious if you have a favorite question that you never asked before that you’ve come out of this process with that you use in your work and your job.

ARNAUD CHEVALLIER: Putting me on the spot, huh.

CURT NICKISCH: A little bit.

ARNAUD CHEVALLIER: I really fell in love with that difference between what was said, what was heard, and what was meant. I really think this is something I need to be better at and reading the weak signals and understanding what’s behind the words. But whenever I take the test, and I’ve taken it several times, what comes out is I am terrible at productive questions. So maybe, just maybe I need to pay more attention to the pace of my decision making.

CURT NICKISCH: For a manager who’s not a leader yet, hasn’t developed their repertoire per se, what advice would you give to them? What can they do tomorrow to start asking more strategic and stronger questions?

ARNAUD CHEVALLIER: My advice to someone who feels they don’t have yet a mix is, first of all, you probably already have a mix. There’s probably a couple of questions that you’ve seen or heard and they feel very insightful. But maybe you want to do as I do, is I keep track. All the questions I hear on your podcast and elsewhere that I haven’t heard before, I keep a long list and then I categorize them under the five buckets and I have my favorite ones.

CURT NICKISCH: Arnaud, thanks so much for coming on the show and sharing this research with us.

ARNAUD CHEVALLIER: My pleasure, thanks for having me.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s Arnaud Chevallier, a professor at IMD Business School and a co-author of the HBR article, the Art of Asking Smarter Questions.

And we have nearly 1000 episodes plus more podcasts to help you manage your team, your organization and your career. Find them at HBR.org/podcasts or search HBR and Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen.

Thanks to our team, senior producer Mary Dooe, associate producer Hannah Bates, audio product manager Ian Fox, and senior production specialist Rob Eckhardt. Thank you for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday, I’m Curt Nickisch.



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