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Ask Four Essential Questions to Solve Problems Faster

By Anne Foley, PMP, MBB, CSSBB

Effective project management requires a combination of skills.Every year, there are thousands of mystery novels released and I’m not ashamed to admit that I enjoy reading as many as my time allows. Solving “mysteries” is also a big part of my career, having spent the last 25 years managing quality in several large organizations. There is nothing more gratifying to me than solving the mystery of defects or discovering hidden non-value-added costs. I have learned the best thing managers can do to solve problems faster and make better decisions is to learn how to ask good questions and look for factual answers. I use these four essential questions to guide me through the process.

Question 1: Say that again?

This question is meant to ensure that you clearly understand the problem that needs a solution. In this fast-paced culture we are all running in, there is a temptation to make assumptions about the situation so you don’t have to take time clarifying it. Saving time is a good thing unless it adds more time later. You have probably heard the phrase – “Pay now or pay later.” I have learned that pay later is frequently more expensive, so I prefer to avoid that problem by spending time up front learning as much as I can about the problem I am trying to solve. Ask people with different lines of sight to give you their take on the situation for clarity. Asking them to repeat something often leads to a clearer description.

Question 2: I wonder why or I wonder if...?

This question feeds one of the most important characteristics any successful manager can develop, and that is to be curious. In her book "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success" by Dr. Carol Dweck, she describes two types of mindsets common in leaders. The first type is called the fixed mindset, and those individuals feel as if all their value comes through what they already know. Therefore these types of leaders rarely ask questions. They don’t need to learn because they subconsciously feel as if they have all the answers.  She gives several examples of historical leaders in her book. The second type is called the growth mindset and those individuals feel as if their value comes through their ability to learn anything. They tend to be curious about everything because learning new things is something they enjoy. Again, she gives several examples of leaders who have built large companies and wealth because of their curiosity and ability to learn.

Question 3: What do we all agree on?

One of my favorite sayings is, “We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are.” Your line of sight is due to every experience you have had from birth to this very moment. Those experiences form your individual lens through which you see the world. By asking questions, you are able to expand that line of sight into the lens of others. In the current world culture there is a tendency to focus on the differences and this tends to blur the vision of everyone. It is from a foundation of common ground that we will find the focus.

Question 4: What matters or happens most?

There are so many factors that cause something to happen. In some cases, you can guess the factors that cause the most damage, but I would recommend that you gather the data to validate or reject that guess. In most cases, the data will show you that there is something called a Pareto Principle (80/20 rule) in play. This means that 20 percent of the factors are responsible for 80 percent of the results. Uncovering those factors will bring you much closer to the solution.

While these questions aren’t the only questions you will ask, they are a good starting point. In today’s world, it is the leaders that are comfortable with learning that will overcome even the most mysterious problems and make the swift decisions needed to navigate the waves of change that the future is sure to hold. So channel your inner Sherlock Holmes and start asking questions and seeking factual answers to facilitate that learning.

About the Author

Anne Foley, PMP, MBB, CSSBB has been a quality leader for 20 years. She has relied on data analytics to solve problems and make decisions in various leadership roles. Anne is a senior trainer and consultant for Corporate Education Group. She is also the author of The Passages to Peace (a novel), Vitabook: Healthy Supplements for the Mind of a Graduate, and a frequent contributor to Project Management, Lean Six Sigma and other various publications. Anne has a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Journalism and Mass Communications from Kansas State University.

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