The value of questions

(I’m currently experimenting with writing about general topics going beyond geospatial. This piece, like the last one, is reposted here from my LinkedIn blog.)


“Good question,” said the geologist, “nobody has ever asked me that before. Hmm… I’d say about 30%.”

His response identified the crux of the issue – and it was much bigger than what I had been hired to investigate. I’d asked the geologist how much of his time he spend doing… geology.

Voltaire, the French philosopher, is known to have said that people should be judged by their questions not their answers. In many situations a pertinent question can indeed be more effective than the ‘right’ answer. And sometimes the most obvious questions can be the most incisive.

This is not easily done. I’ve noticed this especially since becoming a consultant. There is often an expectation that, as a so-called expert, you should show off your skills and experience by providing authoritative advice. After all, how else can you justify your salary or day rate?

But providing answers can be a problem.

If you use your expertise to simply prescribe solutions, it narrows down the options for the recipient and reduces their ownership. They will have no choice but to depend on your advice – or reject it.

This is as true for client-consultant relations as for any other relationship at work or at home. Just try prescribing ‘expert’ advice to your husband/wife or teenage kids… Now, how effective was that? Did you live to tell the tale?

Whether you’re an individual or an organisation, you should never outsource the core of your very existence: decision-making. It’s throwing your problem over the fence. It’s avoiding the tough questions that enable you to progress. It’s keeping you vulnerable, and you’ll get stuck.

Unless you’re dealing with an emergency, no problem can ever truly be solved from the outside. If you’ve got a bad back because of lack of exercise, you simply need to exercise more. Outsourcing your gym membership to someone else won’t fix it.

Business is no different. The job of a good consultant (or colleague, or boss) is to find useful questions that help people find their own answers, and then let them get on with it. It’s basically like therapy without the couch, and it can work miracles. As a client or project sponsor this is the kind of service you should be asking for – not a bulky report which nobody reads.

Projects succeed when people within an organisation are empowered to take full ownership. This works because people are intelligent enough to come up with their own solutions, given the right information. The expertise comes in helping people discover this information without judging or prescribing. For a solution to succeed it needs to be their idea, not yours.

Your expertise is to take them there – by asking the right questions.


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