A question is the most important tool in the consultant’s armoury, especially, of course, during the investigative phase of a project.
You should never run out of them. I studied philosophy as an undergraduate and if there’s one thing I learned it is that there is always another question.
But there are good questions and bad questions.
What makes a good question?
A good question needs to do at least one of the following:
- Find things out, efficiently and precisely
- Confirm things, even the obvious things that you think everyone already knows
- Establish that you’re an expert
- Establish that you’re a person of broad interests
- Establish a good working relationship
Finding things out
A good question is one that finds the most out, and delivers the most information. When I’m running my training course on Non-Technical Skills for Consultants I make everyone play Twenty Questions. You have to ask no more than twenty questions of the yes-or-no variety in order to identify a single thing. It might be an elephant, a submarine, Mars, Manon Lescaut, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a cappuccino, indeed anything at all. The best questions, of course, are those that divide the remaining possibilities approximately in half.
If you were just thinking of a number then twenty questions would enable you to identify any number lower than 1,048,576. You’d start by asking ‘Is the number lower than 524,288?’ and then, depending on the answer, asking the same of 786,432 or 262,144. Assuming that most people can’t in practice think of more than 1,048,576 different things when the game applies to things other than numbers it’s usually possible, with judicious questioning, always to find the answer. Of course, you’d need a good taxonomical mind to do it well. But asking ‘Does it have a head?’ after learning that it’s a mammal is an obvious example of a bad question.
Another kind of bad question is one that doesn’t have an answer, or can’t have an answer in the situation you find yourself in. ‘How many archangels can dance on the tip of a pin?’ is an obvious example of an extremely bad question, but you should also avoid questions to which you must know there’s no known answer, such as ‘How many of your team feel demotivated?’ if this isn’t something anyone has attempted to measure. Better to ask a question to which there can be an answer, such as ‘Have any of your team told you they feel demotivated?’
It’s often said that a good barrister never asks a question of a witness in a courtroom unless he or she already knows the answer. Whilst a discussion between a consultant and client doesn’t take place in the same adversarial context an amended version of this is still a good rule: a good consultant never asks a question to which there cannot be an answer.
Finding things out another way
As for good questions, there are many other kinds. How often, when you’re trying to understand how things work do you feel that you haven’t got the right answer. Another good question is the same question, asked again and again in an entirely different way. You must always indulge that nagging feeling that your client has a different understanding of what you’ve asked, or has answered incorrectly. Never allow yourself to think that it will somehow be clarified later, or that your client will think you stupid for asking for clarification. Inaccuracy grows like a weed if left untended.
Open questions, of course, are fun at the beginning, especially if you think of yourself as a psychoanalyst. ‘What’s on your mind?’ ‘What do you spend most of your time worrying about?’ ‘What’s the biggest problem you face?’ can get you started, but only if it’s your plan to delve into the forensic detail later. Such a game won’t impress your client for very long.
Questions also serve a social purpose. I’ve seen consultants so intent on their cross-examination of a client that they forget to show a wider interest in what the client does. Don’t forget that an interest in others is a sure way to win trust and promote friendship. How often have you met people who never ask you anything, and how often do you want to meet them again? If you want to show that you care then you must ask questions that suggest you have a wider interest in the world than, for example, the minutiae of stock control. ‘How is your business doing?’ is, at least, a start.
You’ve also got to establish that you know what you’re talking about, so you’ve got to ask some questions that demonstrate your technical expertise. If you’re looking at the efficiency of a professional services organisation (my particular field) then you’ll ask questions about the ways an organisation measures its work – about utilisation (and what your client means by that measure), about realisation, revenue recognition problems, and so on.
It’s also very important to ask some ‘positive’ questions. We spend our time as consultants nagging away at problems, concentrating on the bad things (which we hope to do something about) rather than on the good (which we generally leave well alone). But people are naturally defensive and if you’re only asking them about things they feel they’ve failed to do something about, you will be the doctor who only brings bad news. How we like it when our GP has something positive to say as well, such as ‘You’re in really good shape for your age.’ So, ask some questions that let the client show off his competence or excellence.
Don’t forget the basic questions
When I worked in Hungary in the early 1990s I was sent from Budapest to a pharmaceutical company sixty miles from the capital. My mission was to discover if they needed any kind of management consulting. I got down to the detail straight away. I asked dozens of questions about their systems – whether they needed software to do both local and corporate accounting, whether they needed a payroll system, or some software to manage their manufacturing processes. I entirely forgot to show interest in, or even to ask them, what they actually ‘did’, until I was leaving. When I asked, the answer was an unusual one: ‘We extract tiny amounts of a particular hormone from the urine of the Hungarian Army,’ This obviously accounted for the slightly familiar smell of the place.
I felt a fool because so many of my questions were irrelevant and the client must have thought them (and me) rather silly or naive. The company was called Urinex, after all.
Before you begin your discussions with a client, note down a few good questions that will achieve all of these objectives. And never forget to write down what the answers are and the extent to which you can put your faith in their veracity.