Questioning: the Art at the Heart of Problem Discovery

When starting a new enterprise, good questioning can make or break a venture. The questions that you choose to ask, or not ask, can stimulate further conversation or cause conversations to shut down. So what makes a good question and how can founders approach this crucial piece of learning? 

Stuart Van Rij is Head Coach for the Asia Pacific region with Camp Negotiation Institute. As a part of the Problem Discovery sprint, Stuart came into our Lightning Lab GovTech space to work with the teams over two workshops to help them develop their questioning muscles. These are some of his keys for asking a good question. 

 

Start with the founder in the mirror

Good questioning comes with knowing your mission and purpose. To break this down, you must know why you are questioning, and have an idea of what you want to find out. All the techniques, strategies and eloquence in the world won’t help if you are asking for information you can’t actually use. 

Think of it like welcoming someone into your home who speaks a different language to you. If you bombard your guest with small talk, inside jokes and jargon they are going to feel overwhelmed. Instead, you should be trying to establish a clear and simple line of communication. Maggie Ford, member of the Waste Management project from the Department of Conservation, put it this way:

“The more interviews you do, the more you fine tune how you pose the right questions to people. If you don’t ask the right question, you may not get the answer you’re looking for, or end up down a rabbithole that’s interesting but doesn’t necessarily add value to solving the problem.”
Maggie Ford – Department of Conservation

 

You must translate what you are bringing to the table into the world of the person that you are questioning. In order to do this effectively, you have to have a rock-solid understanding of the information you are seeking. Asking simple, considered questions ensures that information is asked for in the right way; to understand the other person’s world and their perspectives. 

 

Remember to be a person, not a survey

Active listening skills are key to getting the most out of an interview. Listening closely and mirroring the person you are conversing with show that you acknowledge what the other person is saying and repeating the same terminology back to them encourages deeper discussions. This also allows you to communicate at a speed and rate that suits them. 

These conversations help the other person to feel comfortable to open up and share their points of view. One technique that helps with this is what Stuart calls “three plussing” which is asking the same question three times in slightly different formats. This gives you an opportunity to link back to earlier answers and probe a bit deeper. This is often where the most valuable insights are found, but it is important that the interviewee feels comfortable. After all, this is an interview not an interrogation!

 

“The best time to disarm a bomb is before it goes off”

Sometimes the sort of questions we need to ask can delve into sensitive areas for participants. This is to be expected in a programme like Lightning Lab GovTech where the projects are focused on issues that affect many people across the country. This doesn’t mean we can’t ask tricky or sensitive questions, but there are some things you can do to make this less difficult for your interviewee.

Building rapport when having these discussions is critical. You should set out to demonstrate that you see the participant as a real person, rather than just another data source for your project. This creates an environment of trust and mutual understanding. To achieve this, start with some open questions to begin understanding the position and perspective of those you are questioning. You can then use this as a benchmark for their background and comfort levels to guide the rest of the discussion.

Another useful strategy is to foreshadow the difficult parts of the discussion at the start of the conversation. A simple check-in is enough – giving the participant advance warning of the content of some of the questions. This also provides and opportunity for the participant to opt out and it is crucial that they have this option. There is a risk that they may not want to participate after this, but that is better than springing a sensitive question on them halfway through the interview. Doing so will undermine any trust you have established. Without trust in the room responses won’t be fully honest so it’s always best to be as up front as you can. 

 

It’s not about you!

Okay, so this might sound like a bit of a contradiction to the first point, but hear us out. It is completely true that you need to start by looking at yourself and what you need to find out. Once you are in the interview room however, you need to focus on the interviewee and what they think. You are trying to see what they see and understand the world from their perspective. This lets you acknowledge the positives in their situation and begin addressing issues, concerns, problems which they have. 

When questioning with a strong mission and purpose, you must be aware of being overly-self focused as this can limit the openness of those we are questioning. For example, if you bring your shiny new idea to someone and ask “do you think this is a good idea?”, you might get 100 people who agree that it’s a good idea. Then, when you roll out the idea, suddenly no one wants it. This is a common result of being too inwardly focused. Sure, the idea was great, but it didn’t actually solve the problem in the eyes of the end user. 

When we are overly-self focused, we become more susceptive to someone pushing our ‘hot buttons’ targeting our feelings of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, or fairness (SCARF). If any of these are played on, this can provoke an emotional reaction within us. This might feel great at the time, but in reality it is a false positive. For the Waste Management team there were some key strategies employed to keep the team on track: 

The most important part is having the right conversation with people… As a team we learnt from each others approaches to asking questions and gave each positive feedback when that strategy was a success… We used key themes that we all stuck to and constantly peer reviewed.

Questioning is an act of control, stability, and strategy. Asking the right questions builds understanding, rapport and trust with the person you are interviewing, stimulating further conversations to understand their point of view. Getting this right is at the centre of business success. Know your goals, know your audience and you will be able to advance with confidence that you’re on the right track.

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