Sitting in a training class this week, we’ve talked a lot about the importance of asking the right questions. Too often, we’ll limit the possible answers by the way we frame the questions we ask. We narrow our field of vision.

I don’t have to look very far to find examples of this. Consider, for instance, this scenario from my weekend. Each of my children had plans to hang out* with a friend. (*Note: at this age, I’ve been informed that they don’t play any more. They hang out.) Trying to get some mileage from my magnanimous granting of their socialization wishes, I made their plans conditional on cleaning their bathroom.

Like all kids, there’s always a lot of finger-pointing and duty-shirking that precedes any chore. “He’s supposed to” and “she didn’t” ring out with more frequency than my email notifications. Accordingly, I often try to pre-empt the bickering and give specific assignments. Kid 1, you clean the toilet and the mirror. Kid 2, you clean the sink and the shower. This time was no exception. Each kid had a specific assignment, and I left them alone to get them done.

When it was time to go, I went to their bathroom to do a quick visual. You guessed it: DISASTER.The kids had done exactly what I told them, but the results were embarrassing. Though the mirror had been sprayed and wiped, it was so cloudy that I found myself rubbing my eyes when looking into it. The sink had been wiped down, but the globs of toothpaste that had previously decorated it had turned into artistic smears.

I quelled my anger and gathered the troops. Guys! I bellowed stated calmly. Look at the big picture! What are we trying to get done here? Don’t just do what I told you for the sake of saying you did it. Figure out what the end result should be and make that your goal. Blank stares called for a follow-up. Think of it this way. I don’t care so much that you can tell me you wiped down the mirror. I want a clean bathroom! Attempt number two yielded somewhat better results when they looked at it that way.

The problem wasn’t (exactly) that my kids weren’t doing their jobs. Sure, they were busy, and they could honestly tell me that they had accomplished the tasks I had given them. They just hadn’t done them well, and they certainly didn’t move me toward my goal of a clean bathroom. They had failed to ask themselves the right question. Subconsciously they had asked themselves What do we need to do to satisfy Mom’s request? when they should have been asking Why is Mom asking me to do this and how can I make that happen?

In the context of this training class, the universal question is What job is my customer hiring my product/service/piece of information to accomplish? When we get to the heart of the matter, we’ll end up with much more valuable solutions. Don’t ask people what they want; ask them what they want to accomplish.

Otherwise, to paraphrase Henry Ford, you’ll end up with faster horses. Or artistic toothpaste smears.

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