Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Asking the Right Questions

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I can’t count the number of times, after I have gotten involved in something, or have purchased a product, when after a period of time I kick myself for not initially asking the right or enough questions that may have led to better decision-making on my part as to whether to get involved or buy the product. I like to think I am a trusting individual and that in general things tend to work out, but sometimes it seems that my trust can be misplaced.

For instance, I have been researching renting a house in the Adirondacks for the family’s summer vacation. I immediately found that the choices this year are plentiful for the time period in which we have an interest, and so rather than the typical settling for what is available, I am trying to find something that meets our criteria fairly closely. Rustic but comfortable log cabin on a non-motor lake, (St. Regis Wilderness Area is high on my list), private, but not too far out so we can go into town for a few dinners, with a dock and canoe, near hiking trails, a sandy beach would be nice. Oh yeah, and needs to accept a rambunctious almost one-year old Labrador retriever who is an exceptionally good chewer of things….all sorts of things, but has not figured out yet how to go up or down stairs. Our cat sits at the top of the stairs sometimes, seemingly very aware that the dog has not figured out the stairs yet, looking down on the dog as if daring it to give it a try. When the dog eventually figures it out I think we will have a very surprised cat. The cat and dog seem to slowly be building a relationship and the cat will go downstairs at night when the dog is sleeping in its crate and creep close as if in study or stalking prey.

Anyway, the houses I have been looking at all have great descriptions, giving one the sense of one Shangri-la after another (in fact one of the camps was named Shangri-la). I immediately get suspicious though of any descriptions that do not have accompanying pictures or with pictures that show the beautiful sunset over the lake, but do not include a picture of the house. I also do not like it when the actual street address is not given, but only a more general location – “near the tip of Upper Saranac Lake”, reads one vague description. With the actual street address, I can view the location on Google Earth and see if the nuanced phrase about being a “stone’s throw” from the water really means it is a half-mile hike to a shared dock. Asking the right questions in this case can mean the difference between an idyllic vacation and one that is mostly compromise.

I don’t think I am the only one who faces these challenges as there are numerous jokes that play off the of notion of not quite asking the right questions, or perhaps miscommunication or a sleight of hand on the part one providing information, until that moment of asking just the right question arrives. With so many jokes on the topic it has to be a rather widespread issue. Here is an old favorite. Jane arrives home quite late one night and says to her worried husband, “Sorry, I am late. I had to take the train as I had car trouble. I think water got into the carburetor.” Jane’s husband who usually took care of the car was unaware that Jane even knew where the carburetor was. He replied, “Jane, how can you be so sure that water got into the carburetor? Tell you what, let’s go check it out. Where did you leave the car?” Jane replied, “In the lake.”

Here is another that is a play off the notion of what you see is not necessarily what you get. One day, Mike was pulling out of a parking space and to his horror he hit the car parked in front of him. There was a group of people nearby on the sidewalk who witnessed the accident and they looked over waiting to see what he would do next. So Mike got out of his car, methodically inspected the damage to the cars, and then pulled out a sheet of paper on which he wrote a note that he left under the windshield of the car he had hit. The note said, “Hi, I just hit your car and there are some people here watching me. They think I am writing this note to leave you my name and phone number, but in fact I am not. Have a good day.” Appearances do not necessarily reflect reality.

In the world of business, unfortunately, caveat emptor is a phrase that can characterize some transactions. What you see, perhaps, is not what you are getting – unless you ask the right questions. This occurs not only in purchasing decisions but can apply generally across the board. For instance, hopefully, this recession is beginning to wind down and with it many are anticipating the return of job openings. Some people will be able to find employment again and others who have felt that it is time to move on from their current employer will be able to do so. Many employers have put into place rigorous screening systems to help them determine who would be the best fit for the openings that they will have. They want to select those that they feel will be most likely to succeed in the position. At the same time that they are trying to winnow the field that are also trying to convince candidate that company XYZ should be their choice. In the intricate dance that goes on in the selection of a candidate, how is a candidate to know of the employer is a good match for them? In a book called Rebound by Martha Finney, I was interviewed for a chapter that lays out a framework for job seekers to use in evaluating potential job offers. In many respects it comes down to asking the right questions – easier said than done sometimes, as we all can attest.

Day-to-day, in decision-making some of the managers that I have had the most respect for are the ones who can ask the right questions, not shying away from the tough ones and perhaps even questions that the creator of the information had not considered. One of the best I have ever run into was John Browne, the former CEO of BP. He was very good at asking questions. Not in your face challenging questions, not what are you trying to hide questions, but rather what can we learn about this information or decision together type questions. His questioning was tough enough that it made some uncomfortable, but I always found that it was a pleasure to have a discussion with him.

Here are questions that I ask myself when evaluating a choice and when trying to figure out what questions I should be asking.

  • What are the consequences of a poor decision? Will someone die or will I just have a mediocre meal?
  • What are the long-term implications of the decision, how locked in will I be to a particular course or is the decision reversible?
  • Does the decision have to be made now? Can additional information be collected that will be improve the decision? What are the costs of collecting that information?
  • Are there alternatives that have not been fully vetted?
  • What questions have been posed in collecting information to help in the decision? Specifically, are they aimed at:
    • The correct level of analysis – micro vs. macro
    • The correct time-frame
    • The correct variables – those that are reliable and valid to the decision at hand.
  • Has common sense and logic been applied to the full extent? Are there basic flaws in the information available or the way it is presented?
  • Is there a scientific basis that the decision can be made upon? Real science not pseudoscience.
  • Is there any fine print or vagueness being presented?
  • Is there a consensus among others?
  • What do you really want to do?

While many other questions can and should be considered for decisions, the bottom line when you are evaluating information prior to making a decision is that you should be asking yourself, “Are you asking the right questions?”

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

December 5, 2009 at 12:23 pm

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