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Sep 01 2015
The Right Questions??
Erik Wright, CBF, Spectrum Engineers, Inc.

Voltaire, the French writer and theorist famous for his wit and critical thinking once cleverly said, "Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers." However, in business, ones answers or solutions to problems are largely the bases for which opinions of competency, ability, and aptitude are formed. Therefore, having the right answer or solution when tasked with a problem is always critical. But, what if you don't have the answer when first approached? I think the appropriate response to this can be summed up by the phrase coined by the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, "The wise man doesn't give the right answers, he poses the right questions."

Recently I was approached by a colleague fearful that his reputation might be on the line due to an incorrect answer he had given to senior management. As we reviewed the scenario and all the facts leading up to the answer this individual had provided, we came to a realization that it wasn't necessarily an incorrect answer, rather, it was a failure to ask the right questions. Had certain inquiries been made at the time the information was requested, an entirely different and more appropriate response would have ultimately been given.  

The problem is we often convince ourselves that in order to showcase our ability to others, that we can effectively do our jobs and that we are an invaluable resource, we must have all the answers and that these answers flow freely in our minds accessible at a moment's notice. The fact is no one person can know everything or have all the answers and largely the answers require some investigation and thought. Inevitably, this mindset will almost always set us up for disappointment. 

In the workplace, uttering the phrase "I'm not certain" or "I don'' know" makes us feel inept when in all actuality we should not fear being uncertain. We should take some comfort in recognizing that we don't need to immediately know all the answers; it's not necessarily expected of us anyway. However, being astute with knowing how to ask the right questions when we are not sure of the answer, will reveal our true competence and aptitude to do our jobs well. 

Be comfortable with 'I don't know.' If we learn to ask the right questions we will begin to see what new and amazing ideas come out of the answers we receive.


Indira Gandhi said, "The power to question is the basis of all human progress." Asking questions objectively allows us to inherit a new perspective and to see problems and issues in completely new ways. We must develop a growth mindset and ask questions with a genuine desire to learn and to obtain knowledge. Good questions will help us to see the bigger picture!

Asking a great question can lead to new and innovative ideas. Intriguing questions can even open the means to greater questions. When we bring others together to collaborate and contemplate the issue, we get better answers. According to Eugen Lonesco, "It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question."


In the above situation we found that by asking the right questions and involving the right stakeholders in the problem not only helped formulate the correct response, but enabled us to uncover and correct more pressing and key issues.

Learn to let go of thinking you need to have all the answers, avoid making assumptions, and learn to ask the right questions. Be judged by the astuteness of you questions and be amazed by the difference you can make.