The Right Question: It Can Change Your Decision

Peter F. Drucker, in Adventures of a Bystander, tells us how the legendary chairman of General Motors, Alfred D. Sloan, had the uncanny ability to ask the right questions:

"Decisions on people usually provoked heated debate in the GM executive committee. Once, the whole GM committee seemed to be agreed on one candidate for president of an operating division, who had handled this crisis superbly, solved that problem beautifully and quenched yonder fire with great aplomb.

Mr. Sloan, finally, broke in. ‘A very impressive record your Mr. Smith has,’ he said. ‘But do explain to me how he gets into all these crises he then so brilliantly surmounts?' Nothing more was ever heard of Mr. Smith."

The most dangerous mistakes are never made as a result of the wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong questions and getting the right answers.

The wrong answer to the right question is quickly discovered. But the right answer to the wrong question takes a lot longer to discover and usually leads to more costly errors.

The Problem of Defining the Problem

The topic of decision making always includes lengthy discussions on defining the problem. Most executives, when reading about decision making, readily accept the assertion that a great deal of time should be spent defining the problem, that is, finding the right questions.

Yet, in reality, when confronted with complex problem solving/decision making most executives seem to forget the most difficult job is never to find the right answer, it is to find the right question.

Seemingly tough-minded executives bark the command, "Get the facts."

But this cannot be done until the problem has first been defined. Until then, no one can know what facts to get. The process of problem definition determines which facts are relevant.

Management may see a recessionary impact on profits; the real problem may well be that ever-growing customer acquisition costs have not been dealt with. Management may see a failure in online marketing initiatives; the real problem may well be the failure to acquire the right individuals with the right experience to spearhead online marketing activities.

Management may see a clash of personalities when attempting to produce and manage innovation; the real problem may well be an inappropriate organizational structure to make change happen.

Management may see low employee retention rates in mission-critical jobs; the real problem may be the failure to forge collaboration between human resources and training activities required to provide continuous learning and training to today's knowledge-based workforce.

Conflicts are Usually the Result of Answering Different Questions

Drucker observed that most organizational conflicts are the result of people asking and answering different questions. More specifically, Drucker noted that it should be assumed both parties are providing correct answers. However, they are answering different questions.

Never ask, "Who is right?" in a conflict. Never even ask, "What is right?" The proper response is to discover, first, what the question is that everyone is answering.

Drucker credits Mary Parker Follet with creating the concept of constructive conflict. Follet said:

"What must these people who differ with me and oppose me see as the right question if their position is a rational one and a correct one?

Then, the second step to make conflict—difference—'work for us' is to use the mutual understanding of each other's question to integrate both positions into a new and different answer that satisfies what each side considers right.

The result of conflict management—indeed, the only way to resolve a conflict—is not a victory, not compromise. It is integration of interests."

The way people frame a problem, that is, select the questions to be answered, greatly influences the solution they will ultimately choose. Framing traps, say the experts, can turn brilliant people into terrible blunderers.

It's the job of senior executives to make sure the entire organization frames questions correctly and that a winning frame is selected. Knowing the questions or frames of others greatly improves communications and reduces conflict.