3 Rules of Great Questions

Most people don’t ask good questions.

I’ve been leading Vistage in Spain for the last 5 years. We coach CEOs to increase their effectiveness and improve their quality of life. We do this with questions. I’ve spent these last 5 years paying attention to how people use questions.

I recently came across a thread on twitter that had 3 good rules for better questions.

John Sawatsky’s 3 rules of great questions:

  • Start open-ended
  • Keep them neutral
  • Make them lean

Effective questions

1. Open

Rule: great questions are open-ended. Open questions invite deeper dialogue. They encourage the person to expand. Closed questions (yes/no) do the opposite.

Open-ended examples:

  • What is exciting you right now?
  • Why do people struggle with that?
  • How would you solve this problem?

These Qs are probing for conversation. They can’t be answered with yes/no.

Closed-ended examples:

  • Did you buy the truck?
  • Is the steak here good?
  • Are you going to the game?
  • Should we go on a hike today?

These Qs are quick and transactional. There will likely be no depth to the response.

2. Neutral

Rule: great questions are neutral.

Neutral questions don’t “lead” the person. They allow them to naturally follow their curiosity. Non-neutral questions are often called “loaded.” Consciously or subconsciously, they are biased.

Neutral examples:

  • What inspired that?
  • What happened next?
  • How did you decide that?
  • Why did you do it that way?
  • How would you explain this?

These questions have no bias. They are objective and curious.

Non-neutral examples:

  • Why do you get defensive so easily?
  • How were you able to show such courage?
  • What made that such a terrible play call?

These Qs carry an assumption or opinion. Positively or negatively, they are “loaded.”

3. Lean

Rule: great questions are lean.

Complex questions are hard to answer. Simple questions produce thoughtfulness and insight. Make it easy for the person to engage.

Lean examples:

  • What happened then?
  • What did you do next?
  • How did it go?
  • What else?

Be simple + direct, then get out of the way.

Non-lean question:

There’s so many awesome people on Twitter. Who are your favorite follows, why and what is one great thing you’ve read from each of them?

See the problem? You don’t even know where to begin.

If this was of use, you can follow Teddy Mitrosilis on twitter.

More from the blog on great questions…

Making Committed Decisions

…is much better than making “correct” decisions

On making Committed Decisions…

A committed decision is much more powerful than a “correct” decision.

A committed decision takes full responsibility.

A committed decision knows that there are risks and challenges that you will have to find a way to overcome.

A committed decision changes your life.

More on making great decisions…

Are you overwhelmed with problems?

Are you overwhelmed with the weight of the world? Are too many problems weighing you down and making life feel heavy? Are you tired?

I heard this story on the Tim Ferriss podcast recently, and I found it quite profound for such a seemingly “simple” story.

It reminds me of another video that I made several years ago – on the most important lesson I have learnt in life.

The most important lesson for me is the Wisdom prayer of St Francis of Asisi…

Give me the strength to change the things I can change,

Give me the patience to accept the things I cannot change,

and Give me the Wisdom to tell the difference.

Here’s the old video (from Paris): The most important lesson.

Build Strong Foundations

Build Strong Foundations before you grow higher.

Are you investing in your own Foundations – or are you building the house of your life on sand?

Leadership coach Luis Soares shared the story in the video below a few years ago on a leadership retreat for Vistage Spain.

There are two metaphors in the video:

  • Building a house on solid foundations before you build higher
  • The bamboo grows deep, extensive roots before it grows up

5 Areas where you can deliberately invest in the foundations of your life:

  • Health – get fit, eat well, learn about sleep
  • Wealth – build savings, have emergency fund (you could survive 6 months without income)
  • Network – connect to others, help them, demonstrate trust and competence, find mentors & act as a mentor (connect to 1 new person every week) (Webinar Recording: How Leaders Network)
  • Skills – read, study, practice (dedicate at least 10 days per year to professional development… or you are becoming “talentless” soon)
  • Spirit/Purpose – who are you? what do you stand for? where are you going? what are your values? (Finding Purpose: Step 1)

How are you building the foundations of your house, and of your life?

Be careful of Lazy thinking

We have a wonderful capacity to mess up our lives through lazy or fantasy thinking. We make blanket black and white statements… rather than seeking the shades of grey.

“I hate my job” -> what parts exactly?

Life is richer than black and white. You don’t hate every single part, activity, person in your job… be really specific – what do you like, what do you not like.

Solve the solve-able problems. If you don’t like something find a way to do less of it. Find someone who enjoys it. If you do like something, find a way to do more of it. Spend more time with the people who give you energy.

I love the approach of “Design Thinking”. Stay with your curiosity and take time to get the question correct. How do I improve my job, make a greater impact, feel like I am doing meaningful work, while being paid well, and enjoying my social life and with a family that is supportive of each other… you need messy questions to start to clarify what constraints, what changes, what problems you will stick with.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water

Humanistic Management, Xavier Marcet

This week we had Xavier Marcet as the keynote speaker for our anual Vistage all-member event on the subject of Humanistic Management.

the author with Xavier Marcet

Xavier Marcet has a regular column in the la Vanguardia newspaper that regularly gets up to a million views. He shares thoughts about “humanistic management” and has published 3 books – the last two being “Avoiding Mediocrity” and “Grow helping others grow”.

Xavier’s definition of Humanistic Management is “getting results, but taking great care of the means by which you get results.”

Xavier shared 16 reflections on what it takes to be a “humanistic” manager… although something got lost in my notes and I only have 15 in my notebook 😉

Putting Humanistic Management into Action

  1. Consistency – evolving alongside your clients… but not 15 steps ahead… just half a step ahead. If you get 15 steps ahead of your clients, you get attention and applause… but no sales. His question for the group: are you being consistent in your own life?
  2. More Strategy, less planning – the work of Henry Minzberg showed that some companies follow plans, some companies don’t follow plans… but what makes the positive difference is that there is a “future framework” – there is a common understanding in the company of what type of future we are heading for, and what type of future we really do not want.
  3. The 3 Runways of Strategy – there are 3 runways that are part of a business strategy –
    1. Today’s operations – what generates cashflow and profits today
    2. Future operations – innovation and exploration to develop tomorrow’s cash and profit engines
    3. People development – developing the talented, motivated people that you need today and tomorrow.
  4. The 3 Roles of the Leader – the three roles of the leader are
    1. Executive – setting KPIs and driving efficiency in today’s operations
    2. Director – building the future operations model
    3. Leader – developing the people around you.
  5. Ambidextrous Organisations – the ability to balance between exploiting today’s profitable operations and exploring future opportunities. Xavier’s question for the group: Do you control your agenda, or does your agenda control you?
  6. Efficiency and Effectiveness“Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things.” Peter Drucker
  7. Strategic Agility – the ability to take decisions under uncertainty and doubt.
  8. Innovation requires Empathy and Technology“we are overdosing on technology” Xavier Marcet; Don’t ask your clients what they need… watch them… pay attention. It is through observation of that they really do, and what they are trying to do that you truly see what is important. Observe more. Don’t ask what your clients want. They don’t really know.
  9. Innovation is really hard, but you don’t have a choice – the greatest risk you can take is to not innovate.
  10. Sustainable Innovation – if you automate 800 people’s jobs and then let them go without preparing them for their next role… this is an abdication of leadership. We have a responsibility to help others prepare for the future.
  11. The “Talentless” – Talent is Knowledge + Competency + Capacity to Adapt + Capacity to multiply other’s capacities; How do you become “talentless”? You stop learning. The day you stop learning, you begin to become “talentless”. You age very quickly. How to lead high performers so they create “ecosystems not ego-systems”? “without the team, you are nothing”.
  12. Leadership is service, not being served – Leaders need to combine Vision and personal example; Ambition and humilty. We are only great through people. Who “pulls you up”? Who do you “pull up”?
  13. Grow by growing others – improving your clients, your professional community, your shareholders, your society. Seek to grow the quality and capacity of everyone around you.
  14. Great Place to Work – we want 2 things to feel that we work in a great place – respect and dignity. “See the people around you for who they are”.
  15. Build a Legacy – the difference between a business and a company… a company has a way of facing life, a set of values, a way of being; a business makes money. Build a company. Make sure your company has a soul. Create opportunities that are meaningful for those around you.

Days vs Years

Our emotional experience of life can depend on the time horizon we choose to look at our lives.

If you look at the progress of your life each day, there are many wild swings.

If you look at the progress of your life over longer time horizons, the wild swings blur into the background and a more steady sense of progress emerges.

Which lens are you using to look at your projects? and your life?

Serendipity

Definition: finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for

Last weekend, I asked my family a question: “what is your favourite word?”

My wife had 3 favourites. One of those words is “serendipity”.

Side note: My 6 year old had one favourite word. “Love”. She is a genius IMHO.

This week several events occurred where I found that the word serendipity was the clearest expression of how the important people and important opportunities have come into my life.

I’m on the train to Madrid this morning, and stopped to reflect on why this word came up and why it is so relevant.

What is the difference between serendipity and luck?

…from the Merriam Webster dictionary

“There is considerable similarity between luck and serendipity, but there are also settings in which one word might be more apt than the other. Serendipity has a fairly narrow meaning, one that is concerned with finding pleasing things that one had not been looking for, while luck has a somewhat broader range (with meanings such as “a force that brings good fortune or adversity,” “success,” and “the events or circumstances that operate for or against an individual”). One might easily be said to have luck that is bad, which one would not say of serendipity.”

Serendipitous Opportunities

I didn’t have it on my bucket list to do an MBA, it was someone else’s dream and they brought me along. Teaching was not something I ever imagined doing, and Brian Leggett opened that door for me. IESE now plays a huge part in my life and a huge contribution to my feeling of belonging in Spain, to contributing to society, and to developing my own reputation. Serendipity.

Vistage was not something I was looking for. I had no strategic plan that was looking for Vistage 10 years ago… I had a coffee with a friend, Verne Harnish, and he said “I think I have something for you”… and he gently pushed and encouraged me until I made a concerted effort to look at what the opportunity might mean for me. He did not just say “check this out.” He pushed me. I will always appreciate his encouragement.

EO was not something that I was looking for – I went to a lunch with a VC to get them to invest in my business… and Christopher invited me to a learning event… which led me to a 17 year participation as a member and a leader in EO.

How to Maximize Serendipity

Human relationships are the foundation of serendipity.

The more people that know who you are and what you stand for, the better.

Writing this blog and sharing my weekly youtube videos are my most powerful tools to let the world know what I stand for.

Publish content (blogs, podcasts, videos, articles) regularly. Don’t try to be an expert, publish what you are learning. Let people know what you are building, what is important to you, what sort of future you are looking to create.

People will discover you. They get a sense of what interests you. They become a global radar guidance system for you that raises your Serendipity Quotient.

I’ve never met a rich optimist

“I’ve never met a rich optimist”

Russell Kane

I heard this quote this morning on the High Performance podcast, and it made me stop and reflect.

I was an optimist for the first 40 years of life… and I’m working hard to change… Optimism is good for happiness, but not for taking disciplined, difficult actions that make a positive impact on your future.

Check out the video above, filmed in Seville next to the Cathedral.

If you liked this post, you will also like I know what I want to do, so why don’t I do it? and There is no Freedom without Self Discipline.

Set Goals for Direction, not for Destination

Over 15 years ago, a book was written by Eduardo Ponset called “the formula for happiness”. I don’t remember the formula, but I do remember something that had great importance for me.

One of the elements of the formula was a “B” for “busqueda” – the spanish word for “searching”. The feeling you get when you are making positive progress towards a meaningful goal. Eduardo said that it was key to happiness.

Around the time of publishing, the author of the book was interviewed on local television. He shared a story about his little dog. Each day the author arrives home to his building, and must climb several flights of stairs up to his apartment on the 2nd floor. As soon as he enters the main door of the building, his dog starts to get excited… he hears some barking. As he climbs the stairs, the dog gets more and more excited.

As Eduardo gets to his door, and then opens his door… the dog is crazily excited, jumping all around and tail wagging wildly.

His dog knows that food is coming.

Eduardo enters the kitchen, opens the cupboard where the dog food is kept. The dog is at the door of the kitchen (he knows he is not allowed into the kitchen itself). The dog is jumping, barking and wagging in the doorway.

Eduardo fills the dog’s bowl with food, walks to the sitting room, places the dog’s bowl on the floor.

The dog sniffs his bowl… calms down… and then goes and lies down on his dog bed.

Where did all the excitement go?

The joy is in the pursuit, not in the attainment of our goals.

Set Goals for Direction, not for Destination

Set goals to get you moving. Don’t worry too much about the exact details… if the goal gives you a sense of which way to head… it is enough. Once we are in movement towards a goal, we start to learn, resources start to become visible, help comes our way… and a sense of clarity comes to us.

In the video I compare this to the life of a shark… a shark needs movement for water to flow over its gills… and to breath. If a shark stops swimming, its gills stop working… and it begins to suffocate.

A human is similar in that positive movement in the direction of our goals brings us clarity. We stop moving, we lose clarity.

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