Sunday, October 30, 2016

Your Questions Suck: Why You Don't Get the Answers You Need and How to Fix It

Multiple choice. If you had a question regarding your employee benefits, who would you ask?
a) Your colleague in the cubicle next to yours.
b) HR or the benefits hotline.
c) The Senior Vice President of Supply Chain.
d) Read the website. 

There are really right answers and kinda right answers to this question, but I think logically, nobody would choose c.  However, my workplace has been thrown into a little bit of a stressful situation with the announcement that we'd be relocating across the country.  The announcement has put us into a state of uncertainty, and there are a lot of questions.  Certainly, people are nervous and trying to figure out whether or not they will take the generous relocation package or settle for the severance and stay in the desert.  But I still couldn't believe some of the questions that were being asked of our Senior VP when he offered to have lunch with us and talk through some of the anxiety and concerns.  Some of them were good questions, just directed at the wrong audience; some were very individual questions that should have been addressed one-on-one.  Some questions were just dumb questions.  I'm sorry, but I am a strong believer in stupid questions, and I've heard a ton this past week.

Beyond the relocation, I've felt compelled to discuss the idea of asking the right questions based on questions that have been brought to me and also my own work requiring me to ask questions as I learn my new job and new franchise. 

Provide Context

Sometimes people ask a very general question and don't tell you what they intend to use the information for.  I'm not really sure why people to do this, to be honest, and if someone can enlighten me, please do.  I can only speculate that they either assume they are asking the right question, or that the answer shouldn't change depending on the context.  But when you're asking a question, it is because you probably don't have direct access to the information, and you are not the subject matter expert.  You should direct your question to the subject matter expert (SME), and by providing context, the SME can help clarify the question and get you a better quality answer. 

For example, someone asked me what our launch quantities were for a new product, and added the context that he was planning to add coupons.  If he had not provided the context, I would have given him the total launch quantities.  However, because he mentioned the coupons, a light bulb went off in my head signaling that he probably doesn't want the quantities for items that we don't put coupons on.  So while he probably thought he was asking the right question, I was able to clarify his question to only include those items that were relevant, and give him a more correct answer than I would have otherwise. 

I'd be remiss not to mention that context does not mean the history of the world or your life's story.  It should be concise, one line or one sentence should suffice in most cases.  "I am preparing for Friday's supply chain operations meeting," or "Marketing was concerned about whether inventory levels would be sufficient in Q4," are simple examples of providing context.  The bottom line is that the SME you are asking wants to get you the information you need, so providing context helps to see the underlying need behind the question. 

Ask the Right Audience

Asking the wrong person is a pet peeve of mine, and the pet peeve which has been irritated the most recently, hence partially prompting this blog post.  If person Ashley trained you on topic A, and Bill trained you on topic B, you wouldn't go ask Ashley about topic B, unless you either wanted to test her knowledge or the consistency of the organization's understanding, or get a different viewpoint.  But if Ashley knows that Bill trained you on topic B, she may react to the question negatively.  Either she makes assumptions about why you are asking her (i.e. you are testing her or your training was insufficient), you have forgotten or are incompetent, or she may feel you are bogging her down or annoying.  If you frame it up as a verification, i.e. "Bill said X but that seems to conflict with what you said about topic A..." then she should better understand why you are asking in order to help get you the information you need.  Context helps a ton in this case, but more importantly, if Bill is really the right person to ask, then why are you asking Ashley at all?  You may not get the most correct answer by asking someone other than the subject matter expert, so think about why you are asking a specific person before doing so.

Use Clarity and Specifics

If you find that your e-mailed questions don't get answered in a timely manner, it could be that your questions are vague.  Many people get stuck on questions that are unclear, and put off answering them until they can spend time forming a good response or until they can talk to you in person to get or provide clarification.  To get your answers promptly and avoid putting people in this uncomfortable struggle, add specifics in measurables and scope.  Quantitatively, make sure you specify which unit(s) you are interested in (i.e. gross profits in US dollars versus net sales in Euros, consumer units versus pallet quantities versus batches sizes in pounds).  Also make sure you include which timeframe you are focused on (i.e. inventory as of today, sales month-to-date, actual and projected shipments for the year, last three years of history, etc).  If you are asking for an excessive timeframe, which I'll define as more than 3 times what your business normally covers in weekly or monthly reviews, make sure to include the minimum timeframe you absolutely need, and your preferred timeframe of what you would like, if its available.  Sometimes, it is much easier to provide shorter timeframes, so by providing this flexibility in your question, you will likely get a faster answer on one or the other, and you could always follow up to ask for the longer timeframe, understanding that it may take longer to gather that data.  From a scope perspective, provide parameters that make it easy for the requestee to understand.  If there's a specific forum in which the topic is discussed, reference that forum (i.e. "What was the projected service level in this week's critical item review meeting?").  If you are asking about a specific product or part, make sure to provide a part number or reference number if you have it, or if not, be as descriptive as possible (i.e. "40 oz Original Formula" means a lot more than "small liquid"). 

Write a Good Subject Line

So often, huge email chains are started by forwarding a generic email, and nobody changes the subject.  Five or ten emails in, a recipient needs to scroll all the way down to the first or second email to see what the heck the email is about.  When forwarding an email to ask a specific question, consider changing the subject line or amending it with clarifying details, so that recipients understand context right away.  If you're starting from a blank email, including in the subject line the general topic will again help set the context.  I do not recommend including the actual question in the subject line; this may be another bit of a silly pet peeve, but then every response (without changing the subject) looks like it's asking the question again.  Instead, save the questions for the body, and put a topic that is clear and specific in the subject. 

Determine What Questions to Ask

All of the above assumes that you have a question to ask.  Often, however, good business people are distinguished not because they ask questions well, but because they ask the right questions.  So the crux of the issue is knowing what the right question is, and this cannot be specified by a simple formula.  But I'd like to try to at least describe the thought process that goes into forming the right questions. 

When receiving good or bad news:

  1. Is there a process to handle this situation?  Is the process working?  Process improvement is a great way to set yourself apart from your peers, so understanding first what the process is and then helping to improve it not only helps the immediate situation, but it could help your colleagues and yourself in future similar situations. 
  2. How does this impact my metrics (i.e. timeline, inventory, projected sales, customer fill rate, etc.)?  It all comes down to the bottom line, and often people on the ground are reacting and trying to solve the problem, and not necessarily focusing their attention on quantifying the issue.  Quantifying the impact can help you and your superiors prioritize and have the conversations at the right level in the business. 
  3. What options do we have to resolve the issue?  Think of both the "normal" means of resolving such an issue, and use the specific circumstances to see if there are creative solutions that could be utilized. 
  4. Are the right people involved?  Part of being a good leader is knowing that you don't know everything, and instead, knowing when to delegate and pull the right people in.  Evaluate what you know about the situation, and bounce that off of similar situations or ask a colleague if there are certain people that need to be involved.
  5. What can we learn from this?  Can we apply this learning elsewhere? 

When identifying a trend:

  1. Did we expect this trend?  Even positive changes can be troublesome if you're not prepared for it, i.e. not having sufficient supply chain capacity or customer service representatives or server capacity. 
  2. What is driving it?  Do we have evidence or a control group that indicates the effectiveness of the driving factor?  Look as much as possible at the data, but also consider the qualitative intuitions of the people closest to the trend.  How can we reverse this trend (if negative) or amplify it (if positive)? 
  3. Can we duplicate this trend (if positive) or prevent this trend (if negative) in other areas of the business?

When faced with a disagreement:

  1. What are the core issues of the person you disagree with?  Has he/she been "burned" before?  Look for a way to drive down to a common goal, and then build up from there to a place where you do agree.
  2. What are the metric implications of both sides?  Try to take the personal aspects out of the issue, and present the data. 
  3. Can we proceed with a trial instead of a cart-blanche implementation?  What can be included in the trial that is low-risk or can be monitored more easily?  What are the metrics for success in the trial?
  4. Is there a policy, contractual agreement or precedent you can refer to?  Seek to understand how those things apply and how they differ from the issue at hand, and what that means for risk to metrics.

As with so many things in life, practice makes perfect (or at least better).  Practicing clarity, with context, scope, and units of measure, along with thinking through the impact and paths to follow, will help you ask better questions, get answers that you need faster, and ultimately should improve your leadership ability and career projectory.  A lot of these things seem simple, mundane or obvious, and yet so many people neglect or fail to consider them in their day-to-day work, but it makes a big difference. 

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