One of the most powerful phrases in business is “I don’t know, but let’s find out…”. People believe that knowing all the answers is a hallmark of being successful, but I’d suggest it’s not knowing the answers, it’s knowing the questions that matters. It’s knowing the right questions to ask when you don’t know—or even think you know—and seeking out the answers. Getting the right answers is all about asking the right questions. However in many companies only a few people “get” to ask questions, and if you want to be successful you have to ensure that everyone gets to ask questions. You need to build a culture where asking questions and seeking answers is one of the most important things you can do.
Be Curious. Ask, Learn, Understand
If you’ve even been around a young child, you know that they ask a lot of questions. That’s how they learn. Have you also noticed that when a child asks a really thought provoking question that sometimes it forces you to look at something in a new way? Not “why is the sky blue?”, but “why do you have to go to work?”, the questions that don’t have simple answers are the ones that make you think and often the ones that spawn the best answers. So, if questions are the path to learning new things and looking at what you accept as “the way it is” in a new light, then are you letting yourself and your co-workers ask questions in the first place? When was the last time someone asked why reports are done a certain way or are we targeting the right market segment. If not, why?
It has to be safe to ask
The first step to building a culture that asks questions, is making it safe to ask questions in the first place. This isn’t the old “there are no stupid questions” axiom (there are, in fact, stupid questions), it’s about everyone feeling that if they ask a question like “why are we doing things this way? Maybe there is a better way…” they won’t be called on the carpet or penalized for it. This is a scary thing for many managers and executives to do. Will letting people ask questions lead to chaos? If everyone questions everything, won’t we become paralyzed with indecision? No. Just because someone asks a question doesn’t mean that you don’t already have the right answer, it’s that you have an opportunity to articulate the answer and by giving the answer you might learn something in turn.
The power of explanation
There is a quote that goes something like “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t fully understand it” and while that is probably a gross oversimplification of reality—there are many things that you might understand fully but don’t lend themselves to simple, easy answers—the truth in this is that those explanations come from questions. Questions are always a chance to learn and expand and explain something and every chance you have to do that is a chance to refine your knowledge.
Questions to answers to learning to success
The big picture is that when people can ask questions, you can give answers. When you give answers you have a chance to learn. When you ask questions back, the learning is magnified. You start a process where questions form the basis to everyone to keep learning. A workplace where everyone sees what they need to learn months ahead of when they need to know it and start learning.
Because all you have to do is ask.