What's Wrong With Your Questions? | Targetprocess - Visual management software

There's one totally non-technical skill that is indispensable  in the life of any IT organization, at all levels. It is a great personal asset, likewise. A keen observer can use it as an accurate indicator of an individual's professional intelligence. This skill is called the art of asking good questions.

We ask questions any time when we're involved in an activity that requires input and knowledge of many people, at all kinds of meetings.  Stakeholders, product owners, UX designers, developers, QA engineers, marketeers — all of them have to master this skill to be able to make their best contribution to the success of the whole company. I'm talking about  a company that welcomes input from all team members.  Unfortunately, more often than not, little attention is paid to the quality of the questions that people ask during discussions. As a consequence of such loose attitude, hundreds of hours are wasted as the group's focus shifts to irrelevant things.

Usually, it can be felt on some gut level, if a question is spot-on, or if it's pointless. Someone might ask a question with a conscious (or unconscious) intention to show off to the others how smart they are, and their question wouldn't help at all to get to the core of the problem at hand. Or, one can see that this person lacks experience, required to solve this problem, as their questions might seem naive to someone who is competent in the subject discussed. It might make sense, then, to let this person gain more experience, prior to taking part in the group's discussion. Or, it could be that someone with a different outlook asks a question, that looks clueless to the group involved in a discussion, but this question would somehow invoke a fresh perspective, helping this group come up with a solution eventually.

One can compose many volumes trying to cover all possible kinds of questions, and mapping them with professional skills, personal qualities and organizational contexts. I will only single out these two fundamental faults:

  1. Asking "how to" questions prior to "what for" questions.  This is the surest indicator of a wrong focus. Here's an example of such a question: "How to adopt... [agile, Kanban, Lean, XP, Scrum, ..] in our organization?" If a stakeholder asks this question and has a vague idea of the "what for" part, the "how to" question shifts focus further away from the heart of the matter. Or, "how to estimate in story points?" Again, what for? Actually, if someone in a team, or the whole team, is asking such a question, this is a sign that they haven't done their homework with the "what for?" part. If a team feels the genuine need to estimate in story points, the "what for" has already been processed, producing an array of possible answers to the "how to" part. These answers would stem from the unique experience and production dynamics of this particular team; and there's no one finite answer, as each of the possible options would have to be tested "live" to see if they work.
  2. Asking "what if" questions that involve some unrealistic or irrelevant scenarios. For example: "What if we fail to adopt Kanban this year"? This question has the double dose of "wrong" in it, because instead of an answer it generates 3 more questions: Who says we need to adopt Kanban? Why this year? What is our definition of "fail"?  Such a question is the biggest time waster. Hypothetical questions might only have some value, a rather questionable one, in talk shows or in celebrity interviews. If a question asked at a group meeting or discussion triggers a chain of even more questions,  that make no sense in the context of the current discussion, this question can be considered a waste.

The same logic can be used to hone this very art of asking questions. If someone understands the "what for" (I need to be able to ask good questions, what for?),  the "how to ask good questions" part will naturally take care of itself. With time. It only takes learning by experience.

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