Our Thinking

Asking the Right Questions

Posted by Brent Whitfield on Jun 16, 2014 3:00:53 AM

Have you ever seen the movie “Zero Effect?” It stars Bill Pullman as a Private Investigator. In it, he says, “The best way to follow someone is to get where they are going, first.” In a lot of ways, the job of a Business Analyst is like being a Private Investigator. Both jobs require observation skills, listening skills, creative problem solving, and of course, the ability to ask the right questions.

What are the “right” questions, you ask? Well, that is the first “right” question you should always be asking. The answer? Well, it depends. It depends on the subject, the scenario, the situation, and numerous other factors. Asking the right questions really becomes an act of filtering out distracting questions and focusing on questions which provide value to your goal. We will get back to that in a bit.

Firstly, what types of questions do I have to choose from? Good question. A quick Google of “types of questions” will provide a myriad of resources on the subject. (Google, by the way, is an excellent test of your questioning ability. Search engines provide us a tool to research topics – the better your questions, the faster and more reliable the answers will come.) I found www.skillsyouneed.com – on this site they describe five types of questions: Closed, Open, Leading/Loaded, Recall /Process, and Rhetorical.

  • Closed questions are very focused – much like binary. There are typically only two options: yes/no, true/false.
  • Open questions are much more conversational; they may provide a subject, but the response expected will be more informational on that subject than closed questions.
  • Leading or loaded questions, as their names suggest, can influence the responder in a certain direction.
  • Recall and Process questions ask the responder to pull from experience or memory for their response.
  • Rhetorical questions do not require an answer. The intent of the question is simply to get the audience to think.keep-calm-and-ask-questions-5

As Business Analysts – or more broadly, as consultants – our goal is to help our customer truly understand their situation and guide them towards making decisions for better solutions. To attain this goal, the consultant must not only determine the right questions to ask – but also how to properly form the questions, and in what order to ask them.

Back to the question – what are the right questions? The right questions are those left over after filtering out the wrong questions.

A common topic in the software world is quality. Companies are often struggling to understand why the quality of a product does not meet their expectations. Although there is merit in asking obvious questions – like “Did you test it?” – the conversation must move to questions that drive towards a better understanding of the situation. Here is where forming the question to be the right question is important.

Asking “Did you have a Test Plan?” may be intended to determine the level of process or preparedness the project had, but the closed nature of the question will not spark thought or initiate a conversation. It will provide you only with a broad understanding of the project’s attempt at maturity. I say “attempt” as it will provide no insight into the actual quality of the Test Plan – if one exists. This question also does not provide much for further questioning other than additional closed questions. Much like navigating a dark cave with only a small flashlight, you’re only asking what’s at the end of the flashlight – and not asking what else is in the cave.

A better question might be, “At what point in the project did you first recognize the quality was not meeting your expectations?” This question should spark thought and conversation around the project’s measure of quality and their responses to those measurements. Suddenly the cave is fully lit and follow-up questions are more easily identified.

The “right” question can be posed in multiple ways – and sometimes there is need to ask that question in multiple ways. The previous question could also be presented as, “Throughout the project, what activities did you perform to measure the quality of the deliverable?” The question still aims to understand how the company measures quality and how they respond to those measurements, but it may uncover different details about activities they did or did not do.

Lastly, asking the right questions is really about listening with all five senses. Listen to everything going on within the situation. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, but don’t rush it either. The zero effect occurs when the wrong questions are asked. Be patient and you may even get the answer before voicing the question.

Any questions?

Topics: Business Analysis, Professional Effectiveness

Our Thinking - The Online Blog is a source for insights, resources, best practices, and other useful content from our multi-disciplinary team of Onliners.

Subscribe to Blog Updates