Accurately defining problems is one of the hardest parts of solving them. But here's the hard truth: the questions we ask aren't always the right ones. We ask sweeping, broad questions without considering all angles of a problem. This leads to bias, defensive thinking, and an inability to solve the core problem.
Questions are powerful because they help us focus our thinking, consider a problem from all angles, and eventually—have a breakthrough "Aha!" moment. This result allows leaders to target issues and make smarter decisions.
In this piece, you'll learn how to use frameworks and get advice from leaders to ask better questions.
Humans are inquisitive—we ask lots of questions.
At least 15-25% of what adults say is questions. Yet, according to Harvard Business Review, few executives think questioning is a skill that can be improved and mastered. It's a missed opportunity—as asking the right questions helps businesses improve opportunities, have more productive conversations, and solve problems.
So, what happened to questions?
As a society, we answer questions but rarely come up with our own. And at the workplace, we're trained to be problem solvers. Managers tell us to come to them with answers—not questions.
There's also a deeper reason why we're not asking more questions. Deep down, we're all so busy that asking more questions feels like a waste of time when we could be making progress on other tasks.
But time and time again, businesses have proved that not taking the time to ask questions can be disastrous. When we don't ask questions, we tend to assume what others are saying—especially with our customers and their problems.
When Apple started developing its iPhone in 2006, Nokia was the emperor of the mobile phone world. However, Nokia had a problem: it wasn't innovating like Apple and failed to realize that its customers wanted more than a product—they wanted a service. By the time Nokia defined the problem and tried to solve it by launching its answer to iOS—Symbian—Apple had already disrupted the mobile phone market.
This is just one example of how asking the right core questions and targeting specific problems can make or break a business.
💡 Prezent Pro-Tip: For business leaders, it pays to ask questions early and often. More questions lead to less rework and a better understanding of the issues and how to solve them. This deeper understanding helps us understand trade-offs and make smarter decisions down the road.
👨💻 Awareness. Consider how many questions you were asking and whether it's enough to find a core question. Ask a friend or colleague for their input to keep the assessment honest.
🤔 Reflect. Reflect on the reasons why you are not asking questions. Is it fear? A lack of faith in the outcome? Remember how much value a core question will add to your decision-making process.
🥅 Set a goal. Aim to ask a certain percentage of questions, including why, what, and how to create and finalize your core question. Add "what if" and "why not" to your repertoire to make the process even more detailed.
Not asking enough questions leaves you open to missing out on opportunities or moves that competitors are making.
This is exactly what happened to Blockbuster in 2008. The company had a monopoly on the home movie and video game rental industry, and online streaming was still being developed. But when Netflix came onto their radar, they dismissed them instead of asking questions about the competitor.
"Neither RedBox nor Netflix are even on the radar screen in terms of competition. It’s more Walmart and Apple."
– James Keyes, Blockbuster CEO
Instead of asking questions about whether the business should invest more in moving to online and streaming, Blockbuster stuck to its old revenue stream: charging customers late fees and selling in-store. Forbes later described Blockbuster’s move to penalize patrons rather than rethink its business model as its “Achilles heel." At the same time, Netflix made investments in online streaming services and deeply analyzed what its customers wanted when consuming content.
By 2010, the verdict was in. Blockbuster was bankrupt, 9,000+ stores had closed, and 84,000 employees lost their jobs. Meanwhile, Netflix experienced hockey-stick growth.
So, what happened?
Blockbuster's CEOs were competent, and the company had been making record profits. Yet there was a fatal flaw—not in their strategies—but with the core questions the CEOs answered when first encountering Netflix as a competitor:
Core question from CEO #1: How can Blockbuster combat the growing threat of new models like Netflix?
Core question from CEO #2: How can Blockbuster increase its profitability?
The strategies taken by the CEOs make perfect sense through the lens of their core questions. As the blockbuster example shows, defining the core question incorrectly can be disastrous. But getting it right can help your business survive and stay competitive.
💡 Prezent Pro-Tip: A core question gets to the heart of finding the business problem. If the core question is framed incorrectly, no amount of problem-solving tactics will help.
✍️ Write down your core question: To help clarify your thought process.
🗣️ Share it with supporters and detractors: Soak in their feedback and learn from their criticisms. It'll ultimately make your core question stronger with their unbiased input.
❓ Revisit the core question regularly: The context of the problem is constantly changing. Be sure to adapt and improve the core question when it does.
Questions guide our problem-solving processes. To master problem-solving, we need to be asking great questions using the FIT framework. It includes three characteristics that every successful core question has:
Let's take a look at the first characteristic, Fit. This is a focused question that outlines a clear goal someone is trying to reach.
Next, Intuitive. This question builds on the question we created in Fit by tying a quantifiable target to the goal.
Finally, Timebound. This adds a reasonable timeframe to a core question to keep projects on schedule and tie goals to financial quarters.
Adding goals, targets and timeframes is a simple yet powerful way to ensure every core question you ask is tied to your overarching business goals.
🥅 Add a clear goal. Make the goal specific and achievable to keep your team focused.
🎯 Set a measurable target. What gets measured gets managed. Setting a measurable target helps monitor progress and pinpoint problems once a project starts.
⏱️Include a timeframe. Ensure each question is tied to a timeframe. Projects can stay on schedule, and you'll have clear data on how they helped goals for specific quarters/years.
Joseph Bradley has spent years asking the right questions to pinpoint issues and solve problems.
As the CEO of NOEM Tech and Digital Company, he believes leaders are built on the momentum of finding the right answer.
Yet when we get the answer, leaders forget to pause and think if the question being asked is the right one.
Bradley calls this a blind spot—but it can be overcome using a framework called A.S.K.
Bradley says another roadblock is a leader's ability to challenge their beliefs. High-value questions help leaders fundamentally understand their core beliefs, and challenging them leads to asking core questions with more impact.
"With specific questions, you're able to challenge those beliefs and have a much better chance of coming through with key breakthroughs."
✔ Get specific – Think about every aspect and scenario of the situation and ensure you cover all bases.
✔️ Remove your bias and surprise yourself – Questions help you understand what you are asking and the core beliefs behind your question. Don't let bias or preconceived notions cloud the process.
✔️ End with the "why" – Add “what if” and “why not” to your repertoire to challenge assumptions and make your core question more detailed.
Successful leaders understand the difference between asking broad questions and the right questions.
Businesses need to understand challenges from all angles. Asking questions helps us see issues clearly and create a plan to solve them, but we can only do it by accepting that the process takes time and collaboration.
Use these frameworks to challenge your beliefs, craft better core questions and solve problems once and for all.