We dug into a managing-as-verb suggestion last time (Be a Big Fan of the Small Win) and I’d like to offer you another suggestion as follow-up:
Learn to ask, “Why?” in a manner which conveys “Please, tell me more.”
Managers can weigh themselves down with a self-inflicted, ill-conceived and unreasonable burden (doing this to ourselves!): We think we should have all the answers, when reality is, that we’re tasked with finding them, not with having them. Our basic job, is to use our findings in the best possible way.
We don’t just employ people, per se. We employ the information and data-rich/experience-rich intellectual assets held by our people. Our people. We employ their talents. We employ their strengths. We employ their convictions and their values. That means we have to partner with them in doing so, and a single “Why?” question, smartly and thoughtfully placed, will get us on track.
To Listen Well, Ask Well
Alaka‘i Managers will invoke the power of good questioning as their method of securing better understanding, the full and complete understanding necessary in having a worthy, optimally useful finding. It’s how they get ‘the lay of the land’ — and more: Good questioning helps us explore the value alignment present in team behaviors, and in individual behaviors. It will also illuminate any voids — situations where we want a value driver, (as with KULEANA) but it’s not in play as it should be.
Good questioning is also how managers train themselves in listening well.
The workplace should not be a kingdom of managerial decree: It simply doesn’t work well that way. You want to reach decisions collaboratively, with co-authored solutions arising within your findings.
1. Asking good, persistent “Why?” questions uncovers root causes below your everyday radar. It will also reveal automatic pilot and sacred cows, busywork and unproductive comfort zones. It may reveal your possibility robbers, or give you the aha! moment which fuels another idea.
2. Asking good, persistent “Why?” questions creates higher quality dialog in the workplace because it’s much more inclusive (KĀKOU). It piggybacks well with the Daily Five Minutes in getting everyone more comfortable with talking about anything and everything – when we are Working with Aloha, no discussions are off limits!
Pick your moments.
There’s a working balance to be maintained here, for you don’t want to overdo it. There’s no nagging or nit-picking within the power of good questions.
No managing ‘method’ can be overdone, not even the good ones, for auto-pilot tends to degrade them: Overdoing it strips away the genuine sincerity in having a light, yet perceptively personal touch (the opposite of micro-managing). In my experience however, most managers are on the other side of the balance scale, where they don’t ask “Why?” nor say, “Please tell me more.” often enough.
So, do self-assess. Where are you on that scale, from clueless neglect at one extreme, and a Managing with Aloha partnership on the other, and where should you be? Conversational inquiry is an essential skill worth your intentional mastery.
And please, set yourself up for success: Pick a moment too, when you can engage well, and you will. Don’t self-sabotage, by asking “Why?” and saying, “Please tell me more.” when there’s little chance you’ll have the time or energy in following up well, for that’s a sure-fire way of drying up the well… you cannot have your people thinking that conversation with you is a waste of their time. The caveat: Don’t forget. Ours is not a perfect world. Not forgetting is the single best reason for writing things down, so you can make the right time happen.
How about The 5 Whys?
“Many people want to jump right to solutions. When I hear the phrases ‘we need’ or ‘there’s a lack of’ I start the 5-why-routine.”
— Timothy Johnson, Chief Accomplishment Officer of Carpe Factum, Inc.
“The Five Whys is one of the simplest methods for looking below the surface. Taiichi Ohno, creator of the Toyota Production System and a pioneer in the continuous quality movement, believed that if managers wanted to start with a clear and accurate assessment of any company problem, they had to ask “Why?” five times before creating a solution.”
— Laurence Haughton, in It’s Not What You Say, It’s What You Do. How Following Through at Every Level Can Make or Break Your Company
My take on it: DO “look below the surface” so you can collaborate on solutions. DON’T get hung up on 5 or any other number. Concentrate on your ALOHA intentions, and on why you ask your questions in the first place.
The sign of a healthy, and optimistic workplace of positive expectancy:
If good, well-placed questions become your habit, you can usually accomplish this solution finding in less than 5 questions, for people in your workplace culture learn the drill of the culture: They jump ahead in their own answers for you, and they become those People Who Do Good Work.
Basically, the 5 Whys teaches you to dig in when you should, and to be more curious in those instances when you shouldn’t accept quick answers at face value. You start with one “Why?” question, and you take your cue from its answer to ask the next why, following each all the way to the root cause.
Here’s a best-work-life ‘IMI OLA example which had cropped up in one of my coaching conversations. ‘IMI OLA, because it questions if form truly follows function:
1. Why is on-the-job the way (form) we’ve been choosing to train new staff (the function)?
The answer was: “We tag team the orientation and training which happens in HR first, and we run lean and mean, so by the time we get a new hire, we’re usually anxious to put them to work.”
2. Why are you so anxious?
The answer was: “We’ve been working more projects than we can handle with the staff we have.”
3. Why are you taking on so many projects?
The answer was: “We don’t say no. When new business is there, we grab it.”
4. Why are you so focused on new business versus repeat business?
The answer was: “We have to be. It would be better to work with fewer customers, but our repeat business rate isn’t high enough to sustain us.”
5. Why isn’t your repeat business rate high? Might working a correction there help you get off this vicious cycle?
As you can see, if I had asked only the first question and stopped, we may have gone off on a tangent with the training issue, which actually is a result of a probable issue with product and service delivery to customers. [As a footnote, OJT (on the job training) isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In this case, it was simply where the conversation had started.]
On the other hand… Learn when to stop!
However, I also chose this example as one that still begs more questions — perhaps many more than the first 5, and these streams of opportunity:
- Why do we do it (whatever the function is) this way?
- Why have we accepted this (the traditional, or precedent-comfortable form)?
- Why haven’t we been bolder, or taken a different route? Can, and should we innovate?
- Why do we perceive certain obstacles? Exactly what are the risks?
- Why not tweak it somehow, experiment, or run a new pilot? What more can we learn?
- Can you suggest other good Why? questions you have found helpful in seeking the best possible form for your work?
It’s easy to go overboard… too easy. You’ve got to know when to stop!
In these instances, where your managers brain goes on overdrive, you want to watch body language carefully: Are you frustrating people because you were so willing to go down a rabbit trail (the issue was training, and you leap-frogged over it), or are their eyes widening with possibilities they had not thought of before?
I prefer to shape the 5 Whys as a HO‘OMAU exploration in persistence, where you simplify-with-courage instead of adding more complexity. Your questions should create better focus for you, so that you are working on the right problem or issue, and not spinning your wheels. And not only is spinning your wheels less productive, it gets interpreted by your staff as, “Good grief, my manager still doesn’t get it. He/she keeps changing the subject, talking in circles about this!”
Another tip in knowing when to stop, is to look for the most immediate opportunity for action in the short-term, and then move on, resuming your questioning later. In other words, eat the elephant one bite at a time with next-stepping.
Findings are useful and practical culture-builders.
To sum up: Keep your eye on the goal, and be smart about this. Channel your attention and your energy, and be practical. Question for the good ALOHA intention of stimulating conversation, and not simply for any methodology.
As we said before: Our basic job, is to use our findings in the best possible way.