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Leadership Lessons: Asking the ‘obvious’ question

by Chris Turley

Asking questions is the ABC of problem solving

The most effective approach in leadership, as it is in problem solving is simply the asking of questions, and it’s certainly true that ‘if you don’t ask the right questions, you don’t get the right answers’, so why don’t we ask the ‘obvious’ question?

In early 2000 I attended a fuel filler pipe design meeting at Gaydon, along with a varied cast from customer and suppliers, including our German project engineer (Dieter), whose technical knowledge I respect greatly. I was relatively new to project management and keen to make a good impression on customer, colleagues and engineers alike.
We all sat around a large table where the customers lead engineer (Ken) proceeded to ‘explain’ the fluid dynamics at work in the fuel filler pipe. He scribbled equations on a sheet of A0 paper at a great rate and I was lost within 5 minutes. I looked around the table and was horrified to see everyone nodding, pointing and smiling.
I’m the only one not following this!
After 2 long hours the meeting ended and we went back to the car, I asked Dieter to explain the key technical points of the meeting, he refused. I pushed him, saying that I didn’t understand and needed his help, still he declined. After a firmer push (it’s a long walk to Birmingham Airport) he said he couldn’t explain, he was lost after 5 minutes and the rest had been a mystery. Later that day I called a couple of the other attendees and asked if they could explain, I got the same response… “Not a clue after the first couple of minutes”.

The penny dropped… No one had followed almost 2 hours of meeting, not one of us had been brave or smart enough to ask for an explanation we could follow…. Why?

Clearly we were thinking more about how others will view us, we submitted to peer pressure, than we were about getting value from the meeting.

Following my Gaydon experience, I began to view meetings and discussions differently, they needed to have a clear purpose and objective, be of value, a learning opportunity, a chance to develop knowledge or a vehicle to make decisions or obtain approvals.
In order for this happen, I had to bite the bullet and ask when either I or others didn’t understand, initially not easy , but it becomes second nature over time, I’ve seen the looks of relief on other peoples faces when I asked the ‘obvious’ question and get an explanation I and they can understand.
I quickly realised the impact that making sure I understood had on my confidence and effectiveness and I witnessed the knock on effect, giving others the confidence to speak up.

Over the last 20 years, working with and supplying major European car makers and their suppliers, I’ve witnessed many examples of this phenomenon. Don’t rely on anyone else to ‘do the right thing’ whatever their reputation or status, think for yourself and always question anything which doesn’t look or sound right or that you don’t understand.

In our experience, asking the ‘obvious’ question is never a waste of time, but remember that an ‘obvious’ question is not the same as a ‘stupid’ question, and what’s obvious to you may not be obvious to others, so ASK!

If you’re not confident or thick skinned enough initially, develop a strategy
•  “Maybe I missed something, but…”
•  “Maybe I’m being a bit slow, but….”
•  “You must have thought about this already, but…”
which ever works for you until you’re comfortable enough to ask straight out.
You will find, like we have, that asking the right questions is powerful approach, you will save significant amounts of time and confusion, not to mention money.

For further tools, tips and information visit our website @ www.LeanQCD.com

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