Monday, 26 January 2015 13:35

How to Ask the Right Questions Part 3: A Framework for Asking
Written by Steve Blais (/blog/steve-blais.html)

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Your goal is to get information. You want to get as much information as you can. You can always
eliminate nonessential and irrelevant information when you analyze the information you have
obtained after you have gotten it. Considering that the only way that we can be sure we will ask
the Right Question is by getting the right answer, and the only way we know we got the Right
Answer is by getting as many answers as we can. During the process of getting the information,
we need to do everything we can to increase the flow of information and that includes
preparation for asking as well as the actual act of asking the questions.

Whoever gets the most information wins
We need to gather as much information as possible. The more information we get, the better able we are to
determine what the Right Answers are. However, given the time constraints of a normal business initiative and
the limited amount of time we will get with the business stakeholders, we need to adopt a process which will
give us the most information in the least amount of time.
In other words, we want to adopt the attitude of being a sponge (listening, observing, sensing, and absorbing
all the information we can get) while at the same time keeping the information as focused on the business
problem and solution as possible. This is not an easy task. This requires you to do everything you can to

increase the flow of information from the responder to you while at the same time guiding and directing the
responder to give you information that helps you both achieve the goal of solving the business problem.

Preparing To Ask the Right Question
First let’s make sure we create the best possible environment to ask the right question.
Just as we prepare for the entire information gathering process, we also prepare for the individual Information
Gathering Session. We don’t simply think of a few questions to ask as we are walking to the interview or
meeting. If we want to ask the Right Question, to get the Right Answer, we take some time before we engage
in the session to determine what we want to know. The preparation stage of the information gathering session
may take place well in advance of the session itself, or immediately beforehand. Generally we want to allocate
approximately half the time scheduled for the session itself to spend on the preparation.

Why are we Doing This
Start with the objective of the session. What is the purpose for taking this person’s time (and yours, of
course)? What is the Big Question you want answered when you leave the session? This is your objective. All
information gathering sessions have an objective. The top reporters, journalists, detectives, and others who
make their livelihood asking the Right Questions have an objective to be achieved when they conduct an
interview or other information gathering session.
Where does the objective come from? The Information Gathering Plan (see Part 2 of this series which
describes creating an Information Gathering Plan). You have established in the Information Gathering Plan
what information you need to understand the problem domain or define a solution. Now you are getting that
information, so each item in the Information Gathering Plan becomes an objective in an Information Gathering
Session.

The Questions to Ask
It’s easier to come up with the questions that we are going to ask during an information gathering session if
we have an objective to achieve. Once we defined the objective, we can more easily think of questions to ask
that will achieve that objective. The key aspect is to write the questions down. In that way, we imprint the
questions on our brain so that the questions come to us more naturally during the actual session. Even if we
leave our written questions behind, we will likely end up asking those same questions because we wrote them
into our thinking. Once we have the list of questions, we reorder the questions so that they are listed from
easy questions (those that don’t require any thought or concern to answer, such as “how long have you
worked here?”) to more difficult questions (those that require more thought, or explanation, or which may
cause an emotional reaction in the responder, such as “do you think you’ll be laid off when we implement the
new system?”) And then back to easy questions to wrap up (such as “Are you going to the holiday party next
week?”)
Example
The Information Gathering Plan (from the previous article) has “what is the process of doing vendor voucher
entry” as an item. Your objective in an interview or meeting with the voucher entry clerks becomes:

“Determine the process of doing vendor voucher entry”. You then list questions that will achieve your
objective, such as:
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
8.
9.
10.
11.
12.

What triggers the voucher entry process?
Where does the information that you key in come from?
What does the form of information look like?
Can you show me the screen that you use to enter the information into?
What do you do first to get started?
Then what do you do?
Why did you do that?
Do you always do that?
What if you could do this instead?
Do you like doing that?
Can you expand on that?
What if that doesn’t happen?

And so forth.
This is an unordered list and contains no introduction or closing questions. Notice that we don’t ask: “Will you
tell me the way you do the process of voucher entry?” Instead we ask questions that will give us this answer.
In this way, we gain significantly more information and don’t turn the session over to the responder. While we
do want the responder(s) talking most of the time, we still want to regulate the information received.

Setting the Table
An information gathering session consists of three basic stages: the introduction, the body, and the close.
Each of the stages is important to the goal of increasing the flow of information to get the Right Answers.
Let’s start with the Introduction in which we set the “frame” for the session.

Introduction: The Frame
Social Science and Psychology have given us the concept of the “frame”. When you frame your information
gathering session, you establish a boundary within which you want the responder’s responses to remain. So
framing saves time by keeping the responders (and you) focused.
Instead of starting out the Information Gathering Session by stating the objective you wish to achieve with the
session, (as in, ‘‘Hello, Charley, I’m Steve. I am here to understand how you enter the vouchers’’) start the
session by expressing the following:
This is the problem we are here to solve.
This is the vision that we see occurring as the result of solving the problem.
This is why it is important to the responder(s) personally (provided you know why it is important to them).
The opening statement would then be something like this: ‘‘Hello, Charley, I’m Steve. I want to talk with you
about the time it takes to do voucher entry. I understand that it is taking too long with all these vendor
payment terms that have to be entered. We want to create a process where all of the terms are automatically

entered from a database, and all the vouchers are completed quickly and you get to go to happy hour on
time.’’
Framing your conversation has these effects [1]:
The frame (in the example, the accounts payable problem) focuses the responders’ thoughts so that each
answer is made in light of the frame.
The responders tend to be more motivated to provide information that solves the problem because they
are subconsciously thinking about how to solve it.
There is less chance that the responders will get sidetracked or derailed since they are thinking ‘inside
the frame’ (in meetings this tendency to stay focused takes the pressure off the meeting facilitator and
moderator.
By observing the responder’s reaction, you can get a good feeling whether the responder has the
information you are seeking. When the responder nods in agreement with the problem, acknowledging it,
you know he has the information.
Stating the frame gives the responder a chance to orient his or her thoughts and prepare mentally for the
interview. It also gives you a chance to organize your thoughts around the objectives of the Information
Gathering Session.

The Rhythm of Question and Answer
Once we establish the frame for information gathering we can proceed with our questions and answers. We
may get the same volume of information without the frame, but the frame helps to keep the information
focused on the problem at hand and achieving the objective and therefore increases the number of Right
Answers.
To get the continuous flow of information from the responders we need to establish a rhythm of asking and
answering. A key element to establishing that rhythm and getting the most information flowing toward you is
to focus on only asking questions and not including commentary in and among the questions you ask. Most
importantly try to avoid asking questions that produce responsive questions in the responder. And if that
happens, keep your response short and succinct, and get back to asking questions. Information cannot flow
to you if you are talking. Once in the rhythm of ask-answer, the responder will tend to maintain that rhythm
and you will get the information that you are requesting which contain are the Right Answers.
How do you get that rhythm going? By inserting a purposeful pause between the responders answer and your
next question. Mentally count to four if necessary. (It’s not a good idea to nod your head with each count, or
to tap your finger to keep count.) This pause has several magical effects:
The pause establishes a rhythm for the questions and answers that the responder will get into
subconsciously increasing the flow of information. (Note that you will also fall into this rhythm and find
that the asking of questions becomes easier.)
When you pause before asking the next question, you have time to formulate that question and increase
the chance that the next question will be a great question and generate a Right Answer.
When you pause before asking the next question, the responder will assume that you are thinking about
their answer, especially when the next question is based on their answer, and feel as though the
information they are providing is being valued. When the responder feels the information is valuable to
you, the responder will give you more information.

Most people interpret a pause, or silence after an answer, as an indicator that the questioner expects
more information or that the answer given did not satisfy the questioner, and therefore will immediately
add more information. Many times they provide information that you would not have thought of asking for:
a Right Answer.
When you start counting the pause between answers and questions, it doesn’t take long before you find that
you get in the habit of pausing between answers and questions and don’t need to count.

The Body of the Session: getting the Right Answers
Perhaps to know how to ask the Right Question, we might better focus on the Right Answers and that
requires us to consider the psychology of the responder and what the responder is thinking about while trying
to form an answer. Whenever we humans are in a situation of having to formally answer questions, no matter
how benign the questions are, we experience a level of stress. Sometimes the stress is discernible such as
when you are being interviewed for a job or new position or when, as a teenager, your parents are questioning
you about the dented fender on the family car the morning after you borrowed it. Other times, the stress is
subliminal. Regardless, it is always there. (Next time you conduct an interview, or an Information Gathering
Session, as you end the session, announce clearly that you are finished asking questions and observe the
change in body posture and actions. The responders will show visible release of stress that they may not even
be conscious of: leaning forward, rolling their shoulders a bit, touching their face, change in behavior like
starting or stopping tapping a pencil on the table, and so on).
Part of that stress comes from the fear that we will be asked a question we can’t answer (we don’t know the
answer when we are expected to, the answer is something we would prefer not to talk about, etc.). While we
can’t eliminate the stress completely, and perhaps we don’t want to, we can observe indications of increased
stress when particular questions or lines of questioning are asked. In addition to changes in body language,
changes in the rhythm of the responses are also indicators of change in the level of stress.
Another part of the stress comes from the desire of the responder to help the questioner by providing the
information that the responder thinks the questioner is looking for. A change in rhythm such as when a
responder takes longer to answer a question might indicate that he or she is searching for the answer they
believe will provide you the information you are looking for (or it might indicate a hidden agenda and the
responder is trying to phrase the answer carefully). This need to provide the “correct” information may stem
from school training in which we were required to produce the correct answers to the teachers’ questions, or
face the consequences. In other words, we have been trained to anticipate what the right answer should be
and give that answer regardless of what the Right Answer might be.

The Right Answers May Not Come until after the Session
Getting the Right Answers is more than just asking questions. There is also some analysis involved. This is
where the business analyst excels: applying critical thinking to the information received.
Asking the right question may not be a matter of what is asked, but how it is asked. “Often we don’t ask the
right questions. Or we don’t ask questions in a way that will lead to honest and informative answers.” [3]

Probe and Clarify
Clarifying questions are those you ask for yourself. Questions that add more clarity or information to previous
answers or that help you understand a topic or a facet. The responder will generally have a ready answer or
response to a clarifying question and the answer could be more facts.
Probing questions are those you ask as much for the responder or group as for yourself. Probing questions
help the responder to think more deeply about the topic or the problem or solution or the question just asked.
The responder may not have a ready answer, or not have an answer at all, and the answer, when given, may
be more opinion and conjecture than facts.

Listen to Your Questions and Their Answers
"My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions."
– Peter Drucker
The right question is the one in which you can remove yourself from the answer and allow the responder to
truly answer the question. The right answer may be embedded in a flow of information, sometimes seeming to
be stream of consciousness, or it may be in the way that the answer is given, the choice of words or
phraseology. In other words, listen to the answer, as though you are just hearing the question yourself for the
first time.
As Gene Ballinger, director of Systems Thinking World says, “Most people ask questions with the answer
already in mind.” When you have the answer already in mind you don’t really listen to the responder
answering the question, or you only hear that part which confirms what you already believe. This is called
“Confirmation Bias”. While you certainly should have an idea of the format of the answer (when you ask a
closed ended question, you don’t expect a long winded answer, for example) you listen naively for the answer.
You listen as though someone else asked the question and you are interested in hearing the answer. (More on
listening to discern the Right Answer in the next installment.)

So, What Question Should I Ask?
Asking the right question is both a combination of the question and the answer. Obviously, there must be a
question first before an answer will come. We should choose the questions that we ask with the session
objective in mind.
The Harvard Project Zero developed the Evidence Process which is the protocol for “choosing the
question.”[2]
The protocol requires you to ask yourself the following questions about the questions you are going to ask (I
have adapted the questions for our information gathering purposes):
1. Why is this question important to you and to the definition of the problem or solution? (Except in the
introduction stage or the closing stage, all questions should either provide information to define or solve
the problem, or move the information gathering forward.)
2. How is it relevant to the overall discussion and/or the problem or solution domain in general? (Even with

the frame established for the information gathering session, the irrelevant question may drive the
conversation out of the frame and into areas that generate irrelevant responses. And once there may be
difficulty getting back on track.)
3. What connections can the responder make between the question and the problem or solution? (Be careful
of ambiguous questions that might take the conversation away from the topic. Also be careful of
questions that the responder may not understand. If the responder has to struggle with understanding the
question to come up with an answer, the rhythm may be broken or the answer not pertinent.)

Close the Session: Ensure Another Session if Needed
It would be great if we could time questioning and the answers we receive in a way that we have asked all the
questions and received all the information we need at precisely the time that the session is scheduled to
close. Unfortunately that is as likely as winning the lottery twice. The most important rule of information
gathering is to end the session on time. Therefore regardless of the questions we have left or the interest we
have in the answers, we must terminate the session before the schedule and continue to the Close Stage. The
purpose of the close stage is to make sure that the session comes to a graceful end and that the responder(s)
are perfectly comfortable returning for another session, if necessary. There are three questions that you
should ask after we have closed the body of the session:
1. Do you have any questions for me?
2. Is there anything else we should have talked about?
3. Is there anyone else you know who might have additional information to help solve the problem?
In the unlikely event that any of these questions promote a new round of conversation that may take you past
the scheduled end of the session, table the discussion to a new session. Thank the responders for their time
and especially for the information they provided, and end the session on time.
After the session, analyze the information you received, eliminate the irrelevant and the non-germane,
summarize the pertinent information, and send the responders the summary with an invitation to add to or
change, and include any questions that might occur to you during the analysis. In this way, you might get
more information which might include the Right Answers, information that came to the responders after the
session as a result of ruminating on the session or discussions with others who were not in the session. In any
case, it’s “free” information.
The framework of the Information Gathering Session – the introduction, body, and close – provides a structure
that increases the flow of information and the chances that you will get the Right Answers.
We’ll spend some more time discussing the Right Questions themselves, how to ask them and how to discern
the Right Answer in the next article.
Don't forget to leave your comments below.
[1] Blais, Steven. Business Analysis: Best Practices for Success, John Wiley, 2011
[2] Senge, P., Roberts. C., Roth, G., Ross, R., and Smith, B. The Dance of Change: The Challenges to
Sustaining Momentum in Learning Organizations, Doubleday, 1999
[3] Marquadt, Michael. Leading with Questions, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2014
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Last modified on Friday, 06 March 2015 08:44

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Steve Blais (/blog/steve-blais.html)
Steve Blais, PMP, has over 43 years’ experience in business analysis, project
management, and software development. He provides consulting services to companies
developing business analysis processes. He is on the committee for the IIBA’s BABOK
Guide 3.0. He is the author of Business Analysis: Best Practices for Success.