Making decisions is the main job of managers. Often they are not experts on the subject, yet they have to make decisions. Precision questioning is a method to help people make decisions, and it can be considered a tool for critical thinking and problem-solving. When the right questions are asked, the decision becomes clear in most cases.
Asking questions is at the heart of effective communication. It’s well known that open-ended questions can help elicit information and build rapport between people. Precision questioning goes a step further. It’s designed to facilitate effective and efficient intellectual exchange. Therefore, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Assuming that we ask questions to make good decisions, context matters. Therefore, questions must be specific and not generic; relevant to the specific situation. The quality of the answer depends on the quality of the question. If the question is too vague or too open-ended, the answer will be the same.
Unless you’re an expert on the subject, you should start by asking to get an overview and size up the situation. Defining what the goal is might help you decide what to explore in depth, and what to ignore. Ideally, you should only focus on what is more important. Therefore, you need precise answers that get to the heart of the matter and ask for more elaboration if needed.
Types of questions
Depending on what you need, there are different categories of drill-down precision questions.
The first two are contextual: “Go/No Go” and “Clarification.” People tend to assume that everything is equally important. The truth is that the very first question we need to ask is whether we need to talk about it. Second, the problem should be well-defined to understand the scope of the decision.
Next, we need to explore assumptions. Assumption questions uncover hypotheses and ensure that they are correct for the decision to be made.
Then, we need evidence discovery questions (how do we know this is true?). If the decision is complex enough, there will be many opinions about what is best. We need to ask questions to ensure that opinions are aligned with facts. If the data and numbers don’t support the opinions, they may not be right.
At times, we need to ask questions about what is causing the problem and what the effects will be. These questions don’t require you to be an expert on the subject to assess the consequences.
An important part of the Precision Questioning process is Precision Answering. If you want to use this method to improve your decision-making, you need to be sure that the answers answer your question, not distract from it.
Ask people to answer your question directly, without irrelevant details. Don’t assume they know more than they do, and ask them to keep the answer simple. Often a number or a bulleted list of things should work.
With some practice and an appropriate decision framework, this precision questioning technique can save a lot of time and help us make better decisions.