Ask a Simple Question

September 26, 2013

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I always think that one of the most useful weapons in the communicator’s armoury is the deceptively simple question. There’s always a tendency to focus on the answers, especially in consultancy. Good consultants were the kind of kids who always had their hands up in class, desperately pointing at the ceiling in the hope that the teacher would select them and allow them the satisfaction of answering the question. We like giving answers. After all, isn’t that what we are paid to do?

Questions, though, are powerful. A good question makes people think and the simpler the question, in my experience, the more thoughtful the response. My favourite question at the moment is, “what are you for?” You’d be amazed how much this makes people shudder to a halt and actually think. Of course, it’s a variation on the vision/mission question but the very ordinariness of the question seems to prevent the lapse into meaningless business speak.

In the month that Steve Ballmer announced that he would be stepping down from the helm of Microsoft after thirteen years (the average length of tenure for CEOs of big companies is just over eight  years, apparently) and the chatterati started discussing his ‘legacy’, another good question occurred to me. “How would you like to be remembered?” It could be asked of a company or a CEO, or of any of us. It’s a great question. Given that 99% of what we do will be ephemeral, seemingly important at the time, but quickly forgotten, what do we want to last. I bet very few senior management would have a quick, cogent and (importantly) shared answer to this. Building legacies is perhaps where we should all be focusing.

So, I’m going to file the ‘Ballmer question’ alongside my other useful questions, like “who matters?” or “who cares?” or “what’s the point?”. I’d recommend everyone having such a list. It enables you in times of difficulty to revert to a tried and tested rule; if in doubt, ask a simple question.