Questioning as a productivity tool
by Mario Carrera
Asking questions in its purest form is an act of learning and this can be at any level. For some, learning means living, “Learn something new each day” the saying goes. To be productive, we need to be continuously learning and implementing what we learn. Organizations and individuals seeking to improve productivity may not need to buy expensive technology or tools but apply the simple technique of questioning. That in-depth conversation leads to the research and innovation that promotes productivity.
There are questions surrounding questions. How do we ask a question? What exactly to ask? When should a question be asked? Do we ask enough questions? How much is too much? To answer these questions, requires being aware of the project at hand, understanding what is needed, and wanting to understand more. There are no right answers to these questions. The person asking needs to have some genuine interest in the project and to have ideally done some prior research. The person answering needs to be aware of the situation, what can be done, what is not known and be willing to admit potential negatives such as, “I do not know”, “yes there may be a problem”, “ i did not think of that”..
A simple question such as why we need so much cash around the office might lead to having more electronic payments established. These, in turn, allow for better budgeting and thus freeing money for other investments. Also, by being more computer savvy other skills would be developed that can help a company branch into other areas of income generation. The question that may have generated, “because we have always paid by cash”, can now transform a company to ask and act on the follow-up question, “is there another way?”.
Questions are part of making conversations meaningful. Conversation leads to learning, sharing, positive interaction, and more. Questions contribute to this exchange being engaging. Understanding more and gaining a deeper appreciation of what is going on. Thus, in multicultural settings, learning about each other by asking questions leads to working more productively.
Make conversations more productive by asking pertinent questions and listening to the answers. A person’s response to questions, such as willingness to answer, enthusiasm for the subject and willingness to share is a good sign that the person is genuine. Talk at work should be productive. Scandinavians generally do not do small talk at work and are some of the most productive employees in the world. Correlation is not causation, but, in this case, there is a relationship. Creative doers use this approach to get more done in a short space of time. Anyone can follow this approach. Look at the kinds of conversation at work and see which are building a learning environment and which are not.
Away from industry, research and academic limitations in Thailand may be due to limitations in asking the type of questions that would generate the depth of investigation required. Qualitative inquiry is rare. A Thai lecturer mentioned to me that over 95%, possibly 99%, of Thai doctoral dissertations are quantitative. Qualitative inquiry requires in-depth questioning and understanding of a situation. Fear or resistance to asking probing questions coupled with an analysis that generate further questioning limits academics from this research method. However, academia and society suffer as neither gain from potential discoveries of understanding relevant phenomena.
Innovation requires questioning norms. Making activities more efficient and effective. One reason why the USA leads in innovation is the acceptance of questioning if not the belief that it is a right to question anyone and anything. There are other components which make multicultural cities dynamic and innovative such as diverse ideas, an educated workforce, need, belief, leadership, and pursuit, but underlying all these is acting on questions asked. Look at worker productivity and the society where the top resides. Open societies – greater productivity.
There is a significant cultural component in Thailand. Children are generally not encouraged to ask questions. Some parents get annoyed by the seemingly constant questioning of their children. However, part of parenting is managing these questions. Answering some, explaining others and directing the kids to find the answers themselves. Building, not stifling curiosity. There is also the fear of losing face by not knowing, thus discouraging questions. Use the question to learn from the person asking. Reverse the question and use the opportunity to learn, as you cannot lose face from learning. And at work, questioning seems to prolong meetings but we should question the approach, preparation and meaning of meetings. Just as not asking becomes engrained in society, the reverse can be true.
There is great power in the act of questioning. Asking the right question at the right time to the right person can advance one’s career or business significantly. Just asking questions can help in better business decision-making. Questioning can help make a business more productive and by extension, more innovative as the company would always be seeking to learn, do better and be more. Which is what productivity is about.