As I put my coffee was down and walked out of the office, I asked my first question:
“What do you mean by a bomb?”
“There is a suspicious package, the guards think it could be a bomb,” was the reply.
It was Bosnia in 2001, and I was a young lieutenant in the Royal Engineers leading the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (bomb disposal) team in the local region. The conflict in Bosnia had ended some time ago and we were there primarily to clear up the mess that a war leaves behind, namely the mines, mortar bombs, and other explosives that littered the countryside.
But in the post 9/11 world, the threat of terrorist attack was at the forefront of people’s minds. In this context, an unexplained bag, right up against the front gates of a military camp, was screaming out ‘IED!’ (Improvised Explosive Device) and required immediate and serious attention.
Red wire or blue wire?
Therefore, I went to take control of the scene and do an initial threat assessment. I met the guard commander and asked him some questions such as:
Where exactly was the package?
What did it look like?
Who had seen it first?
When had it been found?
Why was it suspicious?
How had it got there?
Very quickly a picture emerged that put my mind at ease.
One of the guards had seen an old and infirm lady dropping off the parcel. Upon questioning the local interpreters, I found out that this lady was well known to them (as she was a little eccentric) and that she had made similar deliveries before. It was more than likely that this was just a gift for the soldiers.
A short trip to visit the lady at her house confirmed that yes, she had just dropped off some biscuits for the troops. It just so happened that she thought that dropping off a ‘surprise’ in an unmarked bag, unannounced, at the front gate to a military base was a good thing to do!
After establishing all of this I was able to go back, safely deal with the package (no, I didn’t eat or blow up the biscuits), give the all-clear, and return the security levels to normal. I thanked the lady for the kind thought and gift but asked her to refrain from such ‘surprise’ generosity in the future.
So, the right question was not ‘do we cut the red or the blue wire?’ In fact, the right questions were not technical ones at all.
When you consider your life is under threat then it is very important to properly assess a situation. You have to overcome the fight-or-flight response and use the decision space — the gap between stimulus and response — to work out what to do. In that time, you have to make an assessment. Asking the right questions and getting the right answers is essential before launching into action.
The military, the emergency services, and medical services know this and train personnel in decision-making. By employing decision-making processes and then applying these first in exercises and in real-life situations, personnel can build up experience and become expert decision-makers. A good methodology coupled with experience can help to make quick, effective decisions even in high-risk environments (Klein).
Outside of careers that deal with life-threatening situations, very few people get training in asking questions and making decisions. This is despite the fact that numerous studies show that these competencies are essential to employers, particularly for leaders and managers (Harrell, Barbato). The need for decision-making in leaders is often expressed in other terms such as:
- The need for analysing and overcoming problems (Zenger, Folkman)
- Taking the initiative (Maxwell)
- Setting direction and goals (Giles)
- Prioritisation (Tracy)
- Or having a clear vision and strategy (Kotter)
But all these things are related to, or dependent upon, good decision-making.
In the thousands of choices, we make every day, we rarely need to apply more than just our intuition to make a decision. But there is a problem. Research, particularly by influential figures such as Daniel Kahneman (author of Thinking Fast and Slow), has demonstrated that our intuition is amazing, but it has limits.
Therefore, understanding decision-making and how to make good decisions is critical to all of us, and good decision-making starts with good questions. After all, as John Dewey says:
“A problem well put is half solved.”
The problem with many processes and tools, including those used for decision-making, is that they are often non-intuitive and hard to remember. That is why we should start with what we already know and structures that are already embedded.
When I was training as a bomb disposal officer, we were taught a question technique called the ‘Five Ws’ which we used when we approached an incident. The ‘Five Ws’ is an interrogative style employed primarily by journalists and police officers, but it is based upon the Socratic style of questioning that emerged out of Western philosophy more than two thousand years ago. Therefore, the framework has broad utility and can be used by anyone to make an appreciation of a given situation.
The Five Ws are:
‘How?’ is also usually added to this list. This ‘5Ws and an H’ provides an easy-to-remember checklist that is a useful starting point towards building a quick but rounded picture of a situation.
The idea is that by using the 5 Ws to construct open questions you are more likely to get factual answers and more information while avoiding presuppositions. This is in contrast to closed questions, that have just yes or no answers, or leading questions that push people down a certain line of thinking.
“I keep six honest serving men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.” — Rudyard Kipling
As I have done further research into question technique and applied the principles in my work, I have found that it is also useful to add another ‘W’ — that of ‘which?’ — to the list. The ‘which?’ question covers the concept of selection or choice and therefore helps to inspire options and to consider risk. This helps to complete the decision-making cycle, particularly when we are planning for the future, not just examining an event that has already happened.
This makes seven questions in total and creates an easily remembered framework. It’s easy to recall as it is based upon the most common interrogative words that we use in English. The methodology easily translates into other languages too. Seven is also a handy number as we find it harder to recall lists above seven or eight items (Buzan).
The application of the interrogatives provides a holistic approach to analysing a situation and making an informed decision. The use and application of these seven open questions is a technique I have dubbed ‘The Right Questions’, inspired by the question I had started with.
Simplicity is a large part of the system’s strength. But, as with any tool or model, the technique is only as good as its application and it is this application of the questions that we will start to look at here.
My experience of working as a coach and consultant has taught me that The Right Questions approach can be applied to everything from life direction and personal vision, to corporate strategy and organisational change.
The table below outlines the purpose and application of each interrogative word in sequence:
When you learn how to apply the system it is very flexible. My starting point when faced with a challenge — whether it is developing a business case, starting a project, or writing an article — will be to write down the seven Right Questions (often as a mind-map) and start to brainstorm and explore my thoughts under each heading. Here is an example:
After trying this you can also experiment with using the system as a decision-making cycle. My experience over the years has shown that the most effective order is as follows:
I agree with Simon Sinek that we should ‘Start with Why’ when approaching any problem. Asking the ‘where’ and ‘what’ questions then help to frame the problem before moving on to the ‘how’, ‘when’, and ‘who’ elements that are most helpful in developing a plan.
The ‘which’ question then serves as an inflection point between these two loops. Asking the which question helps to identify different courses of actions that can be considered in the planning loop. It may also highlight risks and assumptions that send us back to the framing questions once again.
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
— Albert Einstein
Having just read this last section you may be thinking that the process no longer seems so simple. Don’t worry! The best thing to do now is immediately put the basics of the process into practice.
Start with something easy. What do you have to do today? Take any one task or decision — be that as simple as composing an email, planning a party, or even just going to the shops — and start by writing down the seven interrogative questions. Use these to make sure you understand why you need to achieve the task and then how you are going to do it. I promise it will help!
Done? Congratulations! You have taken the first step to becoming better at making decisions.
Now, as with the running analogy, you need to train regularly. Commit to experimenting with the method, perhaps for one task every day for the next week. Once you have used it a couple of times try and apply it to a more complicated issue or more important decision.
If you struggle don’t be disheartened. You don’t go from the couch to running marathons in one week. Instead, enjoy the learning journey.