How to solve any problem in 20 mins – The Value of Extreme Questioning

Quick Background:

I learned about the Extreme Questioning process from Liz Wiseman (author of Multipliers) at her one day workshop at the Growth Summit. Obviously I’m a big fan – this is my 3rd blog post on this book! Here’s no.1 + no.2.

[side note: everytime I say Extreme Questioning, I feel like there should be a dramatic voice over!]

In the workshop which Adam and I both attended, Liz organised a 5 minute exercise to get us in the groove of relentless questioning – one of the top traits of all great leaders from her book. We picked an issue then chose roles. Adam asked the questions first, and I answered, then we switched it over.

I was excited! Even in 5 minutes, I had a much clearer idea of the problem we’d been discussing. I made a mental note to use it in the future if I was stuck on a problem. Sure enough…

So yesterday, this was my problem:

In late January, we decided to significantly change our hosting arrangement. Since then, Sam (a web strategy advisor and our resident hosting guru) and I have been furiously gathering information from our supplier about everything from hosting packages and the steps involved in the transition, all the way through to common mistakes and pitfalls of the process.

After 4 weeks of examining the problem from all angles, I still felt daunted and overwhelmed by project. I had all the background info I needed, but couldn’t quite bring it together into a project plan.

My problem was my opportunity, so I grabbed Ads and asked him if we could use Extreme Questioning to help me get some clarity.

How to do Extreme Questioning:

There are 2 roles:

  1. The Questioner – they don’t have to be knowledgeable of the issue. In this case it was Adam – he knew about the plan but not the details.
  2. The Answerer  – they need to have been immersed in the data. This was me. I’d been doing the research along with Sam.

The process:

  1. Questioner: Ask every question you can dream up around the topic until you can’t think of any more – how, when, where, why, what, who, which (example questions below in +++ section). Only ask questions.
  2. Answerer: Respond in as much detail as you possibly can to every question.
  3. Answerer: Take loads of notes as you go. (Preferably find a scribe to join in)
  4. Questioner: Once you’ve run out of questions, then ask the Answerer one more question: “Are there any other areas of this problem that you’d like me to ask you about?
  5. Repeat steps 1-3 as many times as necessary until the Answerer says “Ah-ha!”.

Total time:

22mins including note taking. (this would change depending on the problem you’re trying to solve)

[side note: OK, I definitely took liberties with the title of this post – good luck with World Peace in 20 mins!]

Result:

After 3 weeks of research and 1 week of trying to put a plan together, to be able to do this in 22 mins was an incredible result.

For me it wasn’t so much of an “Ah-ha” moment, but by the time Adam had finally run out of questions, I realised that I no longer felt daunted and the picture was much clearer in my  mind. I was able to immediately put together a step by step plan to show Sam, including the issues and responsibilities. I also had some great updates for the phone scripts we were going to use.

What helped me get the most out of it:

  1. Had all the information by doing thorough research
  2. Taking notes – lots of them

What would I do differently next time?

  1. Find a scribe!
  2. Do it much earlier in the planning process. I could have saved much more time doing this earlier rather than waiting for a 3 week research/1 week planning process. As it was, I’m happy to have shipped the plan!

Final thoughts: I will definitely be telling staff about this. Provided it’s done so the Answerer is open to it (and so they don’t feel like it’s an interrogation!), it will massively shortcut problem solving.

As always, please let me know if it works (or doesn’t) for you in the comments.

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Some sample questions (there are obviously a stack of questions you can use, the key point is to keep asking!):

  1. Why are you doing this? Why is that important?
  2. Which options have you assessed?
  3. Who is involved in this process?
  4. Who needs to be informed?
  5. How does it impact you? How does it impact others?
  6. How will it make things better? For you? For others?
  7. What might go wrong? For you? For others?
  8. What are the steps to getting this done? What has to happen first? What has to happen last? Why?
  9. When is your deadline to accomplish this?
  10. What might stop you from achieving it by that date?
  11. What further information do you need?
  12. Where will you store the information?
  13. …?

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