We have long been warned of the importance of asking the right questions. The concept can be seen across society, from classes in school to great movie characters’ and thinkers’ quotes.

One such example is in the classic film the Karate Kid where Mr Miyagi says, “The answer’s only important if you ask the right question”. And for those who prefer reality to fiction, the concept resonates in the words of mathematician John Tukey “An approximate answer to the right question is worth far more than a precise answer to the wrong one”. Yet, the excitement of the pursuit of answers continues to be far more appealing than the pondered reflection of what the questions should be. And in this fast-paced world, the pressure for quick answers is higher than ever. However, when business decisions depend on answers provided, the cost of failing to ask the right questions can be high.

In the insights business much attention is typically given to one’s ability to find answers. But our experience has taught us that it is our ability to ask the right questions that makes many of our clients want to work with us. Let’s be honest, asking the right questions is not an easy feat. It takes expert knowledge, creativity, awareness of own and our client’s biases and the ability to cancel the noise that surrounds us all.

To find the answers that can truly be valuable for our clients, we firstly need to healthily challenge their assumptions and find what is keeping them awake at night to ultimately uncover the true underlying problem that needs to be solved. These difficult conversions need to happen, as failing to do so can result in poor decision-making. Microsoft development of Zune MP3 player can be used to illustrate the potential negative impact of asking the wrong question. In the 2000s, Microsoft rivalry with Apple led it to invest in the development of Zune with a strategy that seemed focused on overtaking Ipod by trying to replicate it. For all the investment and technical expertise, Microsoft was unable to deliver on its promise and Zune, while launched, never really took off. Multiple causes are likely behind the failure, but at its core the focus on defeating the competition is likely to have overshadowed the company’s ability to critically question the market. Instead of asking how they could make a better iPod, they may have succeeded if they’d ask what they could offer that would improve peoples’ experience of listening to music on the go.

So, it is crucial to first understand and identify the real problem our clients need to solve. Only when we know that, the problem can be effectively translated into smaller questions, that can be addressed through secondary and primary research. Whilst this can be a complex process, there are some fundamentals that must be considered, which are summarised in our top 3 rules for questions worth asking:

Rule #1: Know how you will use the answer

Questioning is natural. Just think of children, they are very eager to ask questions. As we grow up, we do tend to become more selective especially when it comes to verbalizing our questions, but we are all guilty of occasionally engaging in meaningless Google searches. In business, where the act of asking can cost money and the answers are unlikely to come from a 5 min swipe, we need to be far more strategic. So next time a question comes to mind, think about whether it really matters; think not if you want to know it, but rather if you need to. And if you are unsure on how to measure the need, consider these: will the answer to this question help me decide, help me convince others deciding or help design or execute on a strategy/activity? If the answer is no, maybe think again…

Rule #2: Ask when it matters

Daniel Pink said in his book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing “We simply don’t take issues of when as seriously as we take questions of what”. Reflecting on this is important because timing can make or break a project. In primary competitive intelligence research “when” you pose the question can be crucial not only for the possibility of getting an answer, but also the quality of what that answer may be. Ask too early and we can find ourselves with wishful thinking and projections that hold little validation; ask too late and you may be better off waiting for the answer to unravel saving much needed resources in the process. Of course, not all types of research are as dependent on timing. For example, in analogue historical research, the concept of timing for questioning may be less relevant. But if you want to predict what your competitor is going to do so you can react/act on it, timing can truly be everything.

Watch ‘Daniel H. Pink – When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing’

Rule #3: Think beyond the obvious

At one point or another in our lives we have all experienced behaviour, decisions, or events that we did not see coming. The COVID pandemic is a good example – it is true a few had warned us, but from governments to healthcare institutions, nobody was really prepared. Why was that? Perhaps because when there are real issues ongoing that need addressing, it can be easy to disregard the unseen. When working for our clients we must not only support them in finding the objective truths and insights they are seeking to solve their problems now, but also flag the unseen dangers or opportunities that may unravel. That is why we try to keep a big picture analysis at the forefront of our engagements, cycling between broader topics to detailed questions to improve our probability of finding the unknown unknowns. This type of research holds the potential to challenge our thoughts and be transformative to the way we operate. And what’s more, when we translate these principles into our conversations and the way we phrase our questions it can really help keeping the conversations alive and extract more value out of each engagement which cumulatively results in a more robust research.

The world can be a noisy place, and if we let it, we can find ourselves constantly pushed and pulled in different directions by a stream of endless information. But through being more strategic in our questioning and considered in our approach, we can generate the insights which our clients need to be better prepared and make stronger decisions. As Mr Miyagi’s said to his student Daniel when he worried about facing off against a strong opponent “You trust the quality of what you know, not quantity.” Because indeed true value does not come from knowing all, but from knowing right.

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