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  • Writer's pictureSean Grace

The Art of the Question

"The answers you get depend on the questions you ask"

In my consulting business I work with lots of talented engineers and specialists who are experts at design and technical problem solving. They excel at visualizing and building better mouse traps, from application software to surgical instruments. When tackling complex problems, many utilize the Japanese inspired Six Sigma methodology, which provides a set of tools and techniques to improve efficiencies in design and operations. The framework is structured around seven pillars - Define, Measure, Analyze, Design, Verify, Improve, and Control - with either a design or improve orientation (DMADV & DMAIC). Each of the stages has different guidance criteria and progresses sequentially with the goal of attaining an elegant, repeatable solution to some vexing problem.

Six Sigma was first introduced by Bill Smith at Motorola in the 1980s and was then adapted to great effect at GE under Jack Welch in the 1990s. It has since been adopted by many large companies worldwide and is now a standard framework for quality control and design.

The main theme of the first two stages - Define and Measure - is “discovery”, which is a combination of objective observation, vigorous inquiry and directed dialogue. These skills are less familiar and agile to most engineers and technical designers who exceed at building things but tend to fall short at listening, connecting and engaging in deliberative, interrogative conversation.

Asking good questions is a skill in which most people lack proficiency (unless you’re a psychologist or an FBI hostage negotiator) but it's especially critical in STEM fields. I learned most of my questioning skills in my early days in sales, which is a profession that demands good listening and inquiry skills.

The first phase of most critical thinking methods such as Six Sigma is to “understand”. Dispassionately observe what is happening and actively listen to what’s being said, with no reaction, opinion, interpretation or judgement - such as watching a surgeon in an operating room, or listening to a focus group voice their reactions to a new product or political ad.

The second discovery phase is “probe, elicit and clarify”. Here’s where you ask questions that smoke out underlying meaning, belief and intention; discover ancillary correlations, and clarify what’s just been said or observed. It’s still about discovery but utilizes techniques such as the 5 Whys, funneling, re-framing and mirroring to drill deeper on questions, elicit more clarity and establish mutual understanding (and rapport).

After the discovery phase comes the Inference phase where the questions turn from evocative to provocative. In this stage you challenge assumptions, simulate different viewpoints and hypothesize implications, contradictions and consequences. Here’s where skills in metaphor, analogy and storytelling come in for helping to spark creative dialogue, imagine alternatives, propose hypotheses and begin to uncover the real problem to be solved - which is often not the problem first stated or assumed.

Once you’ve gone through this question and answer dance, you’re ready to define the true problem and prepare for brainstorming solutions. But the first stages of Six Sigma, or any critical thinking framework, require smart, deliberative questioning that gets at the heart of the matter. Questioning that is conversational, inquisitive and incisive. Learning these “soft” skills goes a long way in problem solving, innovation, persuasion and leadership.


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