Questions – the main tool for managers. Part 2

Questions – the main tool for managers. Part 2

Let’s continue our discussion on how a manager can successfully use questions to improve the way he manages.
Let’s continue our discussion on how a manager can successfully use questions to improve the way he manages.

Final check of the task

The purpose of this step is to check the outcome of the task performance and summarize the lessons learned for the future.

  1. What have you achieved?
  2. What kind of difficulties did you have? How did you manage to overcome these difficulties?
  3. What positive things can you remember?
  4. What difficulties can you remember?
  5. Who helped you? (It’s an ambiguous question, and should be asked tentatively.)
  6. What would you do differently now?

Please note! I never ask general questions like “Is everything OK?”, “Did you have any problems?” I ask specific questions: “What was it like?”, “Please describe it.” .You should keep in mind that checking the task is not only to summarize it and get the results. It’s also about setting corrective actions for the future – how the employee will tackle similar tasks in the future.


To complete the picture, I want to give you a simple scheme that will help you build a chain of questions for setting a task using the approaches described above.

1. Synchronizing the goal

Asking questions at this step, you synchronize your understanding of the task with that of the employee. “All human beings are different,” as psychologists say. Yet you can really feel that difference when you become a manager. You spelled everything out and described every step in detail, but the employee does it in a different way. Or the result you get is not as you expected. You should use this step when setting any task unless it is too simple (e.g. “Tighten a screw with the torque of 50 Nm”). I am not speaking about obviously “problematic” employees who are unable to perform such a task. If it comes to that, you should think about team building and perhaps changing the process.

2. Steps to solve the task

Here you make the employee think about how to perform the task. “Where will you start solving the task?” or “How do you see solving the task?” These can be the first questions to nudge the employee towards thinking over the steps of solving the task. If it’s hard for him/her to answer at once, you can try to nudge the employee towards solving the task “by analogy,” asking such questions as “What similar task have you already done?”, “What were the conditions of that task?” Your purpose is to understand whether the employee has a plan for solving the task. Some points may be corrected later on, but not too much, provided that the goal was synchronized correctly.

3. Analyzing the resources available for solving the task

Here you make the employee look at resources available for solving the task, and see if the employee realizes that he/she is not alone and there are others who can help in solving the task. I mean not only people within the team but also experts who may be engaged, and you as the manager. At this step you should ask questions like “What knowledge do you lack in order to do it?”, “What do you have at your disposal for solving the task? / What don’t you have for solving the task?”, “Who can help you in case of difficulties?”, “Who should be engaged now to start the process?”

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4. Estimating the duration and phases of solving the task

This step is necessary to synchronize deadlines and make the employee responsible for them. If you use a top-down approach to setting deadlines, the employee may estimate and consider it as follows: “Well, can I meet the deadline? OK, I think I can. Do it earlier, have some time to rest. Well, I can’t do it. Damn it! Have to resist (if the employee is mature and brave enough) or will try to meet the deadlines (with lower quality). You are the boss – it’s your word, your responsibility.” As you can see, in this case the responsibility is not distributed but lies solely with the manager. So, what can you do to make the employee responsible? Just ask the following questions: “Do you think you can meet the deadline?” or “By what time do you think you could have it done?” .In most cases, when you set the task like that, the employee will see that you are interested in his/her experience and opinion. In other words, if the employee agrees to the deadline you proposed or proposes another deadline, he/she takes the responsibility for it. The main thing in that case is not to “punish” the employee for the proposed deadline. Otherwise you may see the following.

Manager: “How much time will it take?”

Employee: “I need two weeks to do it.”

Manager: “Actually, we have the delivery in a week. You have to manage in that time. Go and start working, don’t waste time.”

It doesn’t work like that. It will kill any initiative in the team. If you already know the final date when the change is to be made, you should ask questions as follows: “The customer expects that we implement the change by a certain date. How realistic is that? What will we manage to have done? What can we facilitate to be on time?” And again remember that “why” questions should be asked when you have enough information for analysis. It is also helpful to schedule and set milestones with questions like, “How soon can we have an interim version?” or “When do you think you can show the draft version?”

5. Forming plan B

“What will you do if you are unable to solve the task like that?”, “What other ways of solving the task do you see?” “If this approach doesn’t work, who will you ask for help/advice?” You should ask these and other similar questions to understand what the employee would do in case of unforeseen circumstances. Answering such questions, the employee starts feeling that even if anything goes wrong, he/she will be able to do something to solve the problem. Willing or not, the employee’s brain begins working in that direction, and if plan A fails, there would probably arise some alternative solution. In other words, plan B will help the employee feel more confident in solving the task.

Looking at all these steps, you may have noticed that the idea is similar to that of delegating: make sure that you correctly understand the expected result, then make sure that the employee is capable of solving the task, then set the task and milestone (to be controlled in the process).

As I already said, at the first stage it is rather difficult to devise questions on the fly. So my advice is that you should prepare questions and options of conversation in advance.

Practice, try, and grow.

Good luck!

Vadim Kachurovsky 
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