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Questions are a critical tool that every coach, mentor or leader uses to help shape and improve the performance of those they interact with.  ‘Question’ represents a high-level category that describes many different types of questions.  This is similar to the screwdriver.  If you were to walk into a hardware store and ask for a screwdriver the clerk would ask what kind and/or what you were going to use it for in order to help you find the right kind.  There are different taxonomies of questions which are useful to help practitioners decide what type of question suits which purpose.

Open, Closed and Hybrid Questions:

The first classic categorization typically leveraged when considering which type of question to use in any specific scenario is: open or closed?

 Open questions are queries that have multiple and often conflicting answers.  An example of an open question would be asking someone what the meaning of life (an extreme example).  The primary goal of an open question is to generate a conversation and participation.  Open questions can be used to guide conversations by are not as effective at guiding an interview as a set of closed questions (below).

Closed questions are questions with a limited number of correct answers. For example, a  yes/no question is a closed question.  Another non-yes/no example is the question, Did the sun come up this morning?  The question while yes or noe has one correct answer (unless something very dramatic and bad has occurred and then no one would really care about the answer).  A multiple choice question is another slightly less extreme version of a closed question. Closed questions are good for testing comprehension, but are not very good for generating a conversation.   Another very effective use of closed questions is a tool to guide the direction of a conversation, or a leading question (another taxonomy).  The use of leading questions assumes that the conversion is deterministic, can be mapped, and the person being guided doesn’t react badly to being directed. Lawyers and salesmen use leading questions more often than coaches and mentors.

In many circles when people discuss whether a question is open or closed there is an assumption that open questions are prima facie better than closed and therefore need to be avoided. As with most extremes, this simplification is wrong. Both are useful but their primary purposes are very different.  Using one when the other is indicated tends to yield poor results.

Hybrids that combine open and closed questions try to get the best of both worlds. Asking a yes/no and why is a hybrid approach that is often used to test knowledge while generating a conversation.   I use this type of hybrid approach at the end of every interview I do for the Software Process and Measurement Cast.  I ask the interviewee what are the two (closed) things they would change and why (open). The closed part directs the answerer in a specific direction while the why provides the answerer with an open field to expand on why they think the material is valuable.

ORID Framework

Another method of characterizing questions is the ORID Framework.  ORID is an acronym for:

  • Objective Questions which reveal facts and reality.  These questions are useful for setting the context.
  • Reflective Questions which tease out the relationship between data. Reflective questions tend to focus on the emotional aspect of relationships.
  • Interpretive Questions explore the sense of a situation by promoting critical thinking and analysis.
  • Decisional Questions prompt action.  The questions prompt the person answering the question to examine benefits and the consequences of actions or inaction, and finally to make decisions.

The ORID framework is useful when preparing for a meeting or facilitation session. For example, having a facilitator in a storytelling session for a premortem (a storytelling technique often used for risk management) will need to have a pallet of seed questions developed before the session.  While these questions will be tailored based on the context of the session, having a base to draw from in each category allows the facilitator to focus more on the action than on writing questions on the fly!

Conclusion

In my basement, I have a 10 or 15 screwdrivers.  Each screwdriver is for a specific task, although I have experimented with using many of screwdrivers for other things than what they are supposed to used for.  Sometimes the experiment works, sometimes the experiment fails.  Questions are no different. Every good mentor or facilitator needs to have a pool of questions that can be used in any situation; however just having a pool of questions is not sufficient to be a good interviewer or facilitator.  In order to be sufficient, the questioner needs to know why they are asking the question and the outcome the question is supposed to elicit.

 

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