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The importance of asking the right question

April 27, 2009

A new company decided to hold a 2-day workshop on how to craft the brand of their maiden product line. They batted about market statistics, customer feedback, competition, mission, strategic position, brand values, yada yada.

By 3pm on the second day, after tossing around a hundred questions and a dozen off-tangent discussions, they still couldn’t agree on how to create an image for their product; how to associate certain feelings with it. Time was running out.

It was then when a short quiet guy in the room raised his hand and softly asked, “If the product were a famous celebrity, who would it be?”

There was a moment of silence, then a frantic discussion erupted about which Hollywood character best matched the mood and attitude they were trying to convey. By 5pm everyone had agreed on a character and within a few months they were able to put a face on their product. (It was a popular cartoon character btw, for a children’s product).

Now granted that this is only a tiny part of brand management but my point is this. In any situation, whether work or personal, you can kill confusion and complexity by just asking a couple of simple questions.

I’ve proven this to myself time and again. The last was when I listened in on a runaway debate about process management in a roomful of techies which abruptly ended when I asked, “Look guys, tell me, actually what problem are you trying to solve?” It stopped everyone in their tracks and cleared the air instantly.

Now anyone can pull one simple thread that unravels the whole complicated tapestry but not everyone can find where that magical thread is. Its the equivalent of the secret knock-out blow in martial arts. It looks so simple, yet so elusive. It takes practice and a calm mind. Master that and you got it made.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 27, 2009 9:20 am

    I agree, when doing various projects I would just day dream and if it drags to long, I would wake up and ask a question. The discussion would then typically conclude 15min later with everyone smiling.

    I did that once in college and they threw their pencils at me, LOL. πŸ˜€

  2. April 27, 2009 11:19 am

    it happens quite often during meetings, meetings which are meant to solve certain problems. but ppl will go on n on n on…talking nonsense and no solution in the end.

    that’s why i always like to ask people to get back to the picture, or wat problem are we trying to solve, and is this meeting going the way we wanted it to? then people will stop talking crap and get back to do the real thinking.

    Yeah, guess that happens when people have a habit of using meetings to get things off their chests.

  3. LC Teh permalink
    April 27, 2009 1:43 pm

    I’ve sat through quite a number of fruitless rambling meetings. Sometimes it sounds more like everyone’s trying to avoid coming to a conclusion. And the obvious reason is, everyone’s trying to get away from responsiblity. Meaning, anyone who names the problem ends up appearing more knowledgeable than the rest about the issue and he ends up being responsible for getting the results. It’s like an old joke of when the captain asked for a volunteer and everyone stepped back except you. This, I suspect, is one of the signs of a dysfunctional organization. Or at least the beginning of one.

    All meeting participants should learn the wonderful art of tai chi…. LOL. πŸ˜€

  4. April 28, 2009 2:57 am

    ditto . less is more

    Haha. πŸ™‚

  5. LC Teh permalink
    April 28, 2009 12:34 pm

    …And when everyone is a master of tai-chi, rambling meetings is what happens. πŸ˜€ Eventually the business is also tai-chied away to some competitor. The smart ones lean some new skills (like above) and move uphill to more vantage locations. Happens all the time…

    We have tai chi in American boardrooms too, except we use terms selected from baseball. πŸ™‚

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