Monthly Archives: December 2009


If you want to know the answer

If you want to know the answer, the trick is to ask the right question. This might seem too basic but bear with me a little while and you’ll see where I am taking you to.

Principally there are three types of question: one which is designed to show how cleaver the issuer is, one which genuinely enquires in search of an answer and lastly one that is simply a statement requesting no answer at all such as: “Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who would want to live in an institution?”

Like most of us, I am flooded with questions on a daily basis, it’s an important part of my job. Stupid questions (and yes there is such a thing as a stupid question) can be very irritating and time consuming unless (unlike me) you are prepared to be rude by telling those that ask them to engage their brains before opening their mouths? 

For those of us that hold useful knowledge, questions can become a real pain. If we are too quick in giving answers our enquirers become lazy and simply rely on us to supply them with information wherever and whenever they want it, and yet, if we are too reluctant we are accused of being unhelpful.

In India, it was once the custom for a person to live a lifetime of servitude to a guru in the hope of one day being permitted to ask a question. Today most people feel they have the right to ask a question to anyone, even if they are not qualified to do so. For example, I would feel very uncomfortable asking Steven Hawkins a question on quantum physics because I do not feel that I have sufficient understanding of the subject. 

I like the line from Joan Osborn’s song ‘One of Us’: “What would you ask if you had just one question?” (Referring to a theoretical meeting with God). This question is the question of all questions and drives us directly to ask ‘what is it that we need to know?’

I have been building some on-line questionnaires recently. The trick here is to know what the problem is that the questionnaire is solving and why you want to solve it, before writing the questions.  

Too often questionnaires are too long and complex, posing questions to which no answer seems appropriate. And so it is in meetings. I like to prepare before I go into a meeting. For me preparation is not only a sign of respect but also a question of being efficient. Carefully thought through questions usually deliver carefully considered answers. By considering in advance how the receiver of the question might answer, focuses us on revising the question.  After all what is the point of a question that does not lead to increasing understanding?

A very practical example of the need to form the right question comes with the use of internet search engines. We know the answer is out there somewhere but how can we find it without being bombarded with irrelevant and mind diverting material? For example try going to Google to find information on the Paris Hilton…


(If you want to become an expert in finding information on-line here is a good place to start: 20 tips for more efficient Google searches)

In this holiday season week I am reminded in the Christian bible that three wise men came to visit the baby Jesus, I wonder what Mary and Joseph asked them?

Happy holiday season

Have a good week,



Perfectionists make the worst motivators

Have you ever worked for a perfectionist? For someone that no matter what you do or how you do it, it is never good enough?  I know I have!  The constant eroding away of one’s self confidence usually ends up with high frustration levels and the perfectionist having an ever increasing workload.

I have been described as ‘difficult’ from time to time, and as a perfectionist but I like to feel that there is a difference between encouraging people to push themselves to find new limits and taking the attitude that it would have been better and easier if I had done it myself?  For example, to encourage people not to except sloppy first drafts but to check and double check that the presentation they are preparing communicates precisely what they want to say, first time right, is the normal role of a boss and coach.  However, this can be taken too far.

I once worked for a boss in London who kept pushing me to ever higher standards, much higher than he held for himself.  He was the worst boss I have ever had, not just because of his perfectionist demands but for the fact that he seemed to have no respect for me or, indeed, for any of his employees. And here lies the key indicator of the story,  he didn’t like us and we didn’t like him.

If you are a perfectionist that has a deep respect for the talent that surrounds you, then there probably is no real issue. From time to time you simply need to re-learn the 80/20 rule.

On the other hand, if you are a perfectionist that feels that everyone around you is either incompetent or selfishly de-motivated, not acting as part of the team, then you may need to take a hard look at yourself, before blaming others…

What are the warning signs for the perfectionist de-motivator?

a) They constantly analyze every situation

b) They make detailed plans that only they seem to follow

c) They think they communicate but forget to use their ears

d) They are completely binary: ‘it must be like this because’

e) Not many people want to have lunch with them

This is not an attack on perfectionists, there are situations where a perfectionist that has an inherent dislike of those around them can be gainfully employed, for example as safety auditors for nuclear reactor plants, or as homicide detectives, or poets, even as financial analysts on fraud investigations. But I personally would not want one as a project leader or coach again.

Have a good week,



Please don’t ask me how I am

It’s all very well complaining about how customer service is not what it used to be etc. but if you take a step back, it’s often not too difficult to realize why? Here’s a true story that happened to a colleague of mine just last week.

He was phoning a client who he had not spoken to for a while.  The call was important, a contract needed to be prepared and he needed some additional information.  After trying a few times to get through, he finally managed and opened the conversation with:

“Hi there how are you?” 

The reply was quite astounding:

“Please do not ask me how I am, if everyone who called me asked me how I was I would never have enough time to get my job done!” 

My colleague was shocked but sympathized with her predicament. “I am sorry”, he said “I understand, but please I meant it genuinely, we haven’t spoken for such a while and I was just trying to catch up”.  At that point she realized what she had said and apologized and they engaged in a short but meaningful exchange.

With the pressure of looking for ever greater efficiency from our staff, cutting the numbers back to the bone, year on year, it eventually becomes a matter of choice to decide how far we can and should go.  As anyone that knows me is aware, I am a very busy person and I must say that I recognize myself a little in the story but at least I do try (most of the time) to show some interest when people ask me how I am, even if sometimes I don’t really have the time to reply.

At a reception last week someone reminded me of a joke I first saw on a poster back in the eighties, somehow today it seems to be far more poignant:

“If it wasn’t for customers phoning me the whole time wanting to place orders, I could get on with some real work!”

Have a good week,