Management Tools: Best Management Tools Ever? A Good Question

What are the best management tools? Accepting a tool or technique at face value can be an excuse for not doing the hard thinking and developing the right questions to ask.

Of course good management tools used appropriately, and in a considered manner, can assist this process.

The danger with management tools though, is that they may create a false sense of security, and encourage us to hide from the real thinking that needs to take place.

In the first Matrix film, there is a scene in a darkened night club where the character Trinity approaches the protagonist Neo. Loud music blasting away in the background, she comes close to him and says:

"It's the question that drives us ….. It's the question that brought you here." Later Trinity finishes the scene saying: "The answer is out there Neo. It's looking for you and it will find you if you want it to."

So what questions do we ask, and what drives them? Sometimes we ask superficial questions, simply out of routine, or as a result of inquisitiveness. Sometimes however, much like Neo, we are troubled by a nagging concern or a sense that things aren't quite right.

Questions borne of important or deep seated motivations are a good place to start, but how can we improve the questions we ask? Well the answer is out there – it's looking for you and it will find you if you want it to!!

To help you search for answers we’ll start with some questions of our own. See for yourself how questions can become effective management tools:

  • What are we inquiring about and why?
  • Who needs to be engaged in this inquiry?
  • How do we build more powerful questions?
  • What Are We Inquiring About And Why?

Why are questions so important? Einstein is quoted as saying "If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes." If you'll pardon the pun, giving yourself the time and space to find the right question(s) to ask should be prioritised, and should certainly precede any use of management tools.

In the late 1980's David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva, two academics from Case Western University, developed Appreciative Inquiry. Appreciative Inquiry seeks to create new ideas that aid the development of an organization. At its heart is a questioning process which focuses on the positive rather than the negative. Why is this significant? Well it is argued that most change processes are predicated on problem-solving processes, which start by asking "what's the problem". The focus of energy is then typically on what we want to do less of and working to "fix"the problem.

Appreciative Inquiry starts from a different basis. It asks: "what do we want more of?"It "appreciates"what is currently working well in the organization. The principle of Appreciative Inquiry is that organizations grow in the direction of what they repeatedly ask questions about, and what they focus their attention on.

Who Needs To Be Engaged In This Inquiry?

Finding the right questions to ask is not always easy, and in organizations it often starts with finding the right people to talk to. Reg Revans, best known for his work on action learning, suggested three simple and powerful questions to resolve any issue. Ask yourself:

  • Who knows? – about the situation/opportunity, or who has the information we need to solve it/realise it
  • Who cares? – that something is done about it
  • Who can? – do something about the solution

These questions are fundamental management tools. They help us to identify the people who need to come together, in order to take appropriate action to solve an issue or realize an opportunity.

Making Management Tools Better – How Do We Build More Powerful Questions?

Powerful questions are about creating movement and can be very effective management tools. That is, they help us to think differently about the situation about which we're inquiring. How do you construct questions that will be powerful? This is the question that Eric Vogt, Juanita Brown and David Isaac sought to answer in "The Art Of Powerful Questions". They outline three dimensions to a powerful question.

Firstly, there is a "pecking order" implied by the question's words. The more powerful questions begin with why, how or what. These are followed by who, when, where. Finally, the least powerful questions are those beginning with which, or those that can be answered with a yes or no.

The second dimension is the scope of the question. For example, "how can we manage our work group", is different in scope from "how can we manage our company".

The third dimension is the assumption we make within the question. "What did we do wrong and who is responsible" makes very different assumptions when compared with "what did we learn and what possibilities are there for us in the future"

Fran Peavy poses a related view of powerful questions, set in the context of social and community change. She talks in terms of question families, with two levels. Quesions at the first level are used to describe the issues/problems. This level is about gaining the facts and points of view by asking questions which focus on what is happening and questions that analyze the situation. The second level of questions digs deeper, encouraging movement to a solution asking what needs to change to reach a solution, and encouraging people to think about what it would take for the idea to work.

Asking questions such as these forces us all to stop and think. They are as effective as all other management tools. For example, what are the big questions that your department or service or company are facing? What are the most relevant questions to ask? What are the three to five questions which, if they could be answered, would make a big difference to your organization? You may like to take some time and think about these questions for the area you manage.

Here are some suggestions made by Vogt, Brown and Isaacs to help frame good generative questions. They propose three phases to questioning, firstly to focus on the situation the group is considering. What questions does the group need to ask to better understand the situation. Secondly to encourage more in-depth thinking about the situation. Encouraging the group to think about ideas that are emerging from their discussions. Then thirdly to think about questions which promote or stimulate actions. Exploring how some of the ideas might be taken forward.

Best Management Tools Ever?

The quality of the questions we ask will serve us well but it often takes some hard thinking before we get to those that really matter. Time spent thinking about the issues, then asking the right questions, is time well spent. Especially if you do this before you reach for that toolkit!

  • I keep six honest serving men,
  • They taught me all I know,
  • Their names are What and Why and When,
  • And How And Where And Who.

- Rudyard Kipling's The Serving Men

Take a giant step towards problem solving!

Best Management Tools Ever – Find out in our E-guide "What's the Problem?"

Central to this e-guide is the use of questions as management tools. Most problem solving guides and processes begin with defining the problem. Of course this is important and you'll find that and much more in this guide. But first we show you how to answer two critical questions:

  • "Is it the right problem to solve?"
  • "What opportunities are created by this problem?"

Both of these principles are understated ideas at the heart of effective problem solving. But they're often missed in our rush towards finding solutions! See how what's the Problem can help you find a better way to manage.

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