The Doyle Report: You Are What You Ask

The Doyle Report: You Are What You Ask

While some believe we are what we eat, business practitioners understand we are what we ask. Are you asking the right questions to propel your company?

My sister rang the other day; she doesn’t often so I took the call.

“Let’s run a race together this year,” she said. “Pick a city and a date and we’ll meet up.”

“Gladly,” I said. Preparations are now under way.

If you’ve ever run a marathon or beyond, you know that there are several rituals along the way. There are the long runs and recovery days. There is the sprint work and tapering. And then there’s the ritual pasta dinner the night before. Why pasta? Because your body needs the extra carbohydrates to power you through the experience. For thousands upon thousands of runners, “carbo loading” is something they do without questioning.

But is pasta really the right thing to eat before a big endurance race? The science isn’t clear. In fact, some experts and practitioners think the practice is unnecessary if not outright bunk. Six-time Hawaii Ironman Champion Dave Scott doesn’t carbo-load before big races. Same with world renowned fitness expert and endurance athlete Professor Tim Noakes from South Africa.

Over his 40-year career, Noakes has questioned its efficacy. In fact, he’s challenged a great deal of conventional wisdom about human endurance and diet, upsetting plenty of athletes and scientists who hew to conventional wisdom.

“I just get this funny feeling when something just isn’t true,” he recently told KUER’s RadioWest. “When I teach students, I tell them that I don’t care that they have a thousand facts supporting a particular hypothesis. If they have one that doesn’t, they better throw that theory out.”

Like many, Noakes believes the key to living well and doing right isn’t better training; it’s better questions. While some believe we are what we eat, Noakes and others ascribe to the belief that we are what we ask.

Which brings me to you: Are you asking the right questions to propel your company?

Over the Centuries, some big thinkers have taught us the power of a well-crafted inquiry. Socrates, of course, left us with The Socratic Method, which, after repeated stress testing through rigorous questioning, exposes flaws in critical thinking. Shakespeare, too, left us pondering big questions. “Et tu, Brutus?” “What’s in a name?” And, of course, “To be or not to be?”

Today, journalist Charlie Rose and television personality James Lipton ask great questions. (The latter is known for, “What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?” among others.)

Lipton riffs on what has become known as the “Proust Questionnaire,” which really wasn’t put together by 20th Century novelist Marcel Proust but a French TV personality instead. That’s not important. The version adopted by “Vanity Fair” is.

When it comes to inquiries, no one does it better than McKinsey & Co., which has built a world-class consulting business around asking probing questions. Consider these two blogs as an example.

The first, written in 2013 by McKinsey director Paul Willmott, poses “The Do-Or-Die Questions Boards Should Ask About Technology.” The list includes these two gems:

  • What will it take to exceed our customers’ expectations in a digital world?, and
  • Do our business plans reflect the full potential of technology to improve our performance?

The second, penned by fellow McKinsey director Colin Price, gets right to the point:

  • What are your company’s 10 most exciting value-creation opportunities?
  • Who are your 10 best people?
  • How many of your 10 best people are working on your 10 most exciting opportunities?

When it comes to asking great questions, there is a right way and a wrong way. CompTIA Senior Vice President Tim Herbert, the head of the trade association’s research and market intelligence group, says context and authorship play a big part. He would know: Herbert has devoted his entire career to crafting questions that extract fundamental truths.

“A CEO questioning a subordinate has a completely different dynamic than a sales rep questioning a prospect or a researcher questioning a target sample,” he told me in an interview. His advice for looking for greater understanding:

  • Structure questions with objectivity in mind. Even subtly suggestive wording can skew responses (aka ‘lead the witness’).
  • Avoid highly ambiguous questions that may yield responses that are difficult to interpret. It’s not the responsibility of the respondent to try to figure out what the questioner is asking.
  • Respect the time and intelligence of the respondent. Avoid going overboard with extraneous or “nice to know, but not critical” questions. Avoid asking unnecessary questions, such as basic background information that can easily be pulled from other sources.
  • Avoid starting abruptly with complex or sensitive questions. Individuals tend to respond more favorably with an approach whereby the questioner builds up to complex or sensitive lines of questions.  

As for advice on how to ask questions that will result in new business, I turned to Jim Lippie. Lippie, as many of you know, is a former MSP himself (he successfully ran IndependenceIT after spearheading the sale of Thrive Networks to Staples in 2006) and today serves as the chief advisor at Clarity Channel Advisors. Clarity is the company behind the Clarity Intelligence Platform, which provides actionable insights on customer interactions to MSPs for a modest fee.

Lippie knows the MSP space as well as anyone and is, in fact, a partner helping MSPmentor with data collection and analysis for the 2016 MSP 501 list and study. (You can still apply here.)

What are the two best questions to land new business? He says they are these:

  • On a scale from 1-10, how would you rate your current IT solution or service provider?
  • What would make that score a 10?

“By answering these two questions customers are telling you (the MSP) what their pain points are and how you can sell to them,” says Lippie.

As for setting the proper expectations with customers, Lippie recommends the following:

  • What are your three top organizational IT service priorities?
  • How can we exceed your expectations?
  • How could we disappoint your organization during the next year?

Of course, there are wrong ways to ask questions. Science writer David Levitan just penned a marvelous post for Slate about the new age tendency to forget to ask a real question. If you have ever been to a business conference and watched some clod ramble on endlessly with an open microphone, then his “My Question is the Following Statement” will make you laugh (if not cry).

If you’re still stumped for the right question to ask in any situation, you can always try what my friend and former boss Charlie Cooper used over and over. “Coop” is a storied tech journalist with a long record of scoops and exclusives. When we worked together he marveled me with one liners that I’ll never forget. (“That fella? He’s got a face like a clenched fist.”) But it was Coop’s questions that fascinated me most. When I asked him his favorite, he mulled it over for days. The he got back to me. Like Noakes, the endurance runner and professor quoted above, Coop had a thing for challenging the status quo.

“When I worked as a sports reporter for AP, one question that management HATED but always elicited great responses—once all the four letter expletives got edited out—was to ask someone to second guess themselves after a bad decision. I probably could have asked that question more once I pivoted to tech and business journalism. But when I did, it got execs to think and give me something meaty.”

Meaty answers to interesting questions? Where do you think I got the idea to call this piece “we are what we ask?”

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