Keep it simple – why simple questions lead to better solutions

It seems as if many managers are proud of how complicated they can formulate a question. Jargon, complicated sentences and abstract visions are mixed into an unpalatable mush that says absolutely nothing. As if a simple question is beneath them. Some sentences seem to be designed to keep the audience guessing for the point that the writer (or speaker) wants to convey.

Don’t be this person.

Being vague might be useful to survive at certain levels in politics (as nobody can ever trace anything actionable back to you), but most of the times it merely wastes enormous amounts of time and energy.

Want proper answers? Ask proper questions.

In previous articles, we’ve spend quite some time emphasising the importance of good questions. Any problem can be solved, but only if you get your question right. This means you should spend some time analysing the cause of the problem. It’s also very important to try out different ways to approach the same challenge. Equally important, however, are the words you use to phrase the challenge.

Because asking good questions is not as obvious as one might expect, we created a Focus Checklist. A simple list of 5 characteristics that define an adequate focus question. While checking these five boxes should not be rocket science, many people still struggle.

The thing people seem to find most difficult is keeping the question clear. I’m not sure why so many people insist on using jargon, vague language and descriptions that almost require you to have a linguistics degree to grasp. I have some theories.

Why do people phrase complicated sentences?

Of all the managers and directors who ask us for help, a substantial number has the tendency to overcomplicate things. Of course, when you’ve worked in a certain field or at a certain level for a while, you’ve become accustomed to the common buzzwords and jargon. It happens to all of us and we all need to be aware of this. I suspect, however, that something else plays an even bigger role.

I believe many times people use fancy words and woolly language because it makes them feel smart. ‘Look at this complicated way of phrasing a challenge. Surely this shows you how terribly clever I am?

Of course, often the opposite is true. Using vague and woolly descriptions makes you sound insecure. It tells people you are covering up the fact that you do not fully understand what you are talking about. You’re not fooling anyone.

Want people to know that you’re super smart? Keep your questions clear and concise. It’s way more difficult to phrase a question that anyone understands than it is to come up with a monstrosity that uses more ink, to say a lot less.

Ask questions like a child

Not sure if the questions you ask are simple enough? Ask yourself ‘Would someone who does not work in my field understand this?’ Or even better: ‘Would a child understand this question?

This little thought exercise forces you to think of ways to simplify your question. Don’t think for a second this is easy. I remember talking to the chief editor of the Dutch tv format ‘Jeugdjournaal’ (the news for children), who previously worked as chief editor for the ‘regular’ news. While his previous job would by many be considered more ‘prestigious’, he readily admitted that his new job was a lot more challenging. Just imagine explaining the main (and often gruesome) events that take place in the world in such a way that children understand…

Simple questions lead to better solutions

It’s not easy to ask clear questions. But doing so forces you to focus on the core of your issue. Simple questions are easier to solve and lead to better solutions. Whether you’re working with a group of children or a team of highly educated adults.

Next time you phrase a challenge that requires a solution, take your time to sharpen the question. Cut the crap. Make it simple and improve your chances of success.

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