Even though I've written about office politics before, there's a secret that I've always kept to myself. It's a technique that allows you to get the better of any opponent in just about every workplace situation. You ready? Here it is:

Always own the question.

When trying to influence a decision, most people work really hard to come up with ironclad reasons why the decision should be favorable to them (and not to you). They buttress those arguments with footnotes, facts, and references.

However, you can undercut all of that work and reduce it to total irrelevance simply by owning the question.

You see, every decision is an answer to a question: How do we fix this? Where should we buy this? How can we market this? Who's the right vendor? In every case, the question defines the limits of the answer. Change the question, and those limitations slip away.

For example, suppose the CEO calls a staff meeting to discuss the recent loss of a big customer. The chief engineering officer builds an ironclad case that the company lost the account because the sales team screwed up and the marketing sucked. 

Both executives are sitting at the table with the CEO, ready to fix blame, when the chief sales officer walks in, sits down, and says: "The real question we need to answer is: How can we win that customer back?"

Bingo. The carefully prepared finger-pointing is swept away, because rather than trying to own the answer, the CSO decided to own the question.

The true power of this technique is to own the question before it even gets asked. Do that, and you can almost always end up driving a decision that is favorable to your own agenda.

For example, suppose the CSO wants the company to buy new iPads for the entire sales team. He asks the CFO, "Do we have budget for 50 iPads?" and the answer is no. All the CSO can do at this point is argue about budget priorities.

But let's suppose that instead, the CSO asked the CFO, "How much ROI is needed to justify a $25,000 equipment purchase?" In this case, the CFO will probably say something like, "$50,000 in the first year."

Now all the CSO needs to do is prove that having iPads will result in a $50,000 increase in yearly sales revenue. By owning the question, the CSO got an answer that moves him closer to achieving his goals.

I realize that those two examples might seem a bit simplistic, but when you get right down to it, office politics aren't really all that complicated. Decisions are almost always made within the parameters of whatever question is asked.

Own the question and you own the decision. It's really that simple.

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