I felt I had a good idea. Who am I kidding -- I felt I had a great idea. I had done the analysis, done the reasoning, and done the math. Still, just to make sure, I asked a key employee for input.

"I'm thinking of moving two crews to a different shift rotation to get a better process flow," I said. "I've run the numbers, and overall productivity should go up by at least 10 percent. What do you think?"

He thought for a minute. "I suppose it could work," he said. 

"I think so too," I said.

So I moved them. My new shift rotation worked great on paper. But it didn't work so well in practice. There were problems I should have seen coming. There were problems other people saw coming.

But I didn't realize until it was too late.

What happened? I spoke at the wrong time.

As Simon Sinek says:

"The skill to hold your opinions to yourself until everyone has spoken does two things: 1) It gives everybody else the feeling that they have been heard. It gives everyone else the ability to feel that they have contributed. And 2), you get the benefit of hearing what everybody else has to think before you render your opinion. The skill is really to keep your opinions to yourself."

When you have an idea -- when you think you have the answer -- it's easy to ask leading questions. It's easy to ask limiting questions. It's easy to ask questions that assume a certain answer.

It's easy to not even listen to the answers when you're too busy, as I was, presuming you're right.

Here are ways to ask questions that allow you to hear what everyone else has to think -- before you give your opinion.

Present a situation.

There's a problem. It needs to be fixed. You think you have the answer. 

But maybe you don't.

Ask a question that assumes a particular answer and you presuppose the solution -- and shut off the flow of better ideas.

For example, asking, "Don't you think we should go ahead and ship (that order)?" forces people to openly disagree with you. You clearly think the order should ship Though a few people may disagree, most won't, because it's obvious what answer you want to hear.

Instead say, "What do you think we should do about (that order)?" You're raising an issue -- without including an answer in our question.

That leaves room for people to express a variety of options.

Ask open-ended questions.

Say there's a quality problem. You've come up with two possible solutions.

"Should we just scrap everything and rework the whole job?" you ask. "Or should we ship it and hope the customer doesn't spot any of the defects?"

Since you provided only two options, most people will pick one answer or the other. But there may be better options.

Instead say, "We've found defects throughout the whole order. What do you think we should do?"

Maybe someone will say to scrap the entire order. Maybe someone will say you should ship and hope.

Or maybe someone will say, "What if we tell the customer up front there is a problem, ship everything to them, and take a crew to their warehouse to sort product. That reduces the impact on the customer: They can use whatever is good right away and they won't have to wait for us to rerun the entire job."

Or maybe someone will have an even better answer.

Instead of sharing options, just state the problem. Then ask "What do you think?" Or, "What would you do?" Or, "How should we handle this?"

Then shut up and let people think. Don't rush to fill the silence.

Only speak to clarify.

Asking questions can make you feel vulnerable when you're in a leadership role. (You're supposed to have all the answers, right?) That makes it hard to ask questions when you don't understand -- especially when you're supposed to understand.

Don't worry: Asking for clarification is easy. Just say "I'm impressed. Now pretend I don't know anything about how that works. How would you explain it to me?"

Or, "That sounds really good. Let me make sure I don't miss anything, though. Can you walk me through it one more time?"

And never pretend you understand when you don't. All that does is waste people's time.

Bringing it all together.

To ask better questions:

  1. Limit your questions to one or two sentences. It's fine to state a problem or issue in detail, but the question should be brief. If you've described a productivity issue, sum up by asking, "How can we increase productivity?" "If you've described a quality problem, sum up by asking, "How can we improve quality?" Sticking to one or two sentences helps ensure your questions aren't leading and stay open-ended.
  2. Don't provide options.You may have some in mind. Fine -- wait until it's your turn to speak. Besides, the odds you've already thought of everything are pretty slim.
  3. Only ask clarifying questions. Don't judge until it's your turn. The first time you say, "That doesn't really make sense" is the last time you'll receive creative input.
  4. Always speak last. You already know what you know. Your goal is to find out what other people know.  So stay quiet and listen.

You never know what you'll learn when you ask the right way.

Especially when you're the last to speak.