As a manager or leader, responding and giving feedback to others will always be a large and critical part of your job. You must know how to improve others' ideas, and you must know how to do so in real-time rather than after extended bouts of quiet reflection, which you rarely have.

To do so, you need a repeatable process you can use anytime others present ideas to you. Here are four questions you can ask of most ideas or decisions to take them to the next level:

What problem are you trying to solve?

This first question forces people to anchor their idea in a priority problem facing your organization. People can easily become infatuated with an idea causing them to lose sight of the reason for the idea. In other cases, people mistake activity for productivity, proposing a recommendation when there isn't a need for one.

For example, in some of my team's conversations about how to improve specific product features, team members will begin sharing ideas about building community and updating the brand. While those topics may be relevant, it's helpful to ask in those moments: What problem are you trying to solve? In addition to ensuring the idea addresses an organizational priority, it causes the idea generators to evaluate their idea on the basis of how well the idea solves the problem. This provides a specific criterion for evaluating the idea, which leads people to generate and pick better ideas.

Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?

Once you have defined the problem, you need to understand the cause. Yet, it is difficult to distinguish between symptoms and causes. Symptoms often look like causes until you probe deeper, and designing solutions around symptoms generally results in unforeseen consequences.

To get to the root cause, Jeff Bezos famously uses the five why's technique. For example, if customers are returning a lot of orders, you could ask:

  • Why are so many customers returning their orders? Maybe customers need your product more quickly than they receive it.
  • Why aren't customers getting their orders on time? Maybe your sales system isn't processing and fulfilling customer orders for 24 hours.
  • Why isn't our system fulfilling orders for 24 hours? Maybe customers often request a change after placing an order, disrupting immediately filled orders.
  • Why are customers changing and canceling orders after placing them? Maybe some product features are not clearly described on the website.
  • Why aren't the features clear on the website? Maybe your company uses different terminology than others in the industry.

The difference between a solution to the first why question and the last is striking, illustrating the power of this technique to uncover the root cause.

And then what?

Nearly everyone thinks through the consequences of their ideas, but few think through the consequences of those consequences. In his book Principles, Bridgewater Associates CEO Ray Dalio says that, "Failing to consider second- and third-order consequences is the cause of a lot of painfully bad decisions."

In the same way root cause analysis drills deep, second-order thinking unpacks the probable future. Second-order thinking considers what will happen over longer periods of time, to a larger variety of stakeholders, and through more cycles of cause and effect.

To push others into second-order thinking, Shane Parrish, a former cybersecurity expert at Canada's top intelligence agency and founder of the widely read Farnam Street blog, encourages people to ask, "And then what?" You can use this question in the same way Bezos uses why questions, extending others' thinking far enough into the future to ensure they're aware of second- and third-order consequences.

What's the third option?

When presented with a decision, many people anchor on the two most obvious opposing options. You can either sell your product to businesses or individuals. You can either be a wholesaler or a retailer. This type of either/or thinking unnecessarily imposes limits on your thinking, causing you to miss opportunities to combine ideas or find a third idea outside the mold of the original two options.

To push people out of either/or thinking, ask them for a third option. When forced to think beyond their existing two options, they must not only generate another option, but break the constraints of the mental model they've been using to understand and generate a recommendation. In doing so, they'll likely discover many other options that were previously hidden to them.

Great leadership is proven in the quality of the contributions of one's followers. Improving others' ideas and decisions by asking these four questions is one of the surest ways to enhance the contributions of your team. It both improves their immediate contributions and trains them to think at another level.