What JFK knew about asking questions

“Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” is a quote from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech 1961 (video and transcript here).

I read that he wanted to inspire people to change their perspective. So, what would happen if you change your perspective today?

This week I changed my perspective about the question “Why?”. I met a C-suite officer of a large American company and asked him about his perspective on asking questions.

He said that one of his favorite questions is “why”. Initially I was disappointed….OK, I thought, not a surprising answer from a senior leader…I heard that many times before…I know all about “why” – root cause analysis, 5 why technique, blablabla….but then he said “let me explain what I mean by that” and he shared a great insight for which I am grateful.

He said that one should ask “why” for 3 reasons:

  1. To understand process, i.e. why was it done this way? (the end result matters but what was the process we used to achieve it)?
  2. To understand assumptions, i.e. why can we rely on this? (if the assumptions are totally unrealistic, then what is a project or business case worth?)
  3. To get a feeling for what is working and what isn’t , i.e. why should we do this again?

He said “the key to making questions effective is to provide context”

  • I am asking this question to understand better / see what the main problem is / how I can help to remove roadblocks…..
  • Don’t give me the detailed version – a high level answer is enough….

Context allows people to understand reasons behind the question, makes them feel more comfortable and less threatened, and clarifies what kind of answer is expected.

Wow, I realized that there is a little bit more to the question “why” than I thought. Especially, since I recently wrote a post arguing that asking “why” is overrated.

I changed my perspective. By changing perspective I accept that asking “why” rules and context is king. JFK knew about the importance of changing perspective. I, too, understand it better now and I will ask “why” more often. Not in the context of root cause analysis but to drill down into process, assumptions and what’s (doesn’t) work. It helps me to become a better leader. I gained.

What can you gain by changing perspective this week?


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