What Brings More Insight: the Answers or the Questions?

Posted by Dawn Marie Bailey

What if you were asked to speak on a topic for which you had no expertise? Would you turn down the assignment because you felt that audience members were already experts and you didn’t have answers for them?

Now, consider what if you had the right questions for them–questions they could ponder to lead them to deeper understanding and insights within their own contexts? What if your focus was not on the right answers but on the right questions?

In a Business Week article, Jim Collins talks about being invited to West Point to talk to Army generals, CEOs, and social sector leaders about the topic of America. He writes that he hesitated before talking to the crowd, but then he recalled what his mentor told him about effective teaching: “Don’t try to come up with the right answers; focus on coming up with good questions.”

Collins came up with a potentially provocative question that led to an intense debate for which audience members agreed or disagreed based on their own contexts. One audience member pondering the first question even turned the debate back to Collins, saying his organization had some success but “how would you know” the measure of that success and if it was sustainable?

Asking the right questions, including “How do you know?”, is at the very heart of the Baldrige Excellence Framework and its Criteria. The Criteria include questions that can be adapted to different types of businesses and organizations, twisted and turned to bring real meaning and insights through answers that can be actionable for that organization or that person in his/her own situation.

The questions in the Criteria help you explore how an organization is accomplishing its mission and key objectives in seven critical areas: leadership; strategy; customers; measurement, analysis, and knowledge management; workforce; operations; and results.

The Baldrige framework leads organizations to evaluate their processes and results along set dimensions. There are questions for an organization’s processes:

  • Approach: How do you accomplish your organization’s work? How effective are your key approaches?
  • Deployment: How consistently are your key processes used in relevant parts of your organization?
  • Learning: How well have you evaluated and improved your key approaches? How well have improvements been shared within your organization?
  • Integration: How well do your approaches align with your current and future organizational needs? How well are processes and operations harmonized across your organization?

And for its results:

  • Levels: What is your current performance?
  • Trends: Are the results improving, staying the same, or getting worse?
  • Comparisons: How does your performance compare with that of other organizations, or with benchmarks or industry leaders?
  • Integration: Are you tracking results that are important to your organization and that consider the expectations and needs of your key stakeholders? Are you using the results in decision making?

As you answer the Criteria questions and assess your responses, organizations will identify strengths and gaps—first within the Criteria categories and then among them. As they continue, organizations will begin to define the best ways to build on strengths, close gaps, and innovate.

The Baldrige framework and its Criteria do not prescribe how an organization should structure itself or its operations (i.e., there are no right answers). Instead, the framework functions more as a mentoring/teaching tool.

So if you or your organization don’t quite have all the answers yet, take a look at the Baldrige Excellence Framework and its Criteria for those “good questions.” And, since this is Collins, consider if the questions in the Baldrige Criteria might help your organization go from good to great.

Note: We thank Baldrige examiners Denise Haynes and Doug Serrano for sharing the idea for this blog, as they observed that they have long referred to using the Baldrige framework as “Management by Asking Really Good Questions.” We always welcome readers’ suggestions for future blog topics and thoughts in relation to the Baldrige framework.  

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One Response to What Brings More Insight: the Answers or the Questions?

  1. Bob A. DeMarcki says:

    Wonderful subject – Denise and Doug, thank you for your approach.

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