8 MIN READ

Are Your Stakeholders Asking the Right Questions?

Emily James

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Grayling Ferguson

    There is a phrase you might have heard in various contexts, sometimes genuine sometimes voiced with snark, but the purest form of this sentiment is a key goal for insight teams across all industries. One which indicates that many stakeholders typically only know how successful something has been after it has occurred. To be able to guide them to make the right decisions beforehand is a key part of a research team’s ethos and a boon for all teams. 

    “Tell me something I don’t know”

    - Stakeholders everywhere

    But what exactly is it that decision makers don't know? And how can you find out? Well, by listening to the questions they ask.

    The Importance of Questions

    The questions stakeholders ask says a lot about what they think they understand and what they don’t actually know. Even the questions they don’t ask says a lot about their level of knowledge and experience with research and insights.

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    Learning how to ask the right questions is key to building up a better understanding of any subject matter, and as researchers, we sometimes forget not everyone knows how to ask questions well.

    As humans, we ask questions from the moment we begin to talk so that we can better discover and understand the world in which we live; but even though asking questions is encouraged as we grow up, there seems to be a point where we stop. Either we:

    • Fear asking questions makes us look stupid or even inept at the job that we’re hired to do
    • Don’t care enough to ask any more questions
    • May think we know the answer already, but in reality, we’ve just connected the wrong dots
    • Don’t quite know what question to ask in order to clarify our understanding

    There are only a few occupations that specialise in asking good questions (journalists, lawyers, doctors, etc.). But asking questions is the only way we effectively learn and experience more, and develop a true understanding of the situation at hand.

    For stakeholders, asking questions is crucial to a better understanding of the business, such as how the business is truly working, why certain strategies are working while others are not, and how well everyone in the business is interacting with each other and working towards the shared business objectives. 

    But asking questions doesn’t only improve strategic advantage, but also personal relationships too. Questions promote chances for bonding between questioner and answerer - the more bonding that takes place through the asking and answering of questions, the more the relationship between researchers and stakeholders will develop, closing the chasm between the two and improving insights empowerment of all parties involved.

    Questions in Research

    The insights industry is founded on asking the right questions. We are fortunately one of those occupations that thrive on asking the right questions, and thankfully we’ve become pretty good at it, even finding new ways to ask better questions to gain a variety of answers. Surely we can use these skills to teach stakeholders to ask better questions themselves?

    How can insight teams help decision-makers build the right knowledge set throughout the research experience?

    Beginning

    In the beginning, there’s a lot of information needed to create the best research experience (read: accurate, relevant, and directly actionable). Some of the information lies with researchers, but most of it lies with stakeholders. In this part, it is the researchers who tend to ask the questions and the stakeholders who answer as much as they can. 

    However, stakeholders are the ones who traditionally write the research brief, filling in as much information as they can with the questions provided. But while the researchers know the answers they seek and so word the questions in a way to get them, stakeholders might not understand the depth of information they need to communicate. While it may seem like a document only stakeholders can fill out, the research brief should really be a collaborative endeavour, with both researchers and stakeholders asking and answering questions to help form the foundation of the research experience.

    To kickstart this collaborative process, research teams can take this opportunity to educate stakeholders, evaluating research briefs, editing them and feeding back to stakeholders on how they can better interpret the questions, provide the answers that will lead to better research experiences.

    During

    During the research experience, both researchers and stakeholders have the chance to ask more questions to inform the research project. On the research side, researchers can ask questions to make sure the research being conducted and the insights generated are actually relevant and actionable for stakeholders. 

    On the stakeholders’ side, they can ask questions of the researchers - take the opportunity to learn how and why the research project is running the way it is, and what more information they can provide to make it run smoother or pinpoint opportunities for more accurate data. If there are any changes in the business operations or the strategic direction, stakeholders can feed that back to the researchers and be a part of the strategic redirection of the research, if redirection is needed.

    The more stakeholders are involved and engaged in the research experience, the more chances they will have to ask questions and influence the research experience, enhance the actionability of the insights generated and become empowered by insights.

    End

    The end of the research experience comes after the insights have been used by stakeholders and the impacts can be seen. This is a chance for both stakeholders and researchers to reflect upon the experience as a whole, working to understand how well it went and what can be done better next time. 

    This debriefing session allows both parties to ask questions with the benefit of hindsight, and use that knowledge to plan better strategies (both research and business) in the future. This debriefing session also allows stakeholders to ask questions to researchers that they didn’t think about in the activation stage of research, and understand more ways that they can act on the insights generated from the research even once the research experience has ended. Insights can be used whenever, wherever to inform many different situations, not just while the research experience is taking place.

    How to Ask the Right Questions?

    So how can we learn how to ask the right questions? As researchers, this tends to come naturally, but understanding how we ask the right questions takes a sense of self-reflection and understanding that sometimes can be hard to find.

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    The questions we ask (and don't ask) say a lot about what we understand, and the more intelligent the question, the more knowledge we stand to gain.

    This article from the Harvard Business Review is a great place to start when learning how to ask the right questions. Firstly, the author explains how being a good listener is the first key to understanding which questions are the best to ask; through listening, stakeholders can then understand the underlying concepts of research and then use that to ask intelligent questions rather than make researchers repeat themselves.

    Another way of learning which questions are right is to try asking a range of questions, open-ended and closed, and understanding which questions are better in which circumstances and conversations. 

    But lastly, as you will have probably come to realise by this point in the article, the art of asking the right questions is that of trial and error - the best way to learn how to ask the right questions is by asking more questions and learning from hindsight which gathered the most informative answers. Asking initial questions and then asking follow-up questions too will slowly pave the way for the questioner to learn how to form and phrase questions to gain the best answers.

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