“If you only had 5 minutes with a stakeholder, what question would you ask?”
I was asked this question while virtually coaching one of several technical development teams for a high-tech organization. “We often bring them our idea or prototype,” the team members explained, “and we often walk away with a list of 100 more questions that the stakeholder wants answered. How can we find out what is important to them?”
I suggested they present two ideas to the stakeholder. Not necessarily two ideas that would ultimately be developed, but two that “pegged the ends” of a given spectrum they were exploring. Then ask questions around those ideas. Why? To set up comparative thinking.
Comparative thinking is a powerful method to not only drive decision-making, but also to interpret how they define success and are framing the problem. By asking questions that drive this type of thinking, you can also mitigate powerful biases such as recency bias or confirmation bias. (You can read more about this in my book, Asking is Better Than Telling.)
As a very simple example, consider the two following questions and imagine your response to both. First, imagine someone asking you, “What do you think about this product? Where does your thinking go? Now imagine someone asking you, “How does this product compare to others that you have seen?” Note the difference?
Your stakeholders—and anyone else, for that matter–are always making comparisons when they make choices. How many times have you heard, “This will take too long.” Or “I think that is too expensive for our budget.” When I hear this, my next question will be, “Compared to what?” or “What are you thinking of as you say that?”
Giving a person two ends of a spectrum is a much faster process to illuminating one’s preferences than rolling that proverbial rock up the hill and asking, “Is this it?” As Dan Ariely noted in Predictably Irrational, “most people don’t know what they want until they see it in context.”
GIVE THEM THE CONTEXT...rather than spending time figuring out the one they already have in play.
By doing so, you can quickly explore their preferences, be it in the form of an outcome, or the problem that they see needs to be solved.