Entrepreneurship is a tough journey.
The discussions I’ve had with my entrepreneur podcast guests as well as more than 20 years of running companies have taught me the importance of having a sound business strategy.
⅔ of my career was spent in the market research industry. It has provided me with one efficient tool to get you where you want to be: asking questions.
Successful entrepreneurs understand their weaknesses and acknowledge they don’t know everything. They know that with the right questions comes the right answers.
So, are you asking the right questions?
Let me give you a simple example. Imagine if I ask you the question: “Did you like the commercial for brand X”? Your answer is limited: you can either say yes or no.
Now, what if I ask it in a more open-ended style like: “How does the commercial for brand X make you feel”? Not only have I opened up the range of possible answers, but this question will actually force you to think about your feelings for the brand X commercial. Then by analyzing your answers, I can determine whether you like Brand X or not, and why.
What works with market research also works with how we think. Often, we get stuck in a situation because we aren’t asking ourselves the questions that lead to the right answers.
Think about the following. Which question is better:
A. What is success?
B. What is success for me?
If you answer B, you’re right.
So, why are you spending so much time in your life trying to solve A then?
Let me give you 4 tactics to help you think clearly and ask the right questions in any situation.
1. Control your emotions
Finding clarity is not easy when you're overwhelmed. Making the right choice with money on the line or choosing to fire somebody is a difficult decision.
Before you act, you need to realize that you won’t be able to think properly if you don’t control your emotions.
It means you need to develop your emotional intelligence skills.
Being an entrepreneur is like being on a constant roller-coaster of emotions. Some days are filled with joy, others are simply discouraging. Your mood can quickly change.
I see it all the time. Business owners often have their heads stuck so much into day-to-day operations - where decisions are plenty and need to happen fast - that they drown into it, like they would be drowning into water. And they forget to come back to the surface and breathe.
These situations have a direct impact on your mood. Before you know it, emotions have submerged you.
Emotions trump your clarity, blur your judgment.
Emotions create stories in your heads and entrap you.
Emotions make you react too fast, ask the wrong questions, hence make the wrong decisions.
Emotions block your listening ability. What’s the point of asking the right question if you don’t listen to the answer?
It's crucial that you hit the pause button and give yourself some space to clear up your mind in these moments. You need to find a way to lower your heart rate, take a deep breath, and make that extra effort to really think through the situation rationally.
A great method I found, comes from Timothy Gallwey’s book “The Inner Game of Work”. Timothy is one of the founders of modern coaching. He has developed a very simple tool called S.T.O.P:
Organize your thoughts
This approach will help you remain conscious while working.
When you increase your level of awareness by taking a step back and calming your emotions, you can see through things more efficiently. You can differentiate between what's urgent and what's a priority, what to do and not to do, what questions to ask, and those to avoid.
2. Start with your why
Clearing up your mind will enable you to focus on the right things.
Then you can ask the right questions.
The first question you should ask yourself or others is: Why?
Too often, we forget what our real purpose is, and instead, we start formulating objectives or goals and somehow try to make them happen.
Imagine, you want to take your car for a ride. What’s the first question that usually comes to your mind?
No, it’s not why…
It’s Where, as in where am I going?
The thing is you wouldn’t know your destination if you had not thought about the reasons why you’re taking your car first. Going to the grocery store because your fridge is empty is different than going out because you have a date.
So unconsciously, you do ask yourself the question why every time you take your car. Because it determines your journey.
It's exactly the same with entrepreneurship.
Entrepreneurs crave impact. Listen to my podcast and you’ll realize that most successful business owners have a clear why, a purpose.
Maria Tanjala, the co-Founder of FilmChain describes it as follows: "Once it becomes clear why you’re doing the things you’re doing every morning, you don’t need to remind yourself. For me, it’s what I live for.” (Listen to her full episode).
Therefore, the first question to always ask yourself is not What do I want but WHY?
Why am I doing the things that I am doing?
Why did I start my business?
Why did I get into this market and why am I willing to keep growing as an entrepreneur?
You can’t just define your goals, you have to be clear on why you have them.
The more explicit your why, the easier the “what” of your goals is achieved. That question WHY becomes the foundation to build upon everything else. From the WHYs, you can figure out the Whats, Whens, Wheres, Whos, and Hows.
Let me illustrate my point so you understand better what I'm talking about.
When I was living in Cambodia, I managed an advertising agency for 4 years. While I began designing the business strategy, I asked the why question to the company’s owner. He has a long background in publishing and had launched a high-quality English magazine in the country some years back.
As a publisher, he was paying extra attention to little details, such as spelling mistakes. He was also exposed to advertisements from clients. Many were coming with English typos: English is not the first language in Cambodia, and advertisers did not necessarily hire copy-editors.
Eventually, he became so frustrated by the situation he decided to create his own ad agency. Not because of the number of typos, but because of his hard focus on details.
So, attention to detail became the agency’s DNA, the why. We kept on growing as long as we remembered it. We started failing as soon as we lost it.
Always go back to your why. It will help you find the right questions.
3. Only keep the Must-Have questions
I mentioned earlier that the right questions give us the right answers.
Asking questions is a skill, and like any skill, it must be practiced. You need to adapt your questions to your current context: some questions may not work today and could prove more insightful for a different situation.
For instance, would you rather ask yourself the question “How do I know if my business is successful?” or “Where would I like to see my business in 10 years?”
The most insightful questions will force you to change your perspective. You know what we call “thinking out-of-the-box”, which is basically, taking a step back (remember the S of STOP) and looking at what’s happening from higher ground.
For example: How do you know if your business is successful if you don't define what success would look like first?
I can hear you asking me: How do you write an insightful question?
Follow these 4 rules:
Rule #1: Use open-ended questions as opposed to close-ended. In other words, don't use questions with a static response. A simple yes and no doesn’t always give us the perspective we're looking for. One of my favorite open-ended questions is “What are you good at?” It's particularly useful interviewing podcast guests because they get true to who they really are.
Rule #2: Be clear about your purpose (coming back to the why): determining quarterly goals, looking at ways to overcome a financial setback or re-budgeting for the year is not the same. After you've clearly stated your purpose, only ask questions that are relevant.
Rule #3: Constantly test and edit your questions. Try them out with people and analyze their reactions. Understand what questions work best in what context. Save the ones that push you the most out of your comfort zone.
Rule #4: Eliminate every other question. Only then you will get the must-have questions.
Albert Einstein said, “In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity”. This quote became my motto.
When I’m stuck, rather than asking myself “How do I fix this problem?”, my must-have question becomes: “What opportunity lies in that particular challenge?”
For example, being struck by Covid19 was a setback, but it opened the door to launch my podcast and increase my digital presence overall.
Looking for opportunities, rather than staring at the challenges, will give you focus and boost your motivation. It may not always be easy to see the opportunity but keep searching, there is always one.
4. Sequence your questions, use the funnel approach
One last thing remains to be done: sequencing your questions.
The best way to approach it is to think about a funnel: it’s wide at the top and narrow at the bottom.
It's used for guiding a large amount of liquid into a small opening. From big to small. From broad to specific.
Now let’s apply this method to your questions.
Imagine they go down the funnel. You'd start with your broadest question, then go into more detail while descending the funnel, and finish with the most specific question at the bottom.
Let me demonstrate.
We start with the purpose, a broad open-ended question: Why am I doing this?
From here, I could think in terms of decision: How can I make the best decision to achieve my purpose?
If I want to make the right decision, I need the right information. Hence my next questions would be: What information do I need to collect in order to make the right decision?
Once I have determined the information to be collected, maybe I need to know where I can get such information. I would simply ask: Where can I get that information? Who can I talk to?
We end with action. Scheduling in my calendar a time to act: What do I need to do by when?
By sequencing my questions using the funnel approach, I can create a step-by-step plan of action that answers all of the most important questions and help me achieve whatever goals I aim for.
Using these four tactics will improve your ability to ask critical questions and that's a super-power in the world of entrepreneurship.
1. Control your emotions
2. Start with your why
3. Only keep the Must-Have questions
4. Sequence your questions
If you’d like to test and improve your questioning technique, book a chat with me.