“Are we ready to release?” “We are going to make it. Who disagrees?”
If you are a leader and ask binary questions like these, all you do is impose your own opinion on others.
Because you are working with brainworkers (this is less of a problem with manual labor tasks), their work involves a lot of uncertainty. Nothing is black and white — they need to think and be creative.
So if you really, genuinely want to get the team members’ opinions and engage their brains, never use binary questions like this.
Instead, always ask your questions using probabilities.
So if you want your team member to simply confirm your existing beliefs, asking leading yes/no questions, then stop reading now. If you don’t want that:
In this blog post I will show you exactly how to ask the right questions and, rather than scratch the surface, get to the real opinions. Get the insight you can actually use and base good decisions on, with confidence.
Let’s start with probabilistic questions.
Probabilistic questions create a safer atmosphere to express concerns
To add to the examples at the very beginning of this article, here is another example: “Do you need me in that customer sales meeting, or can you cope by yourself?” I have asked this question in the past and usually the answer is: “I am all right”.
You already know why that is a bad question. Now let’s ask it in a probabilistic way:
“On a scale of zero to five, how much would it increase the likelihood of selling the case if I was also at the customer sales meeting?”. You might get a different answer – a four or a five. Or you might get an answer like: “Five. I still want to try to do it myself, but I would really appreciate if you could take a look at my presentation before the meeting”.
See the difference it makes?
It creates a situation where the person feels safe to answer with her true concerns, but also express her desire to manage the situation by herself. Probabilistic questions:
Reveal more information
Makes the subject feel safer to express potentially risky opinions or concerns
Binary questions prevents your team from disagreement
Asking binary questions stops the team members who would want to express their concerns, from speaking up, which could have disastrous consequences. Even in matters of life or death, this can be a problem. Many airline crashes are the proof of this, typically because due to hierarchy, the co-pilot is afraid to point out glaring safety concerns to the captain.
Always consider these factors when asking your team a question
Safety: how safe does the team feel to answer?
Anchoring: when, for example a more senior team member answers, it affects other answers
The level of information you can gain from the answer
Consider closed polls or to simultaneously reveal the answers
When a more senior team member or team lead expresses an opinion or answers a binary question, the next person to answer often feel forced to “fall into line” and follow the leader. This is called anchoring. Anchoring also affects answers to probabilistic questions, but less so, since there are so many potential answers.
One way to counter this is to conduct a closed poll, where you reveal the answers simultaneously.
Teams with a higher level of safety can answer probabilistic questions without the need for a closed poll, but teams with less history together should stick with revealing answers simultaneously.
How to use probabilistic questions to reveal more information
As I mentioned earlier, you should consider the level of information you can gain from the team’s answers.
If you ask a binary question, you are (subconsciously) expecting everyone to agree with you. You expect the question to influence them — and to make them fight harder to achieve what you want the outcome to be.
Probabilistic questions are far less likely to force the answers to follow a predetermined pattern. The opportunity here is to react to whatever pattern emerges. Probabilistic questions will give you more information.
What you can ask instead of “Are we ready to release?”
Let us rephrase the question from the beginning of the blog using probabilities. If you would ask the binary question of “Are we ready to release?” – all team members may answer, “yes.”
What information did you gain? Almost nothing.
Consider changing the question to “On a scale of 0 to 5, how ready are we to release?”. Asking the question this way, you might get following answers:
Three persons say 5 (ready to release)
One person says 4
One person says 3
One person says 1
When you have these answers, next you turn to the persons that have concerns and ask them to speak up. What is making them doubt it? Are the concerns real or imagined? Now you can react.
There are multiple ways to ask the questions in a probabilistic manner. Here are my favorites.
Top 3 ways to structure probabilistic questions
Fist of five (fo5)
Fo5 is a fast way to ask a question. Showing a closed fist means zero, where showing a full five fingers is a five. This is also an easy way to get people to answer simultaneously in a meeting or even over a zoom call.
This is useful for projecting a person’s trust in a schedule. Ask the person to plot on a timeline when a feature, release, or a project will be ready. A variation of this could be to plot the person’s best-case and worst-case estimates.
Likelihood using 1..99 scale
When the Fo5 seems too inaccurate, you can also ask the team for a likelihood on a “percentage scale”. Here I recommend omitting values zero and one hundred. Things are never that unlikely or certain, plus you want people to have some doubts when they answer.
Do not force consensus
These ways of asking are not meant to force consensus. Consensus is dangerous. Disagreement is valuable. With probabilistic questions, you are allowing different opinions. You are actively seeking disagreement.
Always follow up by asking and interviewing the persons offering interesting opinions, and then seek to understand what is logical to do next. You never want to force consensus.
After your probabilistic questions: set an expiration date on your decision
Having asked your probabilistic questions, you may have concluded that some further testing is needed before you can decide to release.
Do the tests today. And then revisit the release decision in the afternoon.
So the decision from the meeting would be: “We will not release now. We postpone the decision to release until this afternoon, where we will meet again to reconsider the decision”.
Note that we’re saying “reconsider” the decision. We’re not saying that we will for sure “make” the decision.
By setting this type of expiration date on the decision statement, the team will feel like the decision is conditional and possible to change later if any new information is revealed. This creates more safety in the team, and reduces the risk that comes with committing to a decision when there is still uncertainty.
Published: October 27, 2022