By January 14, 2009 Read More →

Precision Questions and Precision Answers

PrecisionQuestionsAndPrecisionAnswers 

I finally wrote up my notes on Precision Questioning and Precision Answering, or PQ / PA for short.  It was one of my most effective training sessions at Microsoft.

My manager encouraged me to take PQ / PA so that I would be more effective in executive reviews and our group was full of avid PQ / PA practitioners.  I had a tendency to tell stories and elaborate, so this was about cutting to the chase crisply, with brutal effectiveness.  I took the class a few years back, so my notes may be a little rough.

Improve Your Communication Efficiency and Critical Thinking
You can think of Precision Questions and Precision Answers as a way to improve your communication efficiency and improve your critical thinking.  It works by asking and answering questions from 7 categories.  Rather than trying to randomly be smart on the fly, it’s a structured approach that helps you test your thinking.  The rumor I heard was PQ / PA was required training for executives because Bill Gates asked too many questions that people weren’t prepared for.  Precision Questions and Precision Answers was the solution.  Since then, a lot of Softies use it to improve their own thinking, prepare for executive reviews, analyze project plans, or just about any scenario where the complexity is high, and information exchange is important.  One important note, PQ / PA is not about building rapport or brainstorming, it’s about efficient and effective intellectual exchange.  Here’s my notes:

7 Categories of Precise Questions
There are 7 types of questions for focused drilling down.

  1. Go / NoGo.  Do we need to talk about this?
  2. Clarification.  What do you mean?
  3. Assumptions.  What are we assuming?
  4. Basic Critical Question.  How do we know this is true?
  5. Causes.  What’s causing this?
  6. Effects.  What will be the effects?
  7. Action.  What should be done?

Note that these are categories for questions.  In other words, within each category, you can ask a variety of questions.  The other key point is that you would start with a high-level question in the category, and only drill down as needed, either to test credibility, find assumption, or gain information.

Principles of Precision Questions and Precision Answers
Here are some key principles behind PQ / PA:

  • First: Be a Situational Questioner. Second: Be a Precision Questioner.  Context matters.  Don’t just use generic question.   Use questions most relevant to your current situation.
  • The structure of PQ-PA looks like a mine with shafts and tunnels.  Some veins are explored deeply, others are ignored, and you only drill as far as necessary.
  • As the questioner, you should hover and float, while you judge possible points of entry.  In the initial phase, you build an overview, size up the situation, and figure out what you want to accomplish.  Later, your overview may change and your intention may change.
  • The answerer should respond  with the core first, then details.  In other words, a summary of the answer, then elaboration as needed.
  • The answer is always a simplification.   In the ideal PQ/PA scenario, the questioner can focus only on whatever is most important.
  • Let social factors shape how you ask but not what you ask.   The culture of your team or group will dictate how you should ask questions, but not what you should ask.  Use PQ/PA to explore the range.

Values
Here are the key values behind PA / QA:

  • Candor.  No "show and hide."
  • Courage.
  • Intellectual commitment. As the questioner, you stand behind your question and as the answerer, you stand behind your answer.

Depth of Preparation, Analytical skill, and Integrity
Credibility is a key concept in PQ / PA.  When you know how to do Precision Questioning and Precision Answering, it’s easy to see 1) depth of preparation, 2) analytical Skill and 3) integrity.  This works both ways.  In other words, it tests and exposes the questioner and the answers.

Tone, Pace, and Conciseness
There are three dimensions to style:

  • Tone.  Ranges from helping to neutral to impatient to punishing.
  • Pace: Ranges from slow and thoughtful to rapid fire.
  • Conciseness.  Ranges from every word counts to conversational.

Avoid Dangerous Simplifications
It’s important to remember that answers are always simplifications.  Some are more dangerous than others:

  • Give a warning flag + a core answer.  When you’re giving an answer that has some caveats, call them out.  For example, *based* on what we know today __ *Best* case would be __ … An *aggressive* date would be __.  Off the top of my head __.
  • Do torpedo alerts.  As the questioner, you might ask "is there anything else I need to know?"  As the answerer, you might say, "You haven’t asked about __" or "It’s importnat that you know __."

Guidelines for Questioner
Here are some key guidelines for the questioner:

  • If the answerer is having trouble processing questions, are you speaking too fast? Are you too concise?
  • If the answerer is slopping, is that because you are being too conversationl?
  • If the answerer is tightening up or becoming defensive, are you being aggressive or attacking?  If that’s
  • the perception, change your tone, add some preambles and frames.

Guidelines for Answerer
Here are some key guidelines for the answerer:

  • You might be giving too much detail if the questioner’s eyes glaze over, they show the first signs of irritation or they interrupt you.
  • You might not be giving enough detail, if they show signs they are confused by your brevity, suspicious of brevity, or are irritated by needing to "drag it out of you."
  • Rather than say the questioner doesn’t know enough to ask the right questions, make an offer.  For example, “Would you like me to explain?” or “Would a definition (map, analogy) help?”

Go / NoGo Questions
Here is an example set of Go / NoGo Questions:

  • Basic process questions.  What is our agenda? What is our goal? Do we need to adopt any ground rules?
  • Motivation questions. Is this urgent to discuss? Is this important? Is this interesting?
  • Participation.  Do I need to be here? Do you need to be here? Who else should be here? Should we take this off-line?
  • Questioning our questioning. Are we focused on the right ideas? Are we asking the right questions? Are we getting to the heart of the issue? Are our questions benefiting the discussion?

Cause Questions
Here are some example cause questions:

  • What’s the story?
  • What’s the mechanism?
  • What triggered it?
  • What are the forces?
  • What are the root causes?
  • What are contributing causes?

Action Questions
Here are some example action questions:

  • Who should act? By when?
  • What are the alternatives?
  • What work won’t get done?
  • How confident are you?
  • Is this a root cause fix?
  • is the problem only going to be contained?
  • What will be the strategy?

Additional Resources
Here are the key places I could find that are doing Precision Question and Precision Answer training and workshops

My Related Posts

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16 Comments on "Precision Questions and Precision Answers"

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  1. Louisa says:

    Great post J.D., this is a very good skill to have. Unfortunately we don’t see nearly enough of it in the work place these days.

  2. Nilesh Joglekar says:

    Hey JD,

    This is fantastic post. Really this is a great skill to have.
    Thanks for bringing this to my notice.

    Cheers
    Nilesh Joglekar

  3. JD says:

    @ Louisa

    Thank you. I agree – the right questions change the game.

    @ Nilesh

    Thank you. It’s definitely one of the best skills you can build for the workplace. This was supposed to be a quick post, but it ended up taking a while to sort my notes enough to be useful.

  4. Per says:

    Thanks for a good summary JD.

    “go meta” is a term we use for such an approach.

    The PQ/PA is highly analytical based on available information. In the context also consider how this contribute to decision making in light of the decision makers’ value frame (like conviction and connection).

    The core of PQ/PA is a model for why and what was done to gain a better understanding of what to do going forward and with (ideally) increasing level of understanding and capability. I.e. you can use it to reflect on what is and could be.

    If you have an meeting, like an exec review, you are clear about purpose of the meeting and what level of information you have and why. And you are deliberate about how you deliver the information and enable the dialog before, during and after the meeting.

    One piece of paper visible on my wall at work is a table summarizing the precision questions, because it’s a good frame for analyzing and communicating information. As JD points out one catalyst for the creation was executive reviews in Microsoft and overall it’s a great example of “modeling the best”.

  5. JD says:

    @ Per

    Thank you.

    Great distillation of your lessons and insights on PQ / PA. You are by far, one of the masters.

  6. Jimmy May says:

    This is a class I’ve been unable to finagle into my schedule. I’m keenly aware of my need to learn this skill. Your post reinforces my enthusiasm to enroll. No need to reply, and thanks for sharing, JD.

  7. J.D. Meier says:

    @ Jimmy

    Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad to hear your enthusiasm. It’s one class you’ll use for a life-time.

  8. Andy Henry says:

    What a facinating article. I’m looking for an NLP expert to help with a project, could you help?

  9. jgsheeha says:

    Hi JD,

    I am a fan of your blogs – amazing stuff. Thank you.

    In the comments, Per said that he/she has “[o]ne piece of paper visible on my wall at work is a table summarizing the precision questions, because it’s a good frame for analyzing and communicating information”

    Any chance this 1 page view could be shared?

    Jeff

  10. JD says:

    @ jgsheeha

    Thank you.

    Unfortunately, I think it’s copyrighted material, that you only get when you take the class.

    That said, one way to make your own is take the 7 categories of questions and think up relevant questions in those categories. Thinking of questions ahead of time and practicing thinking of questions, helps train your brain to use them when you need them.