Precision Questions and Precision Answers
"It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question." — Eugene Ionesco
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 ever.
My manager encouraged me to take Precision Questions / Precision Answers so that I would be more effective in executive reviews. (Our group was full of avid Precision Questions / Precision Answers 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 Precision Questions / Precision Answers 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, Precision Questions / Precision Answers is not about building rapport or brainstorming, it’s about efficient and effective intellectual exchange.
Here are my notes:
7 Categories of Precise Questions
There are 7 types of questions for focused drilling down.
- Go / NoGo. Do we need to talk about this?
- Clarification. What do you mean?
- Assumptions. What are we assuming?
- Basic Critical Question. How do we know this is true?
- Causes. What’s causing this?
- Effects. What will be the effects?
- 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 Precision Questions / Precision Answers:
- 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 of Precision Questions and Precision Answers
Here are the key values behind Precision Questions and Precision Answers:
- Candor. No "show and hide."
- 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:
- depth of preparation
- analytical skill
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 the 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 conversational?
- 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 the 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 / No-Go Questions
Here are some sample Go / No-Go 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?
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?
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?
How can you use this?