The Art of Asking

Posted by on Jan 16, 2013 in ComLead, Managing Not-For-Profit Organizations, Organizational Leadership

The Art of Asking

Asking the right questions to think creatively.


High turnover. Low profits. Stale ideas. Organizations sometimes face chronic problems. Moving forward when it feels like our wheels are spinning is all about asking the right questions.

Often the right questions don’t address individual organizational problems at all. Instead, they take a broader look at the organization’s environment, goals and assets. The right questions don’t ask, “how do we solve this problem?” but rather, “what is the best way to serve our customers or achieve our goals?”

I was recently on a team that partnered with a large, local, non-profit organization. We aimed to help the organization pinpoint an area of improvement in their communication, and our goal was to create a training manual to address this problem. Our task was really all about questions – determining problems, needs and assets, and trying to cull out an area where we could bolster communication and strengthen operations.

We first consulted with team members who had volunteered there and interviewed employees. We had asked about operations, and our questions pinpointed specific problems, such as training, recruitment, office structure, etc. With these questions, focusing on situational problems, we determined that the problem was insufficient volunteer training. If we had continued with this problem in mind, we would have created a volunteer training manual to develop better-informed volunteers.

Instead, we attempted a second round of questioning.  This time we focused on the organization’s goals, and asked broader questions about the organization’s mission and how volunteers and donors fit in the larger vision.

The non-profit’s true goal wasn’t to work well with volunteers, but to serve thousands of individuals with special needs in Western New York. Thus, volunteer training may have been important, but with our broader questions we realized a deeper need: using volunteers in a way that contributes to long-term success.

We were able to develop a training manual that addressed organizational goals, volunteer culture, and long-term plans. We aimed to help the organization breakthrough chronic problems.

Have you ever been in a situation, whether in an organization or on a team, that required a new perspective to overcome challenges? Before you delve into solutions, take some time to make sure you’re asking the right questions. Make sure you can answer those big questions – What are our goals? How are we different? Who do we want to be in 10 years and how do we get there? – before you start brainstorming solutions. You might see the situation in a completely new light – discovering new strategies and making old challenges obsolete.


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