How to Avoid the Right Answers to the Wrong Questions

The internationally acclaimed venture capitalist, businessman, philanthropist, songwriter and musician, Bono once famously lamented “We thought we had the answers, it was the questions we had wrong!”

This confirms our theory that regardless of how diligent your process is to arrive at the right solution, if the basis upon which you’re making decisions is flawed, not only will the solution or end deliverable but wrong, but it will be a huge waste of valuable resources. How can this be avoided? By asking questions from the start that will illicit the insights necessary to move forward in the right direction. In this article we demonstrate the difference between direct questions that often lead to misleading answers and provocative unexpected ones that provide an actionable path forward.

The foundation for solving today’s often bewildering business challenges must first be based upon an understanding of what motivates the people we seek to influence. An obvious statement but a complex task nevertheless.

There is a universal need for actionable insights to develop the right strategy. Getting to those actionable insights, however, depends on asking the right questions.

Direct questions frequently lead to answers that are technically correct but fail to provide the necessary context to explain what drives behavior. And, worse still, direct questions often lead to inaccurate or misleading responses.

Take for example the recent Republican presidential primary campaign.  According to a CBS News analysis, Donald Trump consistently beat poll numbers in a number of states including Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Indiana by anywhere from 5 to 11 points. The disparity was attributed to the fact that some voters, when asked a direct question, simply didn’t want to admit they were supporting him. Even more telling is that the disparity was greater among live polls conducted by phone versus online surveys.

There is a classic theory called The Bradley Effect that explains this phenomenon. It’s the tendency of people to give answers they think will be viewed favorably by others. It dates back to when Tom Bradley who was mayor of Los Angeles ran to become the first African American governor of California in 1982.  He was leading in all the polls but he lost. And according to this CBS analysis, political scientists speculated that many voters said they supported him because it felt like the politically correct response when in fact they were not actually comfortable voting for him.

The same is true in business. Often responses to research questions are either directly or subconsciously misleading because respondents:

  1. Give answers to make themselves look good or appear smart
  2. Want to be seen as politically correct
  3. Resist being candid about sensitive or potentially embarrassing topics
  4. Aspire to be seen as helpful or to please the interviewer
  5. Avoid candor that might jeopardize personal or professional relationships

The reason traditional research techniques are often unproductive is because they’re typically based on direct questions and direct questions tend to be predictable. So, when customers agree to be interviewed, they have a pretty good idea in advance of what they’ll be asked. This gives them an opportunity to come up with an explanation for their behavior or opinions that are part truth, part wishful thinking and part reinvention.

Avoiding these pitfalls requires an indirect approach that disarms customers by surprising them with a conversation they hadn’t anticipated to expose the most authentic window into what explains their actions and shapes their opinions.

Provocative open-ended questions encourage customers to paint a picture that evokes memories or feelings that are uniquely spontaneous and unfiltered.

Let’s consider two examples:

Example #1: B2B Customer Service Feedback

B2B companies seek to understand how they’re meeting the current and/or future needs of their existing and potential customers.

Assumed Approach (Wrong Question):
Ask customers direct questions that lead to ranking and/or rating a company’s service on a number of key metrics.
Why This Approach Doesn’t Work:
Feedback may be technically correct yet still fail to provide insights into what customers value most. Or the answers may be misleading based upon a respondent’s personal agenda.
Preferred Approach (Right Question):
Ask customers to think back to the very best relationship they’ve ever had with a service provider and share stories about what made that relationship so positive. Ask how that company earned their trust.
Why This Approach Works:
By encouraging an impromptu narrative, respondents will invariably talk about what matters to them most in their own words and provide more actionable insights into how best to engage them.

Example #2: B2C Generational Challenge / Purchasing Decisions

Brick and mortar apparel and fashion accessories retailers seek to increase their business among Gen X women.

Assumed Approach (Wrong Question):
Ask Gen X women direct questions that lead to ranking, rating, describing and/or recapping their shopping behavior and preferences in terms of such metrics as: favorite stores, shopping frequency, average amount spent per visit, recent purchases, etc.
Why This Approach Doesn’t Work:
The answers to all of the questions and/or options posed may be right but they are lacking in the nuanced insights needed to understand this customer group, their buying behaviors and triggers, or how better to engage them.
Preferred Approach (Right Question):
Ask women if they’re having a “get out of the house” kind of day, what prompts them to choose shopping versus some other activity such as going to the movies, meeting a friend for lunch, taking the kids on an adventure or something else.
Why This Approach Works:
Built into the direct question is the assumption that retailers are only or primarily competing with other retailers as opposed to competing with a host of alternative discretionary spending options. The most important thing is to first understand how decisions are made about discretionary dollars in general. That is the crucial insight needed to help frame an overall business growth strategy.

Regardless of the sector in which you operate or the size of your organization, every business has issues. Taking a disruptive approach to going beyond what your customers say to uncover what they really mean will help you avoid the right answers to the wrong questions! And that’s the critical first step to crafting effective solutions.