The Right Questions

From Crisis Management to Organisational Development: What Are The Right Questions?

The 5Ws and Asking The Right Questions

What are the right questions to ask in a crisis or when developing your organisation?

What are the right questions? What are the seven most important questions you need to ask yourself or your organisation?  It’s maybe not obvious but I can assure you that you already know what they are! But before we get to that let’s consider the importance of questions. Most people would agree that good questions are very important; after all:

“A prudent question is one half of wisdom.” – Francis Bacon

I found out how important questions are early on in my career.

Red wire or blue wire?

I was just savouring a coffee from my newly purchased coffee maker when a wide-eyed and out of breath soldier stumbled into my makeshift office. My cup was poised in my hand – the aroma was fantastic – and the thought of drinking it was more alluring than anything I could imagine that this solider might interrupt me with. “This had better be good”, I thought. “Sir, there is a suspicious package at the gates of the camp”. I put the cup down; coffee time was over.


It was Bosnia in 2001, and I was a young Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers leading the Explosive Ordnance Disposal team in the local region. The conflict in Bosnia had died out some time ago so we were there mainly to clear up the mess; but in the post 9/11 world the threat of terrorist attack was at the forefront of people’s minds. In this context an unexplained bag, right up against the front gates of a military camp, was screaming out ‘IED!’ (Improvised Explosive Device), and required immediate and serious attention.

Therefore I went to take control of the scene and do an initial threat assessment. I met the guard commander and asked him some questions such as where the package was exactly, what it looked like, who had seen it first, when it had been found, why it was suspicious and how it had got there. Very quickly a picture emerged that put my mind at ease. One of the guards had seen an old and infirm lady dropping off the parcel. Upon questioning the local interpreters I found out also that this lady was well known to them (as she was a little eccentric), and that she had made similar deliveries before. It was more than likely that this was just a gift of some sweets for the soldiers. A simple trip to visit the lady confirmed this and I was able to go and pick up the bag and deliver it back to her later in the day, thanking her for the kind thought, but asking her to refrain from such generosity in the future!

Setting the conditions for good decision making

“The discerning heart seeks knowledge.” – Solomon

When your consider your life is under threat then it is very important to properly assess a situation; asking the right questions and getting the right answers is essential before launching into action. The same applies for entrepreneurs and new businesses – you need to have a proper assessment of the market, a clear vision for what you want to achieve and an effective plan to implement – if you are going to succeed. Even at a personal level asking questions is important if we want to be truly effective; we need to be able to assess our situation and plan for the future. Therefore asking good questions is an essential skill whoever we are.

The 5 Ws

When I was training as a Bomb Disposal Officer we were taught a question technique called the ‘Five Ws” which we used when we approached an incident. The ‘Five Ws’ is an interrogative style employed primarily by journalists and policemen but it is a framework that can be used by anyone to make an appreciation of a given situation. The idea is that by asking open questions you are more likely to get factual answers by avoiding presuppositions. The simple idea of just having the ‘Five Ws’ of What? Where? When? Who? Why? (along with the added H of ‘How?’) provides an easy to remember checklist that is a useful starting point towards building a rounded picture of any circumstance.


As I have done further research into question technique and applied the principles in my work I have found that it is also useful to add another ‘W’ – that of ‘Which?’ – to the list. The ‘Which?’ question covers the concept of selection (and therefore of options and risk) and helps to complete the picture when we are planning for the future, not just examining an event that has already happened. This makes seven questions in a total that reflects the basic interrogative words that we use in English and provides a holistic approach to analysing a situation. Using these seven questions is a technique I have dubbed ‘The Right Questions’.


The Right Questions

Seven questions? Surely that is too simple you say! Well, we will come back to that point but let us just say that the simplicity is a large part of the system’s strength but I have observed also that the technique is only as good as its application and it is this application that we need to explore in more depth.

When you learn how to apply the system it is very flexible. My starting point when faced with a challenge – whether it is developing a business case, starting a project, or writing an article – will be to write down the seven Right Questions and start to brainstorm and explore my thoughts under each heading.

Seeing the big picture

One very useful way of using The Right Questions is when one is considering ‘the big picture’ in regard to vision, mission, values and the planning of how we are going to achieve our goals. These issues are of vital importance to any start-up business but one could argue that they are also the most important questions to consider for all aspects of life because, without purpose, all our busyness as an individual or within an organisation can count for nothing.

I have a passion for seeing people and organisations becoming more effective in achieving their goals. So, what I am going to do over a series of chapters is explain how The Right Questions can be applied in a productive way so you can work towards the answers you need for your venture. As John Dewey said:

“A problem well put is half solved.”

So we will endeavour to better frame the challenge using The Right Questions.

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