About – The Right Questions

The Right Questions

What are The Right Questions?

Well, to understand that let me first ask another question:

How do you deal with an unexploded bomb? 

This is an academic question to most, but for me, there were times when it was very real, and I needed the right answer. 

That’s because my first job after university was as an Army Officer. I graduated from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, was commissioned into the Royal Engineers, and was then selected to become a Bomb Disposal Officer.

Not long after I went on my first operational deployment, to Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Balkans, helping to ensure safety and security, after the war. 

I was leading an Incident Response Team, composed of service men and women, from various countries and with various capabilities. There were helicopter pilots, medics, firefighters, and communicators – even a dog trained to find mines – as well as my bomb disposal team. Depending on the nature of the incident, be that a mine strike, crash, or unexploded bomb, I could pull together the team I needed to deal with the specific issue. 

As a young commander, I was keen to do a good job. I wanted to earn the respect of my team (many of whom were older and more experienced than me) and to make a difference. There was so much destruction, but I was determined to help, even if it was just by removing a few of the pieces of unexploded ordnance that littered the countryside. 

But I did not feel like a hero, hardly even a leader, so, I had to hide any lack of confidence, remember my training and work hard. One critical bit of training, that I relied upon more than anything else, was the question technique that my instructor taught me. As he said:

“The quality of your plan, your decision and your success are dependent upon asking the right questions.”

The question technique was similar to that used by philosophers, journalists and the emergency services. It was based on the 5Ws and an H, the common interrogative words (what, where, when, who, why, how) and was utilised to ask open questions, to quickly gain an understanding of a situation and therefore give the information needed to formulate an effective plan. 

I loved it because (unlike so many other things I’ve been taught) it was easy to remember and because it was effective; even in high-pressure situations. 

But, in between the moments of adrenaline, and responding to callouts, things were a routine of training, administration and waiting. Often it felt like just another day in the office. And, as with offices the world over, we ensured that there was a supply of good coffee.

On this particular day, I was savouring a cup of this excellent coffee when a wide-eyed and breathless 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 soldier might interrupt me with. This had better be good, I thought.

“Sir! The guards think there is a bomb at the gates to the camp!”

I put the mug down; coffee time was over.

Thoughts of panic, injury and death started to try and crowd my mind. What to do? 

I took several deep breaths, tried to focus on what needed to be done, and tried to give the impression of calm confidence. 

As I walked out of the office, I asked my first question:

“What do you mean by a bomb?”

“There is a suspicious package, the guards think it could be a bomb,” was the reply.

The threat of terrorist attacks was very real. 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 exactly was the package?
  • What did it look like?
  • Who had seen it first?
  • When had it been found?
  • Why was it suspicious?
  • How had it 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 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 for the soldiers in the camp.

A short trip to visit the lady at her house confirmed that yes, she had just dropped off some biscuits for the troops. It just so happened that she thought that dropping off a ‘surprise’ in an unmarked bag, unannounced, at the front gate of a military base was a good thing to do!

After establishing all of this I was able to go back, safely deal with the package (no, I didn’t eat or blow up the biscuits), give the all-clear, and return the security levels to normal. I thanked the lady for the kind thought and gift but asked her to refrain from such ‘surprise’ generosity in the future.

Thus, the right question was not ‘do we cut the red or the blue wire?’ In fact, the right questions were not technical ones at all.

And that made me think; if I could use this technique to deal with a problem that wasn’t a bomb, what other non-explosive issues could it help with?

So, I started to experiment.

I started to use the technique for any problem that I had to think about. I used it to draft articles, plan expeditions, and even think about my life goals. 

And it worked. So much so that I could not believe that other people were not doing the same thing! Why wasn’t this being taught in school? I certainly wished I had known about it sooner.

My next step was to research the origins of question technique, going back all the way to philosophers in ancient Greece, and found that they used seven questions, not just six. That is when I started incorporating ‘which’ into my list of interrogatives, to help capture questions of choice that had previously been missing from the system. 

As I experimented further, I started to write articles to share my discovery with others. It was just a case of highlighting how the interrogative words prompt the relevant questions that are needed to think, decide, and act. 

When trying to think of a name for my blog I remembered back to my instructor’s words, and so the website became ‘The Right Questions.’

It was a frustratingly slow start. I knew how transformative The Right Questions could be, so I was disheartened that the idea did not immediately take off. For some reason, people were not flocking to the idea. And then I realised I was communicating it wrong. 

I was talking to people about decision-making processes, something that many people thought were dull, irrelevant or both! Having a background in the military, where formal decision-making processes were a core part of training, I was blind to the fact that most people don’t think about how they make choices.

For most people, decision-making is like walking. It is something you just do. Why would you need someone to teach you how to make decisions? After all, we make hundreds (if not thousands) of choices every day without any formal training.

At about the same time I was qualifying as an executive coach, and I realised that The Right Questions achieved the same thing that many coaching frameworks tried to do. So, I started to use the framework as I coached people, helping them to understand themselves better, to set and achieve their life goals. 

Furthermore, as a consultant, as I worked with leaders and teams in businesses I realised that The Right Questions was also what people needed to develop strategy and solve problems. 

So yes, The Right Questions helped people to make choices, but it was decisions about personal goals and work-life balance, or business strategy and leadership challenges. That was what mattered to people. Those were the issues they wanted to address. 

This second revelation impacted me so much that I started to realise I had found my real vocation; to serve others by sharing what I had learned, to guide them on their journey

I started my own business and started to help people, both individuals and teams, through coaching, teaching, articles, and talks. 

I helped CEOs think strategically, assisted entrepreneurs in growing their businesses and helped hundreds of managers unlock the next level of their leadership potential. 

People started to come to me asking for help, rather than me pitching to them, and I was invited to write a regular leadership column. 

Hundreds of thousands of people have now accessed The Right Questions, via the website and other online content, and the community of ‘Questers’ continues to grow. 

And the result? I am doing what I feel I was made to do. Serving people on their adventure, guiding them on the next step of their journey and equipping them with the tools they need for success. 

Which leaves us with another question. How can I best help you?

Or it could be something else, but please do drop me a line and let me know!

And you can read more about me in my short bio: An Introduction to Simon Ash

Enjoy the adventure!