Idea management · Investigation

One the other hand, your question compass is better

I have my own favourite set of questions to ask at the beginning of any assignment or project. I call this my “question compass” because the questions help me to find my way at the ambiguous beginning of most of my projects.

People often write the questions down when I explain them, so I assume they like my question compass too. But often a senior BA will listen politely and then reveal that they have their own “question compass” that works better for them than mine does.


Another long article I’m afraid, but I wanted to list some options for related approaches.  It might be a good article to skim rather than read thoroughly.


We usually stare each other down to see whose “question kung fu” is stronger and then we realise that nobody else cares. So we agree that people can use whatever questions they want, as long as they find them useful.

In that spirit, here are some of the rival “compasses” or question structures that people have shown me and that seem to work well:

What? Why? How? What have I missed?

I have forgotten who introduced me to this one, but it sometimes appears in presentation courses as a basis for creating the presentation.

However can be used as a series of questions:

  • What do you want to do? what else?
  • Why do you want to do that?
  • How will you go about it?
  • What else should I know?

If someone disagreed with you, what would their argument be?

I got this one from my father, who used to love gently disagreeing with any ideas I came up with. I could say the sky was blue and my father would ask “but is it blue at night time?”.

He tought me that you don’t really understand something unless you understand the argument against it. And that even when something is true, for you to really understand it you should know the boundaries of when it is true.

So a simple question that can even leave the 5-why’s for dead is just that – “If someone disagreed with you, what would their argument be?”

For example:

  • If someone claimed that was not the problem, what would they say the real problem was?
  • If someone said that our solution would fail in the real world, what would their argument be?
  • If someone came out with a better product, how would it be different to our one?

If you can’t answer those questions then you are either perfectly clear on your thinking or comfortable in your delusion. And if you can not find any reasonable arguement against what you are thinking then either everyone must agree with you or they must be deluded …. or you are suffering from group think, and thus comfortably deluded again.

Why do that? Why now? Why that way?

I went to a presentation where I saw a CIO talk about the questions he asks when someone presents a business case to him. He said that he asked the following three questions:

  • Why do you want to do that?
  • Why do it now?
  • Why do it the way you are proposing?

This is probably a good set of questions for determining whether a project is worth pursuing. And if these are the questions that an executive might ask you and your sponsor then they might be good clarifying questions to ask at the beginning of any project.

So I have included it here even though I don’t use the same approach myself.

What? Which? Why?

I learned this one from a course I did with a company called RogenSi  a hundred years ago and it has been useful ever since.

I often start the second day of a training course by getting people to review “yesterday’s material” and

  1. (WHAT) Identify 1-6 things they found useful from the discussions and content of the course
  2. (Which) Of those items, pick which is the most useful to you
  3. (Why) State why it is the most useful
  4. Discuss your choice with the people at your table

And the same approach can be really useful for interviewing people:

  1. What would you like to see happen?  What else?
  2. Which is the most critical – A or B?
  3. Why?

Discussing the prioritisation of the needs and the reason for those priorities often gives a far greater understanding of the problem being discussed than simply stating the needs.

What? How is it relevant? What evidence do you have? What is the benefit?

This one was in the same Rogensi course that “What, Which, Why” was in.  But I have also seen it a few other times since.  It is really a way to present information rather than a set of questions.  The idea is that different people need to hear different aspects of your message to be convinced it is valid (or not).

So when you present something to a group (or one person), it will be unappealing to them if you just say “this is great, we should blah”.  But it will be compelling if you present the same idea as:

  • We should blah
  • The benefit will be blah
  • Some evidence (for example – Mary likes it, I prepared this data etc)
  • It is relevant here because …

But the same approach can be used as questions to clarify something that you either want to understand or communicate to others:

  • What should we do?
  • What will the benefit be”?
  • What evidence do we have?
  • How is it relevant to us?

In fact it is very similar to the “question compass” I use.

FAB – What is it? What attributes will it have? What is the benefit (or impact)?

It people and car enthusiasts are famous for talking about features and expecting others to be impressed.

My new phone has twin invergolators, a single state drive and a double lithium condulated battery”

And non-IT people or non-car-enthusiasts are frequently and completely unimpressed.  So a better way of talking about features (which is how salesman talk) is to say something along the lines of:

This phone has a battery (a feature) which is double lithium and condulating (the attributes of the feature which means that you can go for 7 days without having to recharge it (the benefit)

To use this as a set of questions is quite simple:

  • So it has a battery (a feature), tell me about it (the attributes).  What is the benefit of that? Or
  • Tell me about the problem (a feature) and how is it manifesting (Attributes).  So what is the impact of that (the benefit/impact)?

Focussing questions

Some projects (particularly those based on User Based Design approaches) use a focusing question like “How can we provide (blah) to (customer) so they can (blah).

But the point of the focussing question is not to write it down but guide the team to ask questions about the customer’s needs and focus their efforts on what will be of real value to the customer. So a simple application of this is to ask questions like:

  • Who is the beneficiary of this? Who are we doing it for?
  • What are we providing to them?
  • How will it help them?
  • Who are we? Which team will be working on this? Is this the whole project or are we part of a bigger team?

In the book “Stand Back and deliver” that I have been commenting on lately, there is a slight twist on this that I think is useful.  They add the question:

How is that different to what our competitors provide? Why would our customers choose our solution rather than the others they might pick?

By extension I thing you could ask something similar for projects that are not related to customer facing products and services:

  • How will this be different to what is happening now? or
  • What other solutions could we provide?  What could someone else provide to help? How is the solution we are looking different to those options?  Why would our stakeholder prefer this solution to the others (or should they prefer another one)?

Susan Scott and her Fierce Conversations

I think the great idea that Fierce Conversations presents is that conversations matter for two reasons – they are one of the most effective ways of getting to the bottom of things and they are a great way to build relationships between people. But rather than achieving both of these things many conversations are wasted because people think they know what others are going to say or they make a choice between having a tough conversation to confront reality or a nice conversation to improve the relationship.

Sue Scott suggests that we should improve the relationship AND have the tough conversation at the same time. So she comes up with a number of concepts and approaches to help with this.

In effect this means that there are several “question compasses” in the book that you can apply to different interview types.

David Rock and the CREATE Process

Quiet Leadership is a book about coaching and it goes into a lot of depth around how conduct a coaching session.  The essence of the approach is to ask questions that help the person reflect on their problem rather than having you give them the answers.

CREATE means focus on the person’s current perception (CR) then when they are clear on what they think the issue is then focus on alternative solutions rather than just one (EA means explore alternatives) then when the person has considered several alternatives, then focus on what to do about it (TE means tap energy – get them to write down what they will do now).

Dan Roam and the Back of the Napkin

The “Back of a Napkin” is an excellent book on how to present ideas visually without needing complex graphics. It is really focussed on simplifying what you are communicating to make sure you get the essence across to your audience.

The book is also an excellent guide to pragmatic and powerful analysis.  It has two compasses of relevance here, but again to do the ideas justice you need to read the book.

The first compass is a set of questions “what/who are we looking at”, “how often does it happen or how much is it/should it be”, “Why should we do it/why is it an issue”, How should we address it” and so forth.

The second compass is an acronym as corny as those I come up with – SQUID. Each letter is really a choice between looking at things one way or another. So, for example the Q means “are we discussing a quality or a quantity”.

Each question is simple to ask and yet clarifies your thinking when you answer it. And by the time you get through a series of simple, but specific questions you have a clear idea of what you are looking at and how to explain it … and how to investigate it.


I like to use my question compass because it works for me. But the real trick is to establish an approach that works (or which there are many) and that you like using.

I generally use my own approach by default but on the other hand a different standard approach might work for you.

On the one hand I think a structured way of getting to what people mean or what they want to achieve is the best first step on a project. But on the other hand, maybe we should be asking completely different questions for different types of projects.


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