It used to be that answers were power. If you had the answers, you had the advantage. You would get the best scholarships to the best universities. You would get the best jobs. And you would get promoted faster. All because answers weren’t easily and readily available. You had to work for them.
Today is very different. Today, answers are a commodity. They are easily accessible and most everyone can retrieve the same answers very quickly. If we want an answer to just about any fact-based question, we ask Google. And with mobile technology, we have access to cloud-based answers from just about any location through multiple platforms. Answers, truly, are everywhere we want them to be.
In addition, these computer-constructed answers are getting more sophisticated and wide-ranging every day. In 2011 the IBM computer, Watson, accurately answered questions faster than Jeopardy! champions on TV and won $1 million. Today, Watson is helping healthcare providers make decisions about the best possible cancer treatment.
So, if answers are becoming ubiquitous and the playing field to access those answers is almost completely flat, what will separate the successful from all others in the future? I would argue that the ability to ask insightful questions will be more important for tomorrow’s success than knowing the answers. Especially, in our field, the more capable we are at asking thoughtful and meaningful questions of donors, the more money we will raise.
But the importance of learning how to ask good questions isn’t getting its due. Our schools still largely teach students to memorize answers in preparation for standardized tests. And in our workplaces, we are still conditioned to believe that the person with the “right” answers should be the boss.
Let me suggest, though, that the future will be won by those we are able and willing to ask important (and sometimes uncomfortable) questions. If you are interested in starting a new program or assessing how to make a current program better, ask questions that begin with “why.” Such as, “why this and not that?” or “why are doing this at all?” If you are looking to assess alternatives, ask questions that begin with “what if.” Such as, “what if we decided to host this event in conjunction with Homecoming?” or, “what if we were to increase our solicitation goal?” And, finally, if you are looking to implement one of the “what if” alternatives, ask questions that begin with “how.” Such as, “how can we increase our total solicitations with the same number of gift officers?”
It may seem that the person who asks questions is ignorant or even obstinate (or both!). But, if you want to grow your influence with donors and with those on your team, mastering the art of asking insightful questions will be a key component of your success.