By January 21, 2012 0 Comments Read More →

Peeling the Onion – Asking Layers of Questions

Peeling the Onion – Asking Layers of Questions

Getting good answers and finding root causes you can act on takes some effort and some deep diving sometimes.

Asking questions is the obvious way to get the information you need, however why stop at only one question or be satisfied with the answer. By asking deeper and deeper questions that build on the answers, you are more likely to peel the onion so to speak and discover what really matters. It will also challenge everyone to think a little more than usual.

In this case, it is all about the power of asking questions and probing, sometimes probing deep enough to challenge your assumptions and get at the real answer, not just a superficial one. Children understand this intuitively, but we tend to lose this skill as we grow up. Have you ever answered a child’s question only to be asked again “but why…?”

Whenever you have a problem or issue to deal with, or even if you don’t know there is a problem, asking probing questions helps you get answers you can use to improve results.

The key to peeling the onion is to not just ask one question. When you get the answer, ask another question about that answer. It’s a variation on the fish bone technique often used in problem solving, and you can even use it in your process to document the key information you need (or get) from each of the questions and help you decide other questions to ask.

First, draw a line horizontally across the middle of your page or whiteboard.

Then, ask the first question and draw a line at an angle off the original line and write the short answer on the line. Ask another question, draw another line and write the short answer on that line. Ask more questions and continue to add the lines, with space between them, until your diagram looks like a fish bone.

Then, off each of the fish bones, draw lines at an angle, ask another question about the original answer and write it in on the line. Continue the process until you have probed enough to get details you can use in your proposal response. Go several levels deep if necessary. Be sure to start on a large whiteboard or paper tacked to the wall, enabling you to expand it with more paper if necessary.

And don’t think the answers have to be from someone else. Feel free to ask yourself the probing questions and force yourself to continue to say “but why…”. You may be surprised at what you find.

Here is an example of the sequential questions, with 5 sequential questions, each one asked about the previous answer:

  1. What is important to the success of this process?
  2. For each of the items that are important, why are they important?
  3. For each reason they are important, what is the risk of failure?
  4. For each of the risks items, how can they be minimized or eliminated?
  5. For each way the risk items can be minimized or eliminated, which are under your control?
  6. For each one under your control, what can you to to implement the risk mitigation process?


And so on. You should have several branches, of course, which is the point of using the fishbone diagram to help guide you.

Another tool to use is a mind map, which will provide a similar structure to your process. A free Windows based mind map you can try is Freemind. An Android version, is Mindjet. I find it much easier to make a mind map on an Android touchscreen than on a computer with a mouse. While I haven’t tried the iPad versions, here is a free one called SimpleMind+

Once you finish this exercise of peeling the onion, so to speak, you will have asked all the right questions and have a more in depth understanding of the issue and perhaps even some tangible, concrete solutions you can implement. It’s a great exercise to use with a team or facilitated session.

About Michel Theriault

Michel is the founder of Success Fuel for Managers. He is an author, speaker and consultant focusing on topics relevant to Managers and aspiring Managers in businesses of all sizes who want to get results, get attention, and get ahead. He is also a contributor to Forbes and AllBusiness Experts . Michel is available for speaking engagements, training and consulting. Connect with him or send an email.

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