Organizational Development Consultant

Nineteen Techniques to Gather Information: #1 Open Ended Questions

May 16, 2014

Organizations need to gather and analyze information in order to make intelligent decisions. This can be an arduous and daunting task. Because the quality of decisions inevitably suffers when based on incomplete and therefore inferior data, comprehensive information is absolutely essential. Today, this information comes from both inside and outside the organi- zation and often from nontraditional sources.

My next blogs give the meeting facilitator nineteen options for accumulating maximum information in record time. Some of these techniques can be used to gather information before meetings; others are designed for use within meetings; and one technique, the Delphi Technique, is designed specifically for use in place of a meeting. The broad range of these techniques ensures that they cover almost every potential situation.

The nineteen techniques include:

  1. Open-Ended Questions
  2. Individual Interviews
  3. Focus Groups
  4. Questionnaires
  5. The Delphi Technique
  6. Expectations Survey
  7. Passing Notes
  8. Skits
  9. Is/Is Not
  10. Nominal Group Process
  11. Process Flowcharting
  12. Content Experts
  13. Prouds and Sorries
  14. Keep/Throw
  15. Working Break
  16. New Shoes
  17. Five Whys
  18. SWOTs
  19. Road Shows

This blog highlights Technique 1: Open Ended Questions.

“Sometimes when I ask a question, people just sit there and shrug their shoulders or blandly say yes or no. What can I do to stimulate more conversation?”

1. Open-Ended Questions

What Are Open-Ended Questions?

The Open-Ended Questions technique gathers information in a manner that invites the greatest response.

The way you form your questions determines the type of response you will receive. Open-Ended Questions are questions that cannot be answered yes or no. “What are your ideas?” is an open-ended question. “Do you have any ideas?” is a closed-ended question because it can be answered with a simple yes or no response. Other examples of Open-Ended Questions include: “What ideas do you have?” as opposed to “Do you have any ideas?” and “What are your reactions to this plan?” as opposed to “Do you like this plan?”

The use of Open-Ended Questions presumes that participants have ideas or questions and that you are interested in hearing them. It is essential to use Open-Ended Questions in order to ensure maximum participation. It is a core facilitation technique.

When to Use Open-Ended Questions

  • When you want to gather information
  • When you are interested in hearing the opinions of others
  • When your group tends to be silent

How to Use Open-Ended Questions

Before the Meeting

1. As you plan for each agenda item, determine specific Open-Ended Questions that will elicit the type of information you need. Decide how broad or narrow the focus of your question should be. For example: “What is causing this increased error rate?” or “What is causing this increased error rate on the third-shift production line?” or “What is causing this increased error rate on the third-shift production line over the weekends?”

NOTE: Sometimes proposed solutions are disguised as Open-Ended Questions. For example: “How can we get the funding to hire another administrative assistant?” is really a proposed solution. “How can we resolve our paperwork backlog?” would be a better question to solve the underlying problem.

2. Plan how you will state the purpose for the Open-Ended Question. It is necessary to use a lead-in to the Open-Ended Question, stating the purpose for the discussion. When participants hear a question without knowing its purpose, they are often reluctant to respond. For example: “We need to determine the best way to fix this problem. What have you heard about what’s happening out on the shop floor?”

NOTE: Most people ask closed-ended questions out of habit. To change your habits, consider recording your meeting or ask a participant to record the questions you ask throughout the meeting.

During the Meeting

  1. State the purpose for your question to the group and ask your Open-Ended Question(s). Consider posting the Open-Ended Question(s) on a chart or overhead.

    NOTE: Be patient and wait for responses. And be careful. Meeting facilitators will often give some examples of right answers, which can inadvertently turn their Open-Ended Question into a closed-ended question. For example: “What do you think is causing the increased error rate?” (open-ended question) versus “Is it the employees we hire?” (closed-ended question).

    NOTE: If you think you are getting responses that are too broad or too narrow, expand or contract your question.

  2. Chart the responses to your Open-Ended Question.

    NOTE: Open-Ended Questions are an important tool and should be used in virtually every technique when asking questions.

    NOTE: Closed-ended questions have their place. They are used to verify consensus or understanding of an issue. For example: “Do we all agree?” “We’re meeting next Thursday, is that correct?”

Summary

Open-Ended Questions is a technique for gathering information in a manner that ensures the greatest response and participation. Open-Ended Questions are questions that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no.

Before the Meeting

  1. Plan the specific Open-Ended Question(s) you are going to ask.
  2. Plan how you will state the purpose for the Open-Ended Question(s).

During the Meeting

  1. State the purpose for your question and pose your Open-Ended Question(s).
  2. Chart the responses to your Open-Ended Question(s).
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