Rudyard Kipling on questioning

I KEEP six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.

I let them rest from nine till five,
For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,
For they are hungry men.
But different folk have different views;
I know a person small—
She keeps ten million serving-men,
Who get no rest at all!

She sends’em abroad on her own affairs,
From the second she opens her eyes—
One million Hows, two million Wheres,
And seven million Whys!



The “seven million whys” technique used by Kipling’s small person has thankfully been downsized to the “five whys” in business today.  Repetitive questioning seems sound as a root-cause-analysis tool but, in practice, this type of child-like questioning can be very wearing on the recipient.  How then, do we get the answers we need without bamboozling our subjects and eroding goodwill?

In my early career I worked with an IT project manager who was fixated on something called AHAT.  AHAT was an arcane charging structure that applied to some legacy financial products and was embedded deep within the systems.  Any new system designs needed to pass the, “What about the AHAT?” test regardless of the project scope. The question would come up so frequently that it became a running joke with little apparent value.

Professor Roger Palmer said in today’s Strategic Marketing session that the best managers have a habit of being able to ask the one question that you find it difficult to answer.  Casting my mind back to my AHAT example, I realise that is what the IT project manager was doing.  No-one had the answer to her question.  Keeping the issue on the radar had value, but the impact was lost through repetition.

A more appropriate question might have been ,”Are there any legacy implications we need to consider?”  The question is wider, less direct, and phrases the question as a collective responsibility, a device I find very useful.

I’m interested to know: what is your favourite questioning technique and why?

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Rob is a consultant, technologist, facilitator and outdoorsman. He lives with his wife in Henley-on-Thames.

8 thoughts on “Rudyard Kipling on questioning”

  1. A very well thought out post! I must say, that i am still in the process of developing my questioning technique. Asking the right questions is definitely an art that can be mastered with practice and focus on critical thinking. A manager i once had early in my career was incredibly strong when it came to questioning an action or a decision. In my first instances of working with her i found myself lost and unable to answer many of the questions she posed. With time however, I developed the ability to think about all the possible questions that i could be asked…this entailed analytical and holistic thinking on my part. Which was essentially where she wanted to lead me with her questions.

    Keep the posts coming!

    1. Thanks Ayad – sounds like she was from the ‘tough love’ school!

      I do sometimes wonder with this style of questioning if it comes from a genuine desire to create understanding (what Chris Dalton describes as “insatiable curiosity”) or a habitual reaction to challenge and control or attempt to appear thoughtful and engaged?

      I’m sure I’ve been guilty of the latter before!

  2. Hi Rob – long time no see!

    Interesting article, and to answer your question, something I always end up asking midway through a project is ‘what if we just didn’t do this?’.
    Sometimes it clarifies that the solution has got so complicated, the benefit case no longer stacks up. Other times it is a useful reminder that there are disastrous consequences of not getting this done, which can help cut through the debates as to which of the equally plausible solutions to go for.

    And off topic, good to see the youth of today still finding value in a bit of Kipling. I’m a fan of ‘The glory of the Garden’ which is a nice bit of patriotic verse and a reminder of the value of being part of the solution not part of the problem! (Big Society anyone…)

    cheers, Jon

    1. Thanks Jon, that’s a great question!

      Suggesting “Do nothing” often feels like an underused gambit, if only to provoke a long hard look at the benefits case early on in a project. Of course this is a tough sell if plans have already been made, resources assigned, and reputations put on the line.

      One of the recurring themes on the MBA has been working out who to say “no” to. The logic being that businesses can’t and shouldn’t attempt to fulfil the needs of EVERY potential customer, instead focusing on where they can add most value.

      Both doing nothing or saying “no” to customers may seem unnatural and require difficult conversations but doing the wrong thing or saying “yes” and then under-delivering will surely be worse in the long run…

      Also off topic, I’m absolutely delighted to still be considered part of the “youth of today” 🙂

  3. Hi Rob

    For the most part Ive found that its not what you ask – its how you ask it – and in fact, to be more accurate – its how your questions being received thats most important.

    How many meetings have you attended where you just don’t share a common goal – where you cannot see an opportunity to collaborate and there just doesn’t seem to be any value that can be delivered or created. There really isn’t a question that can help here. Not today anyway.

    When you do have the traction, and you are meeting and you can sense an opening and a basis of trust forming – the questions need to stay human and ‘to be human is to ere’. Throw yourself a bone – you know that you will forget something, you’ll be 5 miles up the road in the car after the meeting and then realise you missed a trick or you forgot something off your ‘sense-making’ – so ask your client/peer/manager:

    “So, what have I missed? Is there anything else I should have asked you?”

    Delivered with a smile – you let them know you are listening, that there concerns are important to you… but, hey, I’m only human – help me out – what did I miss? what did I forget?

    And on a deeper level you’re asking – “What have you not disclosed to me”

    On either level, its a great gift to offer – the chance for them to help, or the chance for them to come clean

    Being on the level feels good – lets give every meeting the chance to feel good


  4. Hi, Rob
    Thanks for setting this up. Very well done.’ For they are hungry men’…………..miss Henley lunch!

  5. Bizarre! I should be working but seem strangely drawn into this blog even though it is the last day of the month and there are targets to be hit!!!

    I don’t know if I am talking compeltely off topic, or even if this a private chat room for you MBA’ers but I thought I would butt in anyway, and if I am out of place then feel free to ignore me 🙂

    Questioning forms a massive part of the sales process that my teams use as the foundation of a sales call / visit. I spend a lot of time training people to question, but only specifically tailored around the sales process.

    Going from “hello” to providing a company with an integrated information solution involves a great deal of questioning and understanding otherwise you would end up missing the point and either delivering a system that doesn’t help or losing the client as you cannot demonstrate specific benefits to them.

    There are many reasons to ask questions from soft (but nevertheless important) reasons such as developing trust, relationship, rapport, confidence etc. through to practical reasons such as actually understanding the clients processes and systems that can actually be helped by the solution we would eventually supply.

    Some of the biggest problems that occur during a questioning process are down to miscommunication which often arise when assumptions are made from either party (questioner or questionee!)The questioner may make assumptions based on similar / previous client relationships and the questionee makes assumptions based on experiences with similar providers etc.

    The best advice I always give to my staff is expanding on something mentioned above by James Ramsay. This is to ensure that both parties are singing from the same sheet by the questioner summarising what has been said, and then checking that nothing has been missed. Not only will it offer a chance to ensure that neither party has taken anything that has been said in the wrong way, but it also develops rapport because it shows the questionee that the questioner is listening and obviously cares about what is being discussed, and therefore the questionee will feel more comfortable in releasing even more detail about the topic being discussed which will eventually benefit both parties.

    Better get back to work!

    1. Steve, great that there are interesting enough thoughts and ideas bouncing around here to divert your attention from pressing monthly targets 🙂

      It’s also great to get your perspective on questioning, particularly given your skills and experience. This certainly isn’t a private forum.

      Interesting that James’s comments rang true for you. He also has very finely-tuned sales antennae. How about you two co-author a book on ‘authentic questioning’?

      Put me down for a copy 🙂

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