When you're trying to solve a business problem--or any problem---a well-defined question will beat a deeply rooted assumption any day. Unfortunately, many people approach problems with a set of personal biases and preconceived ideas that cause them to mistakenly overlook or deliberately ignore critical information (like facts) that can lead them to the real cause of a recurring problem.
When reputations (and careers) are at stake, it is more politically safe to wander in a world of assumptions and guesses than to take the time to honestly ask the hard, direct questions that will guide you beyond visible symptoms to the root cause of a problem. The fear of appearing wrong, the need to assign blame, and our inherent tendency toward self-protection all get in the way when we are charged with finding out why something isn't turning out the way we expected. The staffing companies I worked for over 15 years made a lot of money from organizations that were content to throw labor and money at their problems rather than taking time to find out the real cause of their performance challenges.
Peter Drucker reminded us that, "The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong questions" (Men, Ideas, and Politics).
The most costly move is asking no questions at all.
- Whenever you approach a situation where performance has declined (or dramatically improved) your first question should be, "What changed?" You can be sure something has because all deviations in performance are the result of change.
- When one area or department has never performed as well as another similar department or group ask, "What is distinct and different between the two groups?" Distinctions will guide you to cause.
- When you're dealing with multiple inter-related issues around a problem, separate and prioritize the impact of each factor if you want to get to what is really driving or deterring your success.
His style of writing is a bit dated (my apologies to female readers) but Rudyard Kipling's simple poetry is a good reminder to anyone engaged in solving problems--
I had six honest serving men--they taught me all I knew
Their names were Where and What and When--
And Why and How and Who.