Forget the Answer, It’s the Question that Matters

Recently one of my company’s projects was especially challenging – and interesting – because it required me to expand my breadth of knowledge about a certain area in a short period of time. I would have even a shorter period of time to interview key players, to get to the root of the issues. If I failed to get to achieve an understanding of the underlying fundamentals driving the issues, then the project would fail.

Jacques-Louis David (1787)

So, I began planning my questions. Which reminded me of the favorite saying of one of my mentors, “if you ask the wrong question you’ll get the wrong answer”.

Great questions are more powerful than great answers, as Socrates proved many centuries ago. It’s just so easy to ask a question, get an answer consistent with expectations, and move on to the next topic or issue. But Socrates would solve a problem by breaking it down into a series of questions, a sort of “verbal distillation” process (“distillation” – I knew I could get back to an F&B topic).

This question process influences us today, and may witnessed in critical processes such as the “scientific method” and TQM.

For a hotel restaurant analysis I might want to know “who is the customer” and seek out traditional information relating to their stay (business or leisure, group or individual, age-income ranges, etc.). But I might learn more if I ask how the customer arrived here, why did they eat here instead of somewhere else, where are they going and what are they doing after they dine, and how are they getting there, for example.


  • What is the purpose of my restaurant? Why does it exist? (Begin every exploration with “purpose”)
  • Not, “who is the customer?” but “what is the occasion?”, why are they here? (If you answer “breakfast” and move on, I have not been sufficiently persuasive).
  • Not “what is my labor cost?” but “what is my productivity rate?”, then break it down further, job position and meal period, for example
  • Not “what is my food cost?” or even “did I meet my budgeted cost?” but “what is my variance to theoretical this month?”
  • Not “how can I improve on my weaknesses?”, but “how can I improve on my strengths?” (As for weaknesses, find someone good in those areas, partner with them, and get on with your strengths…)
  • Not “what are the hotels in my competitive set doing?” where does  the guest eat when they don’t dine with us?” Why?

These are my questions, let me know yours.

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