Five Useful Questions

This is a guest post.

One of the marks of great leaders is that they ask great questions.  How did they learn those great questions and where could you learn some to ask?

Five great questions

Mike Rother at University of Michigan has pulled together a set of five very useful questions that prove remarkably effective at helping organizations improve.  They are:

  1. What is the target condition?
  2. What is the current condition?
  3. What are the obstacles, and which ONE are we working on now?
  4. What is the next step / experiment we can do to deal with that obstacle and what do we expect? And
  5. How soon can we go and see what we have learned from that step?

These questions are deceptively simple.

But despite that there is a lot of power in them, and lots of subtleties in how to use them.

Rother has written a whole book describing how to use them!  He calls the program for using them as a “kata”.  Anyone who has done martial arts will recognize the word; it means a prescribed set of moves, a pattern or practice that is learned.  Mastering the kata is critical to advance – in the martial arts, and in using the questions.

When you can master these five questions, you achieve several important things:

  • You shift to a focus on data – what we know and not our opinions
  • You move to a model of experimenting to see if particular actions will have the expected outcome
  • You encourage learning
  • You impart urgency – the fifth question is “how soon”, not “when”

Why do I like the questions?

There are several reasons.

  • They work at all levels in an organization, and hold everyone to the same standard of looking for data for decision-making.
  • They don’t demand that you know all the answers when you start – you proceed in small steps based on what you learn at each previous step.
  • Their standard structure is easy to learn (though it may take years to truly master them) and they are robust enough that even when they aren’t done “perfectly” they still get a good result.
  • They are behavioural – these are specific practical questions to ask that get you to your target condition.

It isn’t a drawn out process

You can go through the five questions in about fifteen minutes.  It might be a bit longer to start.  Part of what happens is that when the person who is doing the work gets stuck, that becomes one of the obstacles.  Then she or he needs to come up with a next step to address the obstacle.

They only take fifteen minutes because you don’t let yourself get bogged down trying to develop the answers to the questions during the conversation. The person working on the problem develops the answers before the conversation happens.

Rother’s approach provides a simple, repeatable and effective way to ask great questions.

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Hugh Alley specialises in training for first line managers


  1. Hi Hugh,
    Thank you for highlighting Mike Rother’s questions. What they reinforce is the power of simplicity. What they remind me of is the 5 Why’s technique ( which again is powerful and yet very very sumple.

    Thanks for bringing those to my attention.


  2. Hugh,

    You’re absolutely right… these are five great questions that can be used at all levels, not just at a more-strategic, over-arching, organization level. Anyone managing a project, large or small, should ask these questions, as well.

    Annette :-)

  3. Michael Haughee says:

    Excellent . Thanks, James !

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