Ever since the ‘great recession’ subcontractors have taken on increasingly larger shares of projects while GCs have reduced the work they self-perform. That’s placed a higher premium on subcontractor innovation. Here are the top ways for asking better questions to improve your business and project outcomes.

When an engineer in 1973 asked the question, “Why do we have to be in a certain place to make a phone call?” he inspired the Motorola team to think beyond just creating a car phone. That one question led to a prototype of the modern cell phone.

Trace the source of innovation, you’ll learn it often goes back to asking the right question.

Trace the source of innovation, you’ll learn it often goes back to asking the right question. So, instead of getting hung up on answers, change your focus and get hung up on asking the right questions.

For subcontractors, the right questions inspire answers that improve workflows, boost employee confidence, introduce new techniques, find new revenue streams, improve accountability, and reduce risks. Asking the right questions also helps you recruit and retain top talent.

Better Questions for Employees and Partners

Try asking questions that don’t erode confidence of your employees and partners. In short, avoid focusing on failures. Everybody fails. If they never fail, they’re simply not moving forward. Instead, ask questions that empower people. It’s just a matter of turning the question on its head.

When things go wrong, ask for more information. Inquire about people’s opinions about why it happened, instead of resorting to accusations and the blame game. You’ll likely be surprised at the insights you’ll uncover when people closest to the work feel they can speak their minds.

Ask open-ended questions. Instead of asking “How’s the schedule looking?” say “Are you going to finish on time?” and you might get a deeper perspective on the topic. Other questions like “What do you expect will happen if we do this?” can help people start thinking more analytically. “Can you do it another way?” often leads to a breakthrough. You can help people own solutions to problems by asking for suggestions. This sends a clear signal that you welcome other thoughts and aren’t afraid to challenge long-held assumptions.

What to Ask GCs and Clients

Your clients are probably not used to people asking these next types of questions. Nevertheless, once you start using them, you’ll be surprised at how much better you’ll understand client needs. You’ll also notice they’ll have much more confidence in you.

— Is there anything that’s happened recently that hasn’t met your highest expectations?

— What are we doing that’s delivering more than you expected?

— Thinking about other subcontractors you’ve referred, what was it that inspired you to refer them beyond meeting the budget and deadline?

You might also create a list of questions for each phase of construction. You could present it as a web-based survey to those you’re working for or use the mail. For example, ask clients how they view your use of the change order process during the construction phase. During closeout, you might inquire about what worked well with punch lists and as-builts. From the responses you get, you’ll have insights into your strengths and weaknesses that you can use on future projects.

Better Questions to Ask Yourself

This is where many business owners can reap surprising new insights. However, it requires being honest with yourself. We fall into thought traps where our preconceived notions or beliefs cause us to see things we want to see. We tell ourselves stories that we want to be true, even though—in the moments when we’re brutally honest with ourselves—we know we’re lying to ourselves.

You can break through business self-deception with questions like:

— Where am I really making my best profits?

— Am I deluding myself about the business by justifying a small margin?

— How much is it really costing me to sell a job?

— Who are my best customers?

— Why do people hire my company?

If you are willing to endure the pain of confronting your own flawed perceptions, you will start making better business decisions.

If you are willing to endure the pain of confronting your own flawed perceptions, you will start making better business decisions. You will also overcome the fear of change, a secondary result of operating from beliefs that no longer apply to your business.

Make a Business Culture of Questioning

To get the full benefit from asking the right questions, you can create a business culture that welcomes questions. Start by encouraging questions and letting people know you are open to them. Get management on board with the idea of encouraging and welcoming questions. Work with people to help them rephrase questions in order to avoid putting people on the defensive or getting the expected answers.

Ask your crews to answer what they did best on a project or on a task. When you collectively solve a problem, ask why, and what led to the success. Confront the past by asking how you can apply today’s lesson to other aspects of the job or to a new project. These better questions are often probing, but those are the ones that lead to innovative solutions to both business and project problems.

To learn about other ways to ensure your business is a success, check out these free ebooks:

How to Win a Bid

Cover Your A$$ – Real Time Quality Assurance on the Jobsite

How Much Are You Losing to Rework?