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Make It Happen Tipsheet
Career Management and Life Balance

The Five W's

During school, we learned about the five W's as elements that should be used in a great story. But as managers, they serve an even more important purpose. These Five Words, Who, What, Where, When, and Why, along with others like "How", are words that start questions. In particular, they start Open-ended questions.

"Did you have a good day?" is Closed; "What did you do today?" is Open. The Closed question can be answered with a one word answer: Yes, No, Good, or Bad. The Open question must be answered with a sentence. And sentences are what start productive conversations.

In the workplace, we often rely on Closed questions because they provide the information that we think that we need: "Is the new system finished yet?". Using an Open-ended question ("How have people reacted to the new system?") allows us to look behind the scenes and discover whether there are any issues lurking. It also lets our staff and colleagues express what is important to them - not just what is important to you.

Asking Open-ended questions also yields another benefit: it can encourage creativity and resourcefulness. How often have you said "It can't be done" when approached with an idea that you don't think has wings? What if you replaced this expression with "How could it be done?" The person making the suggestion may have already spent time considering the answer. Letting them answer the Open-ended question might provide a perspective that you hadn't considered before. It also sends a more important message: innovation and new ideas will be considered. Open-ended questions suggest an open-minded manager.

This week's action item: each time you ask a question, commit to using an Open-ended version - it's easier than you think. To start, try rephrasing your question with Why or How. (Or maybe I should have asked, "How can you make a difference with the Five W's?")

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Make It Happen
Copyright 2006 Knowledge to Action Press and Randall Craig. All rights reserved. Publication date: Feb 21, 2006