Why the best questions have to do with what is invisible


Imagine having to ask the CEO of a company about their strategy or a prospective employee about his or her capability.

What they show and tell us will depend on the kind of questions we ask.

How do we know we are asking the right ones? The ones that will throw up opportunities and show us what is really happening?

There are lots of lists of questions we could ask. The important ones are about what is not there – and there are three important versions of these.

What is the unmet need?

The first comes from Jo Miller’s conversation with Ellie Pidot, VP of Strategy at Medtronic who asks What are your customer’s unmet needs?.

One way to think of this is like whitespace on a page.

What is left out helps us make more sense of what is there.

We can ask people what they do and what they want and we will be told a story, probably one that is logical and coherent.

They might tell us what they are doing – and the things identified as needs.

All too often, what they tell us and what they actually need can be different.

This happens quite a lot in IT, for example. There is often a gap between what software developers think people want and what they actually need.

The best programmers are able to bridge that gap and create the right kinds of tools to help us.

What would an outsider do?

The second question comes from Freek Vermeulen who asks what would other, external people do, if they found themselves in charge of this company?

This can be thought of like a blank page.

What would we do if we were starting from scratch? From a zero base – with no sunk costs or investments of time, effort and energy?

Bryan Tracy suggests asking – knowing what I now know, would I do things differently?

Are there things we would do more of, less of, start or stop?

It’s hard looking at the same things through the same eyes.

It might help if we try and look at them through the eyes of someone else, someone we respect. What would they say or do?

Then – do we have the courage to do that ourselves?

What would be least risky?

The third question is from Tim Ferriss’ interview with Joe Gebbia, the co-founder of Airbnb.

Many people think that to get ahead we need to take more risk. Higher risk equals higher returns.

That’s not really the case.

Take B2B sales, for example. Joe points out that B2B customers, given a choice between a low price and low risk, will take the lower risk option.

Entrepreneurs who have taken what seem to be huge risks often have carefully calculated the downside and decided that they can live with the odds.

The Dhandho approach follows this – Heads I win. Tails I don’t lose much.

Often the course of action that people will follow is not the one that gets them the most but the one that looks the safest.

So, in this case, its the absence of obstacles that matters.


There are more questions that we could ask than ever could be answered.

We need to ask the ones that show what isn’t there.

The whitespace, blank page, absence – that’s where the opportunities are hiding.

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