The Power of “How”

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By Gerry Riskin | Dec 31, 2018

I propose that you join the most effective law firm leaders in the world and start asking “how,“ rather than “whether.”

Let us start with an illustration. Here are two questions that a managing partner might ask a practice group leader. Which do you think will lead to better results?

  1. How do you think you and your team could enhance the quality of the clients we serve in your practice area in the coming year?
  2. I would like your take on whether you think you and your team could enhance the quality of the clients we serve in your practice area in the coming year.

Question 1 makes a strong assumption that the mission is to enhance the quality of the clients in the practice area. The practice group leader is being asked to suggest an action or a set of alternate actions that would accomplish that mission.

Question 2 invites a debate as to whether attempting to enhance the quality of the clients is a good idea or not (let alone how that enhancement might be accomplished). This question is more likely to draw a defensive response from the practice group leader that relates to the partner’s assumption that client quality should be – or could be – enhanced in the first place.

I have written elsewhere about the propensity of lawyers to be critical and analytical. We are trained to detect the fragrance of risk and to eliminate it. Therefore, a binary question which invites a debate about whether something is worth doing will spawn arguments and counterarguments, likely including reasons why the status quo is just fine or the contemplated change is beyond the control of those being asked.

If what you are looking for is a robust open discussion – including a dash of defensiveness for the status quo – which does not necessarily lead to action, then go ahead and ask “whether.” If you want to harness the cerebral horsepower of the person or team to whom you’re putting the question, ask “how.”

To further illustrate the point, here are some sample good and not-so-good questions:

Good: How can our law firm make more effective use of social media?

Not So Good: Do you think our law firm could make more effective use of social media?

Good: How can we raise the profile and street recognition of our law firm for the benefit of those of our lawyers who are trying to attract more work?

Not So Good: Do you think we could raise the profile and street recognition of our law firm for the benefit of those of our lawyers who are trying to attract more work?

The takeaway from this article is not complex… in fact, it’s insanely simple. The issue is not whether you comprehend or understand. The issue purely devolves to whether you have the discipline to pose your questions in this fashion.

Don’t take my word for it… try it. I hope you experience its power.

Founding principal and chairman of Edge International, Gerry Riskin has a global reputation as an author, management consultant and pioneer in the field of professional firm economics and marketing.