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Pharma Marketers’ Blog: Asking Better Questions to Inform a Stronger Strategy

Authored by Maxine Smith, Managing Director, Uptake Strategies for the PME Pharma Marketers’ Blog

In this article, Maxine noted that if we are to develop innovative and competitive strategies, we need to commit the time to truly asking better questions. For this, we need to create the right conditions – we need people, time, and techniques. Maxine concludes that when it comes to asking better questions, we need to think about quality, not quantity.

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Pausing to question the data being used to inform decisions is invaluable in creating better strategy

How many times a day do you think you ask a question? 20, 50, 100 times? More? Many of the questions that we should spend more time asking, while also taking more time to explore the potential answers, start with ‘why’.

A quick Google search provides any number of links for the critical questions we should be considering when building a strategic plan, defining a competitive plan, developing a resource plan and more.

The majority encourage us to think about:

  • Where we need to be in X years’ time
  • Who our target customer is
  • What challenges the business or brand is facing
  • What we do that is better than anyone else
  • What capabilities we need to be successful
  • How we can measure our progress.

From the quick check I did, there were very few mentions of ‘why’, which I find surprising. Many of the questions above make me want to ask ‘why’, eg, once the challenges we are facing are listed, I would want to know why we are facing them. The same goes for the capabilities we have identified, etc. And if we are to develop innovative and competitive strategies, we need to commit the time to truly ask better questions (‘why’ being one of the key ones). For this we need to create the right conditions – we need people, time and techniques.

1. People

We need the right people to help ask these better questions. We need to include team members who bring specific expertise and knowledge and those who have some history of the brand/customers/patients/disease, etc. We also need to bring in people who know nothing but who have a natural curiosity and investigative leanings and can approach the challenge in a different way, unhampered by existing knowledge – for these people, all things are possible. Ideally, we would sprinkle in a couple of others who excel in listening, and then delivering, a really succinct and impactful summary to the group to help keep the discussion on track. These latter two groups of participants are often forgotten or invited at the last minute and then can’t attend, which can mean the same questions are asked and the level of challenge in the discussion and the success of the outcome are ultimately limited.

2. Time

To ask better questions, we need to make sure that we have the time to explore the validity of the possible answers. No one wants to be the person who asks a killer question in the last ten minutes of a 30-minute meeting, when most attendees have to leave on time. Equally, having only a short space of time for the group to ruminate on the challenge means that brainstorms are limited, no tangential options are explored and there is very limited time for any ideation techniques to be used. So we end up in the same place as our first step – the success of the outcome is limited.

3. Techniques

Three important techniques are:

  • Open questions – a classic for a reason, ask open questions that generally start with who, what, where, how and, of course, why
  • Brainstorming – exploring all questions in an energetic manner so that we can each share what is on our minds and what we want to explore. We need to always remind ourselves that an effective brainstorm relies on the group remembering that there are no right or wrong suggestions and encouraging comments that may at first glance appear ridiculous but that may trigger a new avenue of exploration
  • Imagine the conversation – another technique that I find works very well is to think about having a conversation with friends who you haven’t seen for a long time or who are going through a very difficult time in their life. Imagine the types of questions you would want to ask to find out what they have been up to or how you can help. It is this level of curiosity that we need to show.

We also need to consider different styles to help draw out the best in the team exploring the questions. If you are a visual learner and the whole discussion is verbal, then you are not going to be able to engage your questioning brain to the best of your ability. Encourage individual thinking time to write lists, draw mind maps or connecting shapes of ideas, whatever works to stimulate thinking, and then come back together as a group to share. It just takes a bit of forethought to have pens, paper, stickers, playdough, etc to hand to support different engagement styles.

A quick round of word association is a great warm-up to a question-exploring session. It helps to clear minds and engage the broader questioning parts of our brains.
When it comes to asking better questions, we need to think quality, not quantity. Committing the time, as a cross-functional team, to pause and question the data and information being used to inform decisions is invaluable when it comes to creating better strategy.

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