The art of asking the right questions is one that construction could do well to learn
When was the last time you were taken on a training course by a client with other company suppliers? My answer to this question was, until recently, never. For the first time, one of our big clients has taken the next, and logical, step of declaring that it will train its supply chain in the firm's particular style of doing, and delivering, business. For years this client has talked about partnering and supply chain management, but it has never been sure whether it wanted to commit to a couple of dedicated contractors to deliver its huge building requirement.

But the really big step was not in giving a dedicated supply link: it was in realising that the way to ensure success was to engage the personalities who were going to lead and deliver the service, and to harness their potential as companies and individuals.

One of the questions asked early in the training session was "how much of their potential do you think your personnel are using?" Are they clear about what they have to achieve, motivated to do it and being well rewarded if they achieve their targets? The answer, of course, was "could always do much better". This, I suspect, is particularly true of the teams we employ in the construction industry. When you ask people what they enjoy doing, they are very quick to start talking about everything from fishing to painting to which football team they support. Rarely do they talk about the quagmire of construction or fit-out projects. This tends to indicate that significant potential is available to be harnessed, but as yet their hobbies get more attention than their livelihood.

The reason for the conversation about potential was that the course was essentially about helping people – our people – achieve their business potential. To do this you have to help them understand themselves, as well as the issues and actions they need to take to achieve their potential. To achieve this aim, the best technique is to ask your staff questions that make them think about themselves and their business or project problems. And yes, you guessed it, asking questions is not that easy and certainly not a skill that is particularly strongly practised in the world of construction.

The average project team – from client, project manager and architect to general contractors and suppliers – is more likely to be skilled in telling than asking. Although there are good times to tell ("Do not cross the road in front of that truck!"), the only way to learn, or teach, is to ask questions; to use why, what, or how at the beginning of your sentences.

When you ask people what they enjoy doing, they talk about their hobbies. Rarely do they talk about construction projects

This is often a very uncomfortable way of working. For example, just ask yourself, why you have not done post-contract reviews on your last five projects? We all know, and will readily admit, that having that team debrief is probably the only way to really make progress and ensure that the lessons learned on this project are put into practice on the next. But most people still avoid the event. The experts suggest this is because asking questions is challenging and we tend to get defensive and concerned when confronted with questions that we can't answer coherently.

Questioned clients and consultants normally say that they did the debrief ("It's part of our quality review") but, no, they didn't include other people. Asking yourself the question, "How did we do on this project?" is always a good start, but your perspective and the level to which you challenge yourself is never going to compare with, or be robust as, the challenges you would fact in a group review.

Learning how to ask questions in a way that helps the team move forward was the kernel of the training course put on by our client. It's not as easy as it sounds – as we all found out going through the learning exercises. We were advised that our children are the best people to practise this questioning technique on: ask them questions and then ask them how you are doing, was the guidance as we left. Children are normally brutally honest.

On the way home after the course, the normal mobile phone calls allowed the Simons team to reflect. Perhaps the most telling comment was from one of my colleagues. He wished that he had done the course 20 years ago.