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QBQ! The Question behind the Question: Practicing Personal Accountability at Work and in Life

QBQ! The Question behind the Question: Practicing Personal Accountability at Work and in Life

by John G. Miller
QBQ! The Question behind the Question: Practicing Personal Accountability at Work and in Life

QBQ! The Question behind the Question: Practicing Personal Accountability at Work and in Life

by John G. Miller



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The lack of personal accountability is a problem that has resulted in an epidemic of blame, victim thinking, complaining, and procrastination. No organization—or individual—can successfully compete in the marketplace, achieve goals and objectives, provide outstanding service, engage in exceptional teamwork, or develop people without personal accountability.  

John G. Miller believes that the troubles that plague organizations cannot be solved by pointing fingers and blaming others. Rather, the real solutions are found when each of us recognizes the power of personal accountability. In QBQ! The Question Behind the Question®, Miller explains how negative, ill-focused questions like “Why do we have to go through all this change?” and “Who dropped the ball?” represent a lack of personal accountability. Conversely, when we ask better questions—QBQs—such as “What can I do to contribute?” or “How can I help solve the problem?” our lives and our organizations are transformed.


This remarkable and timely book provides a practical method for putting personal accountability into daily actions, with astonishing results: problems are solved, internal barriers come down, service improves, teams thrive, and people adapt to change more quickly. QBQ! is an invaluable resource for anyone seeking to learn, grow, and change. Using this tool, each of us can add tremendous worth to our organizations and to our lives by eliminating blame, victim-thinking, and procrastination.

QBQ! was written more than a decade ago and has helped countless readers practice personal accountability at work and at home. This version features a new foreword, revisions and new material throughout, and a section of  FAQs that the author has received over the years.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101203019
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/09/2004
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: eBook
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 222,539
File size: 613 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

John G. Miller is the founder of QBQ, Inc., a development company that has worked with hundreds of Fortune 500 and other companies and government and nongovernment organizations internationally. Miller is also the bestselling author of Flipping the Switch: Five Keys to Success at Work and in Life and Outstanding! 47 Ways to Make Your Organization Exceptional. He lives in Denver. Learn more at

Read an Excerpt

It was a beautiful day when I stopped into a Rock Bottom Restaurant for a quick lunch. The place was jammed. I didn’t have much time, so I was happy to grab the one stool they had available at the bar. A few minutes after I sat down, a young man carrying a tray full of dirty dishes hurried by on his way to the kitchen. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed me, stopped, came back, and said, “Sir, have you been helped?”
“No, I haven’t,” I said. “And I’m in a bit of a hurry. But all I really want is a salad and maybe a couple of rolls.”
“I can get you that, sir. What would you like to drink?”
“I’ll have a Diet Coke, please.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, sir, we have Pepsi products. Would that be all right?”
“Ah, no thanks,” I said with a smile. “I’ll just have water with lemon, please.”
“Great, I’ll be back.” He disappeared.
Moments later he returned with the salad, the rolls, and the water. I thanked him, and he was quickly gone again, leaving me to enjoy my meal, a satisfied customer. Suddenly, there was a blur of activity off to my left, the “wind of enthusiasm” blew behind me, and then, over my right shoulder stretched the “long arm of service” delivering a twenty-​ounce bottle, frosty on the outside, cold on the inside, of—you guessed it—Diet Coke!
“Wow!” I said. “Thank you!”
“You’re welcome,” he said with a smile, and hurried off again.
My first thought was Hire this man! Talk about going the extra mile! He was clearly not your average employee. And the more I thought about the outstanding thing he’d just done, the more I wanted to talk to him. So as soon as I could get his attention, I waved him over.
“Excuse me, I thought you didn’t sell Coke,” I said.
“That’s right, sir, we don’t.”
“Well, where did this come from?”
“The grocery store around the corner.” I was taken aback.
“Who paid for it?” I asked.
“I did, sir; just a dollar.”
By then I was thinking profound and professional thoughts like Cool! But what I said was, “Come on, you’ve been awfully busy. How did you have time to go get it?” Smiling and seemingly growing taller before my eyes, he said, “I didn’t, sir. I sent my manager!
I couldn’t believe it. Was that an act of empowerment or what? I’ll bet we can all think of times we would love to look at our “boss” and say, “Get me a Diet Coke!” What a great image. But beyond that, his actions paint a marvelous picture of personal accountability and the Question Behind the Question. We’ll go into the specifics of the QBQ in the chapters to come, but for now let’s take a look at my server’s thinking and the choices he made.
It was the lunch rush. Carrying a full tray, he was already busy, with plenty to do. But instead of using these facts as reasons—or excuses—to continue on to the kitchen, he noticed a customer who, though not in his section, looked like he needed some attention, so he decided to do what he could to help. I don’t know what was in his mind at that moment, of course, but faced with a similar situation, many people would have asked questions like these:
·        “Why do I have to do everything around here?”
·        “Who’s supposed to be covering this area, anyway?”
·        “When is management going to provide us with more products?”
·        “Why are we always so short-staffed?”
·        “When are the customers going to learn to read the menu?”
It’s understandable that someone would feel and think that way, especially when frustrated, but the truth is that these are lousy questions. They’re negative and they don’t solve any problems. Throughout the rest of the book we’ll refer to questions like these as Incorrect Questions, or IQs, since nothing positive or productive comes from asking them. They’re also the complete opposite of personal accountability, because in each one the implication is that someone or something else is responsible for the problem or situation.
Unfortunately, though, they’re often the first thoughts that come to mind. It’s a sad fact that when most of us are faced with a frustration or challenge of some kind, our initial reaction tends to be negative and defensive, and the first questions that occur to us are IQs.
The good news is this: That moment of frustration also presents us with a tremendous opportunity to contribute, and the QBQ can help us take advantage of it. The moment the IQs pop into our heads, we have a choice. We can either accept them—Yeah, when are we going to get more help around here?!—or reject them, choosing instead to ask better, more accountable questions such as “What can I do to make a difference?” and “How can I support the team?” The definition of the QBQ:
A tool that enables individuals to practice personal accountability by making better choices in the moment.
And we accomplish this by asking better questions of ourselves.
That’s exactly what my server did. By disciplining his thoughts, he didn’t ask IQs and get caught in the downside of the situation.
Instead, whether he used the words or not, his actions clearly indicated accountable thinking such as What can I do to help out? and How can I provide more value? His choices made the difference.
As I left that day, I gave him a good tip, as anyone would have, bouncing my quarters across the bar. (Just kidding. It was the excellent tip he had earned.) And when I returned a couple of months later and asked for “my favorite server, Jacob Miller” (I love his last name), the hostess said, “I’m sorry, sir, Jacob is no longer . . .”
My thoughts flew fast. NO! You lost my favorite server? You lost a guy who looked at me and asked himself, “What can I do right now to serve my customer?” I just couldn’t believe they had let him get away.
But I didn’t say any of that to her. I simply interrupted with, “Don’t tell me you lost him?!” to which she brightly responded, “Oh no, sir, we didn’t lose him, he was promoted to management.”
My first thought was Management, what a waste! (Go ahead, smile—even if you’re a manager.)
The truth is, I wasn’t at all surprised that Jacob, with the way he thought, would be so quickly on his way up “the ladder of success.” That’s the difference personal accountability can make. Everyone wins: customers, coworkers, the organization—everyone. And for Jacob, beyond the tips and the promotion, I can’t help but think the greatest win of all is the way he must feel about himself at the end of a day of asking better questions, making better choices, and practicing personal accountability.
Now let’s talk about the tool that brings personal accountability to life: the QBQ.
The Question Behind the Question is built on the observation that our first reactions are often negative, bringing to mind Incorrect Questions (IQs). But if in each moment of decision we can instead discipline ourselves to look behind those initial Incorrect Questions and ask ourselves better ones (QBQs), the questions themselves will lead us to better results.
One of the guiding principles of the QBQ is “The answers are in the questions,” which speaks to the same truth: If we ask ourselves a better question, we get a better answer. So the QBQ is about asking better questions. But how can we tell a good question from a bad one? What does a “better” question sound like?
This book will help each of us learn to recognize and ask better questions. And just to be clear, QBQs are questions we generally ask ourselves, not others. They are rarely questions we speak out loud to colleagues, customers, family, and friends—but rather ones we think in our own mind.
Here are the three simple guidelines for creating a QBQ:
1.      Begin with “What” or “How” (not “Why,” “When,” or “Who”).
2.      Contain an “I” (not “they,” “we,” or “you”).
3.  Focus on action.
“What can I do?” for example, follows the guidelines perfectly. It begins with “What,” contains an “I,” and focuses on action: “What can I do?” Simple, as I said. But don’t let its simplicity fool you. Like a jewel, the QBQ is made up of many facets. In the following chapters, we’ll explore these facets and see the powerful effect asking QBQs can have on our lives.

Ever heard these questions?
·        “Why don’t others work harder?”
·        “Why is this happening to me?”
·        “Why do they make it so difficult for me to do my job?”
·        “Why don’t I ever get a break?”
·        “Why don’t people care as much as I do?”
Say them aloud. How do they make you feel? When I say them, I feel powerless, like a victim. The message of questions with a “Why me?” tone to them is I’m a victim of the environment and the people around me. Not a very productive thought, is it? But we ask “Why me?” questions all the time. (Quick point: If you’ve been trained on the “Five Whys” of problem solving or selling, that’s not what we’re talking about here. Those are useful and appropriate. What we’re referring to are questions that begin with “Why” and have the “poor me” tone that leads straight to the classic pity party.)
Anyone can fall into the “Why?” trap. I asked a department manager once how many people worked for him, and he said, “About half!” It’s a funny response, but he was undoubtedly the kind of manager who would also ask the IQs “Why can’t I find good people?” “Why doesn’t the younger generation really want to work?” and “Why don’t I get more support from upper management?”
That’s all victim thinking, and there’s too much of it in the world already.
I was on a long flight, sitting next to a man in his mid-​fifties. We introduced ourselves and started a friendly conversation along the lines of “Where are you heading?” and “What do you do?” It turns out he owns a second home near Aspen and was just returning from a twenty-one-day ski vacation. Wow! I thought. Twenty-one days in Aspen. This man has some discretionary income! He went on to say that he lives in New York City and works on Wall Street. Guess what he does? He’s not a broker. He’s a personal injury attorney.
When he asked me what I do, I opted for the quick, easy answer, “Author, speaker.” “Oh, really?” he said. “What do you speak about?” I considered this for a moment and thought, Why not? So I said what I always say, “Personal accountability,” wondering if he’d see the irony—and the humor. It took a couple of moments. We stared at each other. He fidgeted a bit. Finally, just to be clear, I added, “What I really do is help people—including myself—eliminate victim thinking from their lives.” He must have understood me then because that was the end of the conversation. We never spoke again!
I have nothing against him personally or his profession. He’s simply providing what’s demanded by a culture that continually asks, “Why is this happening to me?” But even as we shake our heads about the ills of society, let’s not forget that society is made up of individuals. You and me. The best thing we can do to get rid of victim thinking in our world is to get rid of it in ourselves.
The first QBQ guideline says all QBQs begin with “What” or “How,” not “Why,” “When,” or “Who.” Take another look at the “Why?” questions at the beginning of the chapter and consider what would happen if we asked these instead:
·        “How can I do my job better today?”
·        “What can I do to improve the situation?”
·        “How can I support others?”

Table of Contents

Introduction: What Ever Happened to...

1. A Picture of Personal Accountability
2. Making Better Choices
3. QBQ! The Question Behind the Question
4. Don't Ask "Why?"
5. The Victim
6. "Why Is This Happening to Me?"
7. "Why Do We Have to Go Through All This Change?"
8. "Why Don't They Communicate Better?"
9. Don't Ask "When?"
10. Procrastination: The Friend of Failure
11. "When Will We Get More Tools and Better Systems?"
12. "When Are We Going to Hear Something New?"
13. Don't Ask "Who?"
14. A Poor Sailor Blames the Wind
15. Silos
16. Beat the Ref
17. "Who Dropped the Ball?"
18. Ownership
19. The Foundation of Teamwork
20. Making Accountability Personal: All QBQs Contain an "I"
21. I Can Only Change Me
22. "He Didn't, I Did"
23. "When Will Others Walk Their Talk?"
24. An Integrity Test
25. The Power of One
26. A QBQ Twist
27. Will the Real Role Models Please Stand Up!
28. Practicing Personal Accountability: All QBQs Focus on Action
29. The Risk of Doing Nothing
30. "Thanks for Shopping at the Home Depot!"
31. Leaders at All Levels
32. The Cornerstone of Leadership
33. Accountability and Boundaries
34. A Great List of Lousy Questions
35. The Spirit of the QBQ
36. Wisdom
37. We Buy Too Many Books
38. A Final Picture
39. The Motor of Learning

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