Questions to Create Change… A Strategic Thinking Guide

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strategic thinking

…”A good question beats a good answer”…

That’s a rule-of-thumb for Alan Webber, the award winning editor, author and columnist who launched Fast Company magazine in 1995 and sold it a short five years later for the second largest amount for any U.S. magazine property. (And, interestingly, in this era of print media decline, the magazine continues to thrive.).

In an HBR Blog post, Polly LaBarre used Webber’s rule-of-thumb as the foundation for a conversation about the value of questions… this is an excerpt…

The first thing you notice when you have your ‘antennae up’ for questions is that most people (especially businesspeople…and particularly CEO’s) are more interested in presenting solutions, making assertions, and sharing their vision. That’s no surprise! The education process focuses on producing the right answer, and the job description of a leader for the last century has basically been “the person with all the answers.”

That’s why it’s so refreshing (and instructive) to spend time with people who lead with questions rather than answers. Why? What is it about inquiry that beats certainty every time? Here are three reasons:

1. Questions are a powerful antidote to hubris. Think about it…Hubris inevitably dominates in a culture that celebrates mastery, values decisiveness, and reveres the top guy (or gal) as the ultimate ‘go-to’ person for virtually all ideas and decisions. The antidote for hubris is asking the authentic questions that unleash humility, curiosity, even vulnerability! That is the most powerful approach to leadership in a 21st Century world of expanding complexity, immense challenges and intense change. No single individual can possibly have all of the answers. But an open and curious person can attract more perspectives, surface more possibilities, and enlist more help than one closed off by certainty and a need to be right all the time.

CEO’s…want more Strategic Thinking from your Leadership Team? Try leading with open-ended questions that require more than a simple yes or no answer. Then go silent and listen with every bone in your body. The answers may not be what you want to hear…they are almost certainly what you NEED to hear. Practice this behavior – it’s tough…tougher than you imagine…to just listen to the answers! As Vineet Nayar, CEO of the $4 billion global IT services firm, HCL Technologies, puts it: “The CEO should be the Chief Question Asker, not the final provider of answers.” He keeps a list of twenty questions and makes time to think about them on a regular (almost daily) basis.

Here’s a sample of Nayar’s ‘wonderings’:

  • Should people who create value be governed by people who control it?
  • What things do I control that I should not control?
  • Could we throw out the entire company rulebook?
  • Would my children (or my employees’ children) want to work in a company like mine?
  • What would happen if there was no CEO at my company (or at any company in the world)?

Nayar is noted for saying, consistently, that he does not to have the answers, but one thing is certain: the more disruptive the questions, the greater the chance his organization will create the future — rather than be conquered by it.

2. The best questions are the bedrock of all change and creativity. The rate of change is only speeding up…harder to keep up with than ever! Those classic questions — What if? Is it possible? How can we? What are we thinking about? What can we do about? — invite possibility rather than doubt. They are fundamentally subversive, disruptive, and playful — and they switch people into the mode required to invent anything new. Even better, anyone can ask these questions (anyone who has ever spent time in the company of a three-year-old understands this). You don’t have to hold a position of authority to ask a powerful question, and the people with the most powerful questions stand to make the most impact. By the way…I’m not a fan of questions that start with the ‘Why’ word…particularly when they come from senior level leaders. To often, those ‘why’ questions can sound like an attack instead of an inquiry or open ended questions.

Now proving that there’s an exception to every rule… Jane Harper, spent a nearly 30-year career at IBM asking the kinds of questions most people don’t want to touch. Her definitive ‘why’ question was: “Why would really great people — the best technical and managerial talent in the world — want to come work at IBM?” In an era when every young, gifted programmer, engineer, or entrepreneur’s first instinct was to write their own business plan or head to a fast-growing startup, life as a foot soldier in Big Blue’s global army was a pretty hard sell.

Harper understood that great people want to work on exciting, high-impact projects, with a small team, in a dynamic setting. So she created exactly that in a Cambridge, Massachusetts lab and launched a wholly original and powerfully effective internship program called Extreme Blue, which has grown into a thriving platform for innovation and talent development. So…sometimes the appropriate ‘why’ question gets some serious strategic thinking going…just be aware of really asking a question instead of conducting an inquisition!

3. Asking good questions trades control for contribution. A question asked and explored as a group (whether that group is a team, a company, or a community) generates more solidarity, engagement, and progress than a proclamation from on high. Spend any amount of time with Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, whose organization is celebrated for exuding a powerful sense of purpose and passion from every corner, and you’ll hear him repeatedly refer to “the questions we ask ourselves.”

Questions create conversations — and those conversations are how thriving groups think up their future together and stay true to their core. One enduring and powerful question at the heart of Zappos is: “How do we sustain this culture as we grow? How do we stay true to the core and inspire ever more creativity and energy to tackle the future?” That question is actively explored across the organization and even results in a book — the annual Culture Book – which features the “true feelings, thoughts, and opinions of the employees,” who view themselves as vital custodians of that culture. (Oh, and notice that those questions start with ‘how’ instead of ‘why.)

There isn’t One Right Question!

Of course, there is no one right question, but one of the most productive questions when it comes to engendering a deeply-felt sense of purpose and inspiring the kind of passion that fuels organizations to do extraordinary things is: “What ideas are we fighting for? What do we stand for (and what are we against)? Why does what we do matter?”

The inevitable corollary to that question is: “Are you really who you say you are?” Unless you’re willing to hold a brutally honest and transparent conversation (both inside the organization and beyond) about where you’re living up to your ideas and ideals and where you’re falling down, those values will become meaningless words on the wall.

What’s your question? How can you be more effective as a leader by being the ‘best questioner in the room’ instead of the one with all the answers? How can you lead the way to better Strategic Thinking with great questions…and fewer authoritative answers?

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