TO RENEW AND GROW
If a company (or individual) wants to reinvent its economic
value propositions, then management must embrace the art and science of asking
better questions (“questionating”). With the growing complexity and speed of
change in the business world, yesterday’s solutions will not capture tomorrow’s
opportunities. We all have historically rooted and lagging mindsets that both
define and confine us, so how do we rethink and reweave them?
Asking veteran experts for quick fix advice that is based
on their historical experience will not be a better solution path for us. Our
future already exists; it is just unevenly distributed across a lot of leading
edge companies and industries about which we may know little. How can we find
those scattered pieces, connect and apply them to our specific competitive
context? We might:
Do a “corporate
culture audit” to identify company mindset assumptions and money
losing activities that must be first unlearned and weeded to free resources for
future-oriented investments. (For more
on “corporate culture audit” see http://www.merrifieild.com/articles/1_16.asp)
Form a team of insiders and part-time outsiders to
do “future thinking”.
Realize that unless we can questionate all that we
have done and all that we might do, we have no chance of escaping our habit of
fine-tuning the past. Less than 4% of all mature firms are able to perpetually
innovate, because they can first effectively questionate. Why is creating a
culture of question asking so difficult?
THE POWER OF QUESTIONS.
Although philosophers since Socrates have promoted the
power of questions, does our management team believe that questionating is
vital for long-term success? Here is a business scenario to consider:
Every question can be a potential learning
opportunity, especially if we take a little time to craft the right question,
for the right time and the right audience delivered in the right spirit.
If managers invite others to help them search for
better solution paths than “what we are currently doing”, doesn’t this act show:
1) a humility to admit that we don’t have all of the answers for a fast
changing world; 2) a willingness to share in the responsibility for learning; 3)
a willingness to serve and help others who have to do the implementation
instead of dictating to them from our self-referential opinions?
Good questions wake people up. Research
shows that more neurons making more connections light up when information is
packaged as an inviting question instead of a declaration. Higher brain
activity, in turn, can prompt new ideas from new mental spaces in our heads. We
start to see possible solutions that lie beyond: our comfort zone of
knowledge; our desk; our functional (silo) department or profit center.
Hoarded information at all levels in the company can start to flow.
More teammates with more information start to have
better conversations that can, at first, diverge into a broader range of OK ideas
before eventually converging into fewer, ever improving good ideas to pursue.
Team alignment, morale and collaborative action all
start to improve.
A higher level of trust and confidence in better
solution paths leads to bolder, more committed decisions. More people start
to take more and better risks.
The firm becomes more flexible and adaptable, because
more employees become more independently responsible at taking ownership of
solution paths that they helped to craft.
The firm starts to generate better, short-term
results and more long-term learning, innovation and fresh profit streams.
As an alternative to the scenario above, could a top-down,
here’s-what-I-expect-to-happen memo achieve the same thing even if some good
starter questions were included? Because engaging-conversations involve lots of
spontaneous questions and thinking, interpersonal questionating must pervade
the entire process.
WHY DO SUPERIORS HAVE TO HAVE ANSWERS, NOT QUESTIONS?
Lots of reasons, some abbreviated possibilities are:
We are all conditioned by our families,
schools and employers to be good students and have the right answers when
questioned by authority figures. While growing up, we are, conversely,
taught to not ask too many questions, especially intrusive or embarrassing ones.
How should we change this societal dance between “tops and bottoms” in our
We have had no formal training in how to ask
better, more engaging questions. We don’t generally like doing activities at
which we are poorly skilled.
For lack of training, we will probably ask poor
questions. They will be too leading or critical in tone. Poor,
disempowering questions don’t get conversations going.
Employees would think our new questionating odd and
manipulative. Changing the dance between the tops and bottoms in an
organization is initially unsettling for all.
Many of the employees might be initially
embarrassed, because they don’t have any ready answers. Let them off the hook,
tell them to relax, think about the question(s), discuss them amongst themselves
and come back with some thoughts and more
As managers, we have fears about what we will
hear if we were to invite employees to help us search for better solutions.
For starters, could we admit that what we have been doing could be done better?
Are we prepared to have people ask us about the facts, assumptions, biases and
feelings on which are past decisions and policies are based? Going forward can
we admit that we aren’t omniscient and want to become “learners” instead of
“instant experts”. These factors are all threatening to our idealized
self-image which requires a bit of emperor’s-new-clothes support from our
Questionating takes time for reflection and living
with the tough questions for awhile. There generally is not enough time in
business environments for questionating. Why? How can we change this?
the bottoms, in turn, ask good questions of the tops? In a
meeting format, peers don’t want to seem ignorant in front of one another.
People with smart-sounding, fast answers who are on top of the facts and have
novel ways for fine-tuning the past – which everyone readily understands and
feels comfortable about – have historically been rewarded.
Who will challenge Goupthink where
most people blindly follow the leader’s thinking. It’s the questions NOT asked
by the one to a few who do see things differently from the team that get all of
the management team in trouble. For example, critical questions were not raised
persistently enough before the disasters of: the Titanic; the Bay of Pigs
invasion of Cuba in ’61; and the blow ups of the space shuttles Challenger and
Who will really follow up on the boss’s
questionating request to “tell me if I don’t have any clothes on”? Even
new-leaf honchos have their limits as to how rough you can be with their self-image
Questions about investing in future scenarios – to
prevent disasters or to seize opportunities – aren’t easily understood and
embraced by most managers because the gene pool is statistically wired to deal
with immediate problems, not visionary stuff. If we spend resources for things
most people can’t see, then we take grief whether we thwart the bad event or it
just doesn’t happen. Can you imagine voters’ response to putting in today’s
airport security routines six months before 9/11? If we invest in trying to
seize an opportunity and miss, we get criticized. If we win, then everyone else
will take credit for it too, or it was “lucky”. So, if we aren’t in a death
spiral, why not play politics, get along, questionate how to fine-tune the
past and let the organization (or nation) self-liquidate after we have retired?
THE COURAGE TO ACT; PURSUE 7 GUIDELINES FOR A CULTURE OF QUESTIONING.
Assuming that questionating is the first hurdle towards becoming
an innovative company and that we can find the courage to start, what are some
implementation guidelines for a company management team to follow? Here’s a
starter list that should be questionated and customized further:
1. We are
willing to say that: “we don’t know the right, best and ever improving solution
path for a changing world” that other employees will have to implement.
of being instant answer “knowers” we aim to be “learners’ who push the wheel of learning with questionating
going on throughout the circular process. (For more on “wheel of learning”,
“good mistakes” and “failing forward faster” See the slide show “Six
Culture Of Innovation Memes.”
3. We will
go past allowing questions and even encouraging them; we will train everyone
to have the confidence and ability to proactively ask good questions. Questions
will cease to be unusual and threatening; they will, instead, become fun,
creative parts of question maps. We will take anthropological satisfaction in
unpacking our historical, outdated mental models that are often laced with our
personal insecurities and delusions.
practicing the guidelines involved in “appreciative
inquiry” and “nutrient power”, we will ask “empowering questions”. (For
more on “appreciative inquiry see this exhibit,. http://www.merrifield.com/exhibits/Appreciative_Inquiry_Exhibit.pdf.
5. We will budget
new amounts of time to focus on the process of asking questions to create
question maps for areas in which we are searching for better answers instead of
rushing into “right answers”.
We will allow time for teams to get comfortable
with one another and time to think about and live with and into questions on
question maps. This will allow us to do extra thinking on divergent
possibilities to create many good ideas before we start to work to make them
great ideas. While this happens, we will converge to ever fewer, ever better
possibilities to pursue.
We will accept and reward risk taking; we will
praise “good mistakes” and “failing forward faster and better” towards visions
that we hold in order to learn as much as we can as fast as we can for the lowest
©Merrifield Consulting Group, Inc., Article 1.17
D. Bruce Merrifield, Jr.