The value of questioning can unlock the power of innovation. That may sound obvious to many, but how does an organisation who doesn’t champion the art of questioning change their mantra?
Welcome to the fourth blog in the series titled, ‘Strategy Execution Odyssey’. We are on a quest to discover the real secrets behind delivering that all important organisational strategy. The most successful businesses always seem to deliver on their intended strategies. In this age of business disruption, this is especially challenging to achieve. What makes these businesses different to those that aren’t successful? What are they doing differently?
Let’s continue on the journey to the boundaries of what could be, and what shouldn’t be. In my last episode we explored what makes innovation so hard to do – turning an organisation from a squarer formation to a circle and then ultimately a wheel capable of traveling down the innovation road.
In this episode we examine the power of questioning to begin breaking down innovation barriers to start reshaping the organisation into a well-defined circle.
In my previous blog, Innovation Cycle: The path to success, I talked about how organisations need to move away from the trees within the forest and into the land of ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’. Questioning is a fantastic mechanism to do just that. It allows people within their places of employment to ask, ‘why are the things the way they are?’
In the book ‘A More Beautiful Question’, Warren Berger examines the power of questioning to dismantling traditional mechanics of business. I particularly like this description:
“Sometimes questioners go out looking for their Why – searching for a question they can work on and answer. The term problem-finding is used to describe this pursuit, and while it may seem odd to go looking for problems… it’s one of the most important things to do for an established business, large or small... you can create a new venture, a new career, a new industry.” (p31)
One of the best ways to create a high value questioning environment is practising the art of curiosity. In my book, Flipping For Success: Rewiring Business Strategy to the New Consumer Age, I describe how mutual curiosity between people can see us leave our prejudices behind, opening ourselves to embracing learning.
Using the power of questioning, here are some considerations to how to transform your organisation from that box to a circle.
Consider questioning similar to a map with purpose
If the organisation doesn’t embrace the power of questioning, transformation efforts that it undertakes will be doubly hard and difficult, falling short of expectations. This is one of those uncomfortable truths. And changing the organisation to adopt an effective questioning mindset can be the hardest switch to make.
The power of questioning should be thought of like a map, a map with a purpose. As a purposeful map it can unlock opportunities to transcend traditional monopolies of authority and absoluteness. It is a game changer where all roads lead back to it.
One of the things to put into the map is the role of your internal top talent. Let me explain.
Questioning requires us to think more as opposed to just ‘doing’. The brain’s temporal lobe is responsible for memory storage while the parietal lobe is in charge of knowledge, reasoning and sensory integration. The parietal lobe is where we tend to think and examine things as opposed to performing repetitive tasks (the memory storage side of our brain).
Top talent becomes top talent by thinking about why things are the way they are. One doesn’t have to have a high IQ or deep educational background to be considered top talent. And any of us could become a top talent at any stage in our lives. These always insightful individuals have the pre-requisites to develop their talent into something extraordinary.
However, being a good thinker does not guarantee that they will be good at the art of asking questions. That’s because the value of questioning, unlike simply thinking about it, is about elevating good thoughts from a discussion format into decision-making opportunities. It can unlock an organisation’s command and control doors; to penetrate these solid walls of blanket authority. The value of questioning even has the potential to change the landscape of the competitive environment within an organisation!
For example, instead of competing from a dominate position of generating efficiencies where the mental model is derived from ‘how well things are today’, the impact of questioning can redefine the competitive goal posts. It’s about shifting the mental model to ‘what could be’, as opposed to ‘what is’.
In a business world now redefined and measured by market differentiation (the strategic term for innovation) as the primary growth engine, a company’s internal mindset needs to be recast to fit this paradigm shift. Unfortunately, many organisations do not think about their mental model shift.
They take the harder road travelled and lose substantial capital and talent in the process. Initiating a new corporate restructure or implementing an exhaustive cultural program to change behaviours is simply not enough to embed an innovative mindset. These tactics are nothing more than trying to do what is comfortable and known within an organisation; demonstrating ‘you know what you don’t know’. To get beyond this limited viewpoint and into the innovative land of ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’, consider putting together a questioning map to make that transition. It will unlock your top talent.
How to jump start your slow moving cattle
Given the difficulty of this challenge, how can a more pervasive questioning environment take hold? How does an organisation encourage its workforce to adopt this mental model? How does it catch fire? Who’s going to light the match for others to fan the flames? And isn’t there a risk that too much questioning leads to organisational chaos, frustration and paralysis?
As earlier mentioned your top talent is well placed to take up questioning given a nurturing environment to do so. These individuals can become champions in transitioning a company from a square to a circle. But they do not, and definitely should not, light the fire. The fire needs to be started by the leaders themselves. It all comes down to the willingness of the top brass. In many ways the top brass needs to surrender the competitive rules that got them to the top. A tall order for many to make.
Imagine for a moment a typical large organisation that employs ten thousand staff and collects some half billion dollars in revenue. The top executives have all been promoted by the same performance management system as those that preceded them. Their industry knowledge and ability to negotiate effective outcomes has in large part positioned them for promotion to the top. This is the world they know, trust and understand.
Why then would they change the whole system once they ascend to the top? It’s akin to many other hierarchical-based systems like the military, scouts and the mafia. These long-standing institutions all have the same element in common, a performance system based on producing value, not questioning it.
Why then should a business be any different? Why should leaders take a risk on something alien to their own universe? And even if they did, ‘why now and why us’, is what many would probably be asking. Where’s the trust in that?
Trust is rarely earned from one gigantic leap of faith. It needs a jump start; a ‘hop-on the bike’ to see how you like it.
This is where the power of questioning can pay big dividends for those leaders at the top. It separates themselves from the pack. It re-brands their image and opens new doors they weren’t aware of.
That said, no one leader should journey down a new path blindfolded and naked. This is where a set of questions can provide that embryonic navigational value, such as:
These questions are examples of open, instead of closed, questions. An open question usually generates a new set of questions to exploring deeper meaning. Questions should also have a purpose otherwise they can be time wasters, working against an organisation’s progress. These are just some of the concepts explored in the book, A Beautiful Question.
It’s time to get going
With a map and a bit of jump start, it’s time to begin that journey. No other instructions are needed before venturing forth. These will come in due course as the journey presents itself. After all, not knowing what you don’t know will not prepare you any better than you are at this very moment.
In concluding, no single person should ever feel threatened in asking a challenging question. Nor should a leader feel like they have to carry the weight of their organisation by owning those questions and answers. For the value does not lie in the few who pursue those answers, it lies in the majority who assist in making the journey a successful one. The followers, not the leaders, are the key hold the key to making this journey successful. If they are not following you, you’ll never get there.
It’s time to start migrating from a workforce designed around 'doing' to one designed for questioning. It’s time to design a workforce that owns the discussion rather than asked to prepare others for that discussion.
If you are interested in having a deeper conversation about the practicalities of applying these principles, I encourage you to send me an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org. To read about an example of the power of questioning, please read my other blog, The Power of Questioning in Practice.
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