Questioning in business

Today, in a world where market conditions and challenges have become even more complex, uncertain and subject to radical disruption across all economic sectors, some authors like Clayton Christensen feel that most of the corporate leaders are not still asking the right questions. To explain this it is necessary to come back to the “efficiency era” (early nineties) when it was all about asking “how can we save a little bit of money, make it a little more efficient, where can we cut costs?”. Keith Yamashita calls it the era of small-minded questions.

This explains how market leading companies in the tech sector and other industries are getting blindsided by newcomers offering products or services that may not have been as good, but are simpler, more convenient and more affordable.  Consider, for example, the big telecommunication companies and businesses like WhatsApp, Skype, etc. These new players are innovating at the low end of the market where the real potential for breakthrough innovation is. And why most of the big companies doesn’t pursue disruptive innovation this way too? Simply because they should have to move away from all they had worked so hard to build.

Fortunately Yamashita thinks that this era is ending: “Company leaders are realizing that if they’re only asking the small questions, it’s not going to advance their agenda, their position or their brands. In order to innovate now, they have to ask more expansive questions”.

The old model doesn’t lend itself particularly well to a market that favours speed, flexibility and collaborative inquiry. Changing to the new model where ambitious and open-ended questions like “Why? What if? or How?” are fully present requires difficult shifts in ingrained policies and approaches. Eric Ries, the pioneer of the Lean Startup movement, says, “the industrial economy was all about knowing the answer and expressing confidence. If you did your homework, you were supposed to know. If you had unanswered questions, that meant you did a bad job and wouldn’t get rewarded”. On the other hand, “the pressure on short-term results tends to give questioning out of the equation” (Tony Wagner, Harvard).

Warren Berger admits in his book “A more beautiful question” that even for those inclined to question, the most difficult thing is knowing what to ask... For this reason he suggests to ask questions at the most fundamental level -questions of purpose like:

  •       Why are we in business? (And by the way- what business are we really in?)
  •       What if our company didn’t exist?
  •       What if we could become a cause and not just a company?
  •       How can we make a better experiment?
  •       If we brainstorm in questions, will lightning strike?
  •       Will anyone follow a leader who embraces uncertainty?
  •       Should mission statements be mission questions?
  •       How might we create a culture of inquiry?

At this point, the big question is: are you prepared to ask the right questions in your business?