How the right questions open new doors

Discover new business possibilities

Management teams aren't good at asking questions. In business school, we train them to be good at giving answers. – Clayton Christensen

When I was working for the Big 5 consulting firms, I always believed I was hired to deliver the answers for my clients. But I have discovered over time that the real value I can provide is identifying the underlying key questions that can drive leadership teams to realize strategic renewal. It’s the pursuit of really good questions that can challenge underlying assumptions and beliefs.

I often wonder … Just what are the questions and subsequent discussions that a leadership team can have to help them avoid becoming a Kodak or Blockbuster in this rapidly evolving market? Or, as brilliantly demonstrated in a recent scene from the HBO show “Silicon Valley,” just how does a leadership team make a competitive and strategic pivot, if their business model is at risk of failing?

The right questions can allow leadership teams to discover new possibilities. Recently, we facilitated a leadership team of a substance abuse organization that uses exercise to help individuals achieve sustained recovery. By asking the question “What are we not trying to be in the market?,” the team discovered they are actually not in the substance abuse business at all; but rather are in the business of producing sober leaders — which meant changing how they approach programming, branding and fundraising.

When we facilitated a health care business through a strategic renewal process, the questions we posed challenged the existing assumptions on the primary revenue stream. Through this discussion, the leadership team identified new ways of providing value to the market that produced new and diverse revenue streams.

Discovery of the questions that go far beyond the traditional management questions — “How do we grow?” or “How do we sustain our competitive advantage?” — can produce a much more generative discussion. For example, asking the following questions has been effective in getting leadership teams to consider new scenarios, business models and strategic investments:

  • Beyond making money, how do we really measure our success in the market?
  • What are the fundamental questions we should be asking ourselves every day?
  • Do we really understand what our customers think of us?
  • Do we understand the underlying fundamental assumptions within our business model and what happens if any of them change?
  • Do we understand the key emergent technological, political, and demographic trends that could impact our business model?
  • How are we identifying and following these emergent trends and risks?

These questions seem rather simple on the surface, but the determining factor for achieving success in answering these questions is the willingness of the leadership team to even have these discussions.

The corporate graveyard is littered with once dominant companies who veered into oblivion because they simply missed the emergent trends in the market. Blockbuster was a fixture on every main street; and, now, it’s gone. The reality of the market today is that a CEO and the leadership team alone can’t possibly maintain adequate awareness of the vast number of emergent threats in the marketplace.

So just how does an organization improve its strategic radar without focusing too much time away from the core business? It’s the classic tension between exploiting the existing business model and exploring new potential ideas and opportunities.

This tension can be released by leadership teams who courageously open themselves to the process by asking those fundamental questions which disrupt assumptions, inspire new thinking, and motivate teams to dream of different and new possibilities.

Categories: Management & Leadership