Leading With The Right Questions

Have you ever noticed how many questions you ask in a typical day? Even the simplest decision can follow from dozens of questions? Most we ask and answer without even thinking about it? They reside just under our awareness in almost everything we do. Sometimes we don’t know what question to ask because we don’t know what we don’t know. Questions lead to answers and answers to outcomes.

So, if you want to improve your results, start with the questions you are asking. It doesn’t matter whether you are solving an individual problem, making a decision, leading a project team or executing on strategy, the outcomes that you see in front of you today answer the questions you have already asked. Change the questions and you begin to change the result.

Leading with the right questions requires a willingness to make your real questions transparent and then to follow the markers that enable you to refine and adjust them until they land the right outcome. Let’s look at the way questions affected the growth of this start-up company scenario.

In four years, Ben had taken his company from 2 people working at a kitchen table to 400 people with 25%+ profits. His business model had created explosive growth and was quickly recognized and emulated by others. No surprise here. Ben assumed that he could continuously innovate and reinvent his business processes ahead of the competition. Then he hit a wall. Growth stopped and profits softened.

He began asking questions: Do we have the right team? Ben knew that entrepreneurs often hit a wall at certain thresholds of growth so he seeded his executive team with people from larger companies who in turn asked: Do we have the most effective business processes? He engaged in business process redesign which resulted in more efficiency. How do we develop more esprit de corps and teamwork? He redesigned his company so that it was team-based, he trained people in teaming skills and engaged in teambuilding at all levels of the company with modest success. However, there was very uneven energy and enthusiasm – most of which was a carry-over from the initial explosive growth. Do we have work space that will enable us to continue to grow? He moved his company into newer, larger and more beautiful quarters. Do we have the right image? With the help of the marketing consultants, he changed the company name and logo.

He now had beautiful quarters, a polished image, efficient processes, staff that knew how to perform as a team (should they so choose) and a more focused strategy. Neither profits nor growth budged. Clearly, the results indicated that Ben had not landed the right question.

It doesn’t matter whether you are focused on strategy or simple decisions, when you don’t like the results you are getting, it is time to revisit your outcome question before you turn to questions about what it takes to get there. But how do you discover the flaws in your questions so that you can shape a new one? There are three markers that guide you to the right question. They can be summed up in the following words: pull, energy and flow and they apply at every level.

The first marker is pull. This is the attraction or influence you experience in response to something that matters to you. All questions create pull. The gripping corporate questions are those that have compelling values. These questions are squarely focused on big value to the customer or client … value that sets you apart with the customer and creates stretch for the organization. These questions profoundly resonate with what matters to everyone in the organization. You don’t have to talk them into it. They get why it matters. Great outcome questions are also inclusive. They rise above differences. They therefore, pull unity of purpose.

Look around you. Do the right, most important things matter? Do people “get it?” Are they unified and fired up? These are the indicators that your question has powerful pull.

The second marker is energy. An energized workplace is alive … crackling with ideas. A non-energized workplace is deadening. The difference is palpable. The greater the pull, the more it energizes and compels people to action. Look at the energy. Is high energy the norm or just the exception? Is it self- reinforcing or do you need a crisis to kick up the energy? Low or intermittent energy indicates that you haven’t landed the “right” outcome question.

The third marker is flow. Flow occurs when the pull of a great challenge is combined with the skill and expertise to make it happen. When a team is in flow they think, communicate and act almost as a single organism … with little or no resistance. Communication seems effortless and intuitive. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who performed the original landmark study on flow, observed that people often tap previously unrecognized, individual and collective resources when they are in flow. They find the experience deeply fulfilling … even memorable. When people experience flow, they long to repeat it.

Flow is the most subtle indicator of whether you have landed the primary question, because it also requires high individual and organizational competence. But look for high commitment and focus. Look for agreement on what matters and a high level of intensity about it. These indicate that your question is capable of creating flow.

Now let’s look at how pull, energy and flow worked for Ben. First, he lost track of what he was pulling. He needed to raise the bar with a big value question and instead he changed the subject to performance questions. His questions were all focused on organizational competence. That’s fine if you have landed the outcome question. But he had not. The most important requisite of pull, compelling values, had receded into the background. Rather than creating unity, his questions dispersed and dissipated energy. For this reason, in spite of his team-building efforts, the unity of purpose that creates flow never materialized … not even sporadically. Instead of kick starting a new round of profit and growth, he was running in place.

Ben could have asked a question that mattered to everyone and that would have pulled everyone onto the same page by raising the bar on value as Steve Jobs did when he returned to Apple. Performance and growth would have followed. Great value questions connect people to the customer or client. They are so compelling that they create their own success. They don’t need to be plastered on posters for everyone to know what they are. They are even self evident to the customer. You don’t have to own an Apple product to infer that their questions are about products that have simple, clean, eye-popping design and that bring the customers who use them to their own cutting edge. You may not find their questions on a poster, but you can bet that everyone at Apple gets it and that it pulls extraordinary performance.

A question about how to create extraordinary service that sets his company apart from the competition would have galvanized commitment and sharpened the focus for both Ben and the people in his company. He would have then been able to address issues of organizational competence with a new set of eyes. Powerful value questions pull people’s desire to efficiently find the right people, build solid relationships, build on each others’ ideas, use processes that follow efficient paths and develop work habits that are uncomplicated and lean.

These can be captured in five critical areas of proficiency: social networks, social capital, conversational competence, interactive processes and individual processes. Csikszentmihalyi stressed that flow only occurs in the presence of superior high competence at the task. For groups and organizations, that includes these five proficiencies. Rather than throwing the next best thing against the wall to see if it would stick, Ben would have been exploiting the pull of his big value question to drive the attainment of mastery required in each of these organizational competencies. He would have asked specific questions of each.

Social networks: Ben would have made sure that people knew how to discern and set in motion the optimal social networks pulled by his primary question. He would challenge people to ask: “If we had no constraints in the form of silos, bottlenecks, lines of authority or other limitations, who would we go to?”

Social Capital: Ben would have asked: “How do we continuously add to the bank account of mutual respect and trust that can sustain divergent, out- of-the box ideas?” The broader the thinking pulled by the outcome question, the greater the bank account of social capital required. The test of social capital is the diversity of ideas that can be sustained.

The Quality of Conversations: Big questions require out-of-the-box thinking. They move people to reach for and leverage their very best joint intellectual resources. Ben would have insisted that people ask: “Do our conversations produce shared meaning, discovery, new understanding and common ground?”

Interactive processes include not only the tools that are used to promote group consensus and effective decision-making but also the array of activities through which people engage in conversations. They add value to the extent that they create simple almost invisible paths of least resistance. So Ben would have used the intense pull of his big question to stimulate a corporate mantra: “Does this process add value or create waste?

Individual work and thinking processes are the foundation upon which people are able to collectively develop great ideas and move them forward. These processes include everything from how to structure time and organize work to how to attend to each subject without the bleed-through of distractions. They are the engine of contributions that are just-in-time and that represent the best thinking of each contributor. Ben would ask: “Do individual work and thinking processes enable people to step up?”

Ben’s job, at this point, would be to help people translate what is now only a predisposition into daily reality in the workplace. He would have encouraged people to trust their instincts, create fluid networks, insist on solid relationships and blow the whistle on silos and other barriers … and he would have backed them up. He would have insisted on the norm of making interactive and individual processes lean and simple.

He would have stayed riveted on the question: “Are we demonstrating the required mastery in each competency area to deliver on big value?” He would have then focused: training, coaching, facilitation, process redesign and support systems precisely where they were needed. He might have implemented some of the very initiatives that followed from his initial questions … but each would now have been driven by the measure of competence required to deliver on his big value outcome question. The scatter-shot approach would become a thing of the past.

He would have asked people to join him in paying attention not only to the results of their work but also to the way they worked together to achieve it … the quality of their flow. He would have helped them to recognize that flow is more than simply a marker for refining an outcome question. It is also a reliable barometer of the effectiveness of the people in his company at discerning and executing on the behaviors and attitudes being pulled by that question.

Once Ben leads with the right questions, he can count on a newly energized work force to leverage their very best knowledge, experience and wisdom to move him into a new phase of growth driven by innovation.

If you want to change your results, change the questions you are asking. Follow the markers. Let the pull of the big value question drive execution in the five competency areas.

These principles apply at any scale. They apply to individuals as well as organizations. Notice your outcomes. Pay attention to what you are asking for. Refine your questions using pull, energy and flow as personal markers. Discern the optimal form of each competency. Pull out all of the stops and you will make it happen.

Csikszentmihaly, Mihaly. Flow. New York, New York: Harper & Row, 1990.