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.

Understanding Yourself and Others on the Board

Disputes often arise on boards because of different personality types. Recognising your own personality type and understanding others’, can help to develop a more effective team. An approach stemming from the seminal work of the famous Psychologist Carl Gustav Jung, around colour personality types, is used by Synergy Training. Training Director Shaun Adams explains:

First identify your core type:

We each have all these strengths, but will have one or two dominant energies or colours. But how do you use your strengths? And more importantly how do others ‘perceive’ the way you use them? Put these 4 colour ‘types’ in order.



Earth Green:

Cool Blue:

Fiery Red – Assertive, action and direction

Positive, Affirmative, Bold, Assertive, Competitive, Decisive, Strong-willed, Demanding and Task/Goal focussed

People with a strong preference for using their Fiery Red colour energy know what they want and have little difficulty articulating their conclusions. Typically they are concerned primarily with action. They deal quickly with the present situation and appear to have little concern for the past. Their responses are efficient, effective and focused. They know what they want and where they are going. They are impatient with delays.

They may show less concern for the feelings of others or for personal relationships. Others can see their actions as hard or critical because they limit the attention they pay to their relationships. They seek power and control over situations. People using their Fiery Red colour energy, are extroverted and have high energy. They are action oriented and always in motion. They are positive, reality-oriented and assertive. They are single minded as they focus on results and objectives. They may well approach others in a direct, authoritative manner, radiating a desire for assertiveness and control.

Your Opposite – Earth Green, this is the personality type you will have most difficulty communicating with, selling to, motivating and generally building relationships with. You may see this person as: Docile, Bland, Plodding, Stubborn and Reliant.

Sunshine Yellow – Articulated Vision and Inspiration

Cheerful, Uplifting, Spirited, Buoyant

Social, Dynamic, Demonstrative, Expressive and Creative

People with a high level of Sunshine Yellow energy may spend their efforts racing towards their dreams for the future. They build the possibilities of tomorrow. They will often move from one idea or activity to another, impatient to find the vision of the moment. Their behaviour can be fun and others get caught up in this. Because they focus their attention upon the future and often intuitive visions, they may be perceived by others as more imaginative and creative than the other colours.

They can become completely committed to an idea and then discard it within a few weeks if it loses its excitement. They may therefore appear to others as shallow, impractical and unrealistic at times of difficulty. Their optimism can mean that they will be prone to denial at times.

People with a strong Sunshine Yellow colour energy preference, are strongly extroverted, radiant and friendly. They are usually positive and concerned with good human relations. They enjoy the company of others and believe that life should be fun. They approach others in a persuasive, democratic manner, radiating a desire for sociability.

Your Opposite – Cool Blue, this is the personality type you will have most difficulty communicating with, selling to, motivating and generally building relationships with. You may see this person as: Stuffy, Indecisive, Suspicious, Cold and Reserved.

Earth Green – One to One Relationships & Support

Still, Tranquil, Calming, Soothing

Sharing, Patient, Amiable, Caring and Encouraging

People with a high level of Earth Green energy are often concerned with the feelings of and relationships with other people. Their concern for other people’s welfare can often lend personal warmth to a situation. They can be sensitive to the values implicit in people’s actions and can act as useful barometers to the ethical consistency of an organisation’s actions.

People with a strong preference for using their Earth Green energy can be slow or reluctant to modify their personal values despite the apparent logic of an argument or situation. They tend to avoid decisions that could involve violation of their values or risking the unknown.

People using Earth Green energy focus on values and depth in their relationships. They want others to be able to rely on them. They will defend what they value with quiet determination and persistence. They prefer democratic relationships that value the individual and are personal in style, radiating a desire for understanding.

Your Opposite – Fiery Red, this is the personality type you will have most difficulty communicating with, selling to, motivating and generally building relationships with. You may see this person as: Aggressive, Controlling, Overbearing, Intolerant and Impatient.

Cool Blue – Introverted Thinking & Reflection

Showing no bias, Objective, Detached

Cautious, Analytical, Precise, Questioning and Formal

People with a high level of Cool Blue energy tend to live their lives according to the principles, facts and logic they find in reality. They often like to analyse all the possibilities to ensure they will avoid making an illogical or ill-informed judgement. They are planners, organisers, administrators and academics, with the ability to work out tasks systematically from start to finish.

As a result of their thoroughness, people with a preference for using their Cool Blue energy are often reluctant to make or express decisions quickly. Facts, logic and principles can appear more important than personal friendships or personal gratification for these people. They may be seen as detached or even rather cold at times.

People with a lot of Cool Blue energy tend to be introverted and have a desire to know and understand the world around them. They like to think before they act and maintain a detached, objective standpoint. They value independence and intellect. They often prefer written communication in order to maintain clarity and precision, radiating a desire for analysis..

Your Opposite – Sunshine Yellow, this is the personality type you will have most difficulty communicating with, selling to, motivating and generally building relationships with. You may see this person as: Excitable, Frantic, Indiscreet, Over the Top and Hasty.

Psychologists tell us that 85% of our problems in life come from our interactions with others. By understanding your own style and that of others you have a fantastic opportunity to apply simple adapting and connecting strategies to build successful personal and team relationships, resulting in increased effectiveness at board and a personal level.

NFL Situation Spotlight #109 – Offensive Holding Penalties (OHP)

Those of you that have had a chance to read some of my past articles may have come across a write-up discussing the predictive power behind Play-book Execution Penalties, which are flags thrown when plays break-down, usually on offense. Penalty calls that fall into this category include infractions such as: Intentional Grounding, Ineligible Receivers, Illegal Shifts and Motions, Too Many Men on the Field, and so on.

PBEP’s are not the only measure of team penalties that have been shown to be a profitable tool for spread handicapping: Offensive Holding calls are also the basis for a situation that has produced big profits over the past 7 years– a situation which has been highly effective even with only one Primary condition involved.

The condition I am speaking about is simple, and involves looking at teams that currently have a higher per-game average for Offensive Holding Penalties Against (OHPA) than their current opponent.

As an example, a team that has played 4 games and been flagged 9 times for Offensive Holding during this stretch, would have an OHPA of 2.25 (9 / 4) and would therefore be subject to this situations logic when facing an opponent with an OHPA average of 2.24 or less.

As you might expect, teams with a higher OHPA have not been a good wager over the past 7 seasons. You might be surprised; however, at just how badly they have fared.

Since 2001, teams with a higher OHPA have been a brutal 518-602 (46.3%) ATS when playing between Week 4 and 15, creating a profit of $3,220.00 at 10/11 odds with $110.00 wagers against the team in question. Not bad for a relatively simple situation with 1 Primary condition (OHPA > OP OHPA) and a ‘Secondary’ stipulation (i.e., ‘tightener’) excluding games very early, and very late in the season.

If there is one thing I have learned through the process of handicapping hundreds of NFL games over the past decade-or-so and studying countless trends during this same time period, it’s that, the stats that are ‘off the beaten track’ are usually the ones that produce the most profitable ‘stand-alone’ trends’–meaning, those that are based one single condition or at least a minimal amount of conditions.

You will be hard-pressed to find another situation based on the more common measurements of team skill, such as rushing and passing stats, that could produce a similar result of +/- 85 wins ATS over a 1000-1100 game stretch, especially when it involves only a single ‘building block’, or, ‘Primary’ condition.

The reason for this is actually fairly simple: Most of us know that Vegas sets the NFL line based predominantly on public perception of team strength. This is a point which even most novice handicappers are aware of these days. Sportsbooks get their 10% ‘Vig’ regardless of who wins and losses and it’s always been in their best interest to set lines that produce balanced action which helps to minimize their immediate risk and maximize long-term profits.

With the knowledge that the point spread is more a product of public sentiment, than actual team skill levels in many cases, it becomes fairly safe to assume that the statistics that help to shape public opinion will probably be less effective at handicapping the spread than other, equally effective stats that perhaps ‘fly-below the radar’ of the vast majority of handicappers out there. Those who follow the stock market will be familiar with this concept, which is known as the efficient market theory.

As an example: if everyone made their wagers based solely on season-to-date points differential for each team, Vegas would correct their lines for this fact and using a method of choosing teams based on points scored alone, would ultimately yield a fat 0 dollars profit, if not a loss, over the long-haul.

This example is an over-simplification of course, and bettors will typically take many more things into consideration when making wagers. Having said that, there are certain stats and variables that are used more often-than-not by the average handicapper, week in and week out.

With-out a doubt, rushing and passing stats are the measures of choice for most novice-to-intermediate handicappers along with other obvious ones, such as, points scored and allowed; ‘power’ numbers; injury report data and recent head-to-head results. Most people base their wagering decisions on these kinds of stats because they are both easy to find and easy to understand.

As with the financial markets; however, following the ‘herd’ is more likely to lead you (and your bankroll) over the side of a cliff, rather than to the ‘pot of gold’, and the same rules apply when handicapping the sports-betting market.

This is not to say that basic statistics which focus on such things as the efficiency of a team’s rushing and passing game are to be ignored. On the contrary, I use these fundamental measurements (expressed as yards-per-play differentials) as part of a number of my successful situations. But, a number of other conditions usually need to be added in order to make them truly effective in predicting spread winners.

Getting back to penalties for a moment–beyond the basic penalty yardage totals shown for each team in the final boxscore, the specific types and frequency of certain penalties that teams take are essentially ignored by 99.5% of handicappers, and for the reasons discussed above, these key stats will also not factor too much into the line as a result.

Penalty calls are not the only facet of NFL team play that suffers from a lack of attention, despite their ability to reveal profitable situations versus the spread.

There happens to be quite a few other statistical gems that also fall into the ‘overlooked’ category and one such area concerns special teams play and more specifically, the king of this category–KRYF, which stands for Kick-off Return Yardage (Average) For.

KRYF is a critical stat that is on my ‘shortlist’ of numbers that no good NFL handicapper should be with-out.

It acts as a barometer of overall special teams strength on the most important special teams play of all: the Kick-off return.

Kick-offs are a critical event because of their ability to switch a games momentum in a heart-beat and they provide an opportunity for a team to quickly gobble up crucial yardage that can leave them with decent field position, which is key to any chance of a victory, whether it be SU or ATS.

Nothing deflates a team that just finished putting points on the board more, than an opponent who runs back the ensuing kick-off for 40 yards and we all know the affect that a player like Chicago’s kick-return specialist, Devin Hester, can have on a game’s outcome in the blink of an eye.

The league average for KRYF is usually around 22 yards-per-return. Good teams will find themselves with an average near 25 while lousy return teams will be down near 19 yards-per-return.

KYRF is a stat that I use a lot, and it just happens to be the basis for one of the 2 remaining Primary conditions yet to be discussed. Including the original one involving OHPA, this powerful ‘trifecta’ of negative factors spells doom for the team unlucky enough to meet all of the criteria involved.

Here is how KRYF factors into things: I have found that teams that have a higher OHPA as well as a lower KRYF than their current opponent, have been a dismal 245-332 (42.5%) ATS since 2001, which almost doubles the profit produced from looking at OHPA alone, to $6250.00.

As with OHPA, it makes sense that teams at a disadvantage with regards to KRYF are a poor bet against the spread. The surprise here, once again, is just how profitable it has been historically, when betting against this team based on these 2 simple factors alone.

Now, we are not done quite yet. The final significant stipulation that I like to add also involves special teams, in this case– a comparison of Gross Punt Yardage and Net Punt Yardage concerning the current opponent of the team in question is included.

Subtracting Net Punt Yardage (the yardage achieved by a punt after the return is factored in along with any penalties against the punting team) from Gross Punt Yards (the distance a punt actually traveled from where the ball was snapped) is an excellent way to look at the ability of a team to: A) Execute a punt properly, and B) efficiently cover the ensuing return.

Teams with a poor punt coverage unit or that take a higher-than-average number of penalties during the punt itself; will see a wider gap between their GPYF and NPYF. Teams that have a below-average punter will also have a lower NPYF by extension, as shorter punts do carry a higher risk of big returns if coverage personnel do not have enough time to get into proper position.

The average gap between a team’s GPYF and their NPYF happens to be 6 yards.
By excluding opponents that have a GPYF at least 7 yards higher than their NPYF, we effectively remove opponents that have either poor coverage skills on punts, or a weak punter. Ultimately, this is yet another blow against the team already stinging from the other factors previously discussed.

In summary then: Teams that have a higher per-game average for Offensive Holding Penalties Against (OHPA) along with a lower per-game average for Kick-off Return Yardage For (KRYF)–both in relation to their current opponent–are 142-244 (36.8%) ATS since 2001, so long as this opponent’s Gross Punt Yardage figure is no more than 7 yards bigger than their Net Punt Yardage per-game average.

Based on these 3 Primary conditions (along with the earlier tightener that confines things to Week 4 through 15), we have a trend that has been a consistent winner since ’01 and has produced a profit of $8,780.00 at 10/11 odds during this time period.

Rounding things out, are 2 final limitations, one of which excludes teams who have faced a tough schedule season-to-date (SOS > 0.600) while the other excludes underdogs of >= 7 points. With the addition of these final 2 conditions, the record is reduced to 89-190 (31.9%) ATS–a killer situation that has been a deadly predictor of results ATS, 7 years running.

A brief look at the stats below will show that this is a very balanced trend that has played on every single team in the league, aside from one. And, it is split fairly evenly between favs and dogs as well as home and away teams.

Here are all the details.

(Notes: ASMR stands for Average Spread Margin Rating. A positive rating indicates a trend that is stronger than average versus the line, negative–weaker than average. TDIS% is the percentage of teams in the league that have been involved in this situation at one time or another. WT% is the percentage of teams that are .500 or better and SPR is the average spread for teams in this situation. For more details, please consult Page 13 of my 2007 NFL Game Sheets Guide.)

Situational Trend #109 Summary

Primary Conditions (Building Blocks)
1) Offensive Holding Penalty Average Against (OHPA) > Opponent.
2) Kick-off Return Yardage Average For (KRYF) Secondary Conditions (Tighteners)
1) Game is between Week 4 and 15.
2) Team is not an Underdog of >=7 Points.
3) Strength of Schedule (SOS), season-to-date, is Situation Stats
ASMR: -0.5
Home%: 57.4
Dog%: 44.9
TDIS%: 96.9
WT%: 54.7
SPR: -1.0
Top Teams: TB(18); BUF(16); MIN(16); MIA(15)

Situation Record
Overall (Since ’01): 89-190 ATS
2007 Season: 10-26 ATS
2006 Season: 9-19 ATS
2005 Season: 11-32 ATS
2004 Season: 17-32 ATS

Last 3 Results. Pick in Brackets.
2007 WK15–TEN 26 KC 17 (TEN -3.5) W
2007 WK15–JAC 29 PIT 22 (JAC +3.5) W
2007 WK15–CLE 8 BUF 0 (CLE -6) W