It was a very long time ago, but I still remember it like it was yesterday. My Biology 9 teacher in Junior High School, Mr. Mitchell made one statement repeatedly throughout the year. The statement was, “The answer you get, depends on the question you ask.” He, of course, was referring to the scientific process of asking questions, making hypotheses, then testing to gather knowledge. What Mr. Mitchell may not have known at that time was that his statement was one of the most brilliant statements vis-à-vis business and strategy that I have ever heard.
Quick to solve problems, but slow to ask questions
Something I observe to be true of most executives and entrepreneurs that I encounter is that they are quick to solve problems. They tend to undertake a problem-solving mentality. This makes a great deal of sense in the moment but limits creative strategic thinking. The average executive does not ask a lot of questions, but rather moves quickly to trying to find solutions.
Have you ever stopped to consider the facts regarding children and asking questions? How many questions do you think school-aged children ask? When I ask people this, they suggest that school-aged children must ask dozens of questions per day, resulting in literally hundreds of questions in a given month. The fact of the matter is that most school-aged children only ask about one per month. Only one per month.
How many questions do you ask?
This surprising fact may be less surprising when you think about how we respond to children in their earliest years regarding their queries. When young kids in the home ask the typical “why”, most parents do not take the time or invest the effort to answer. Rather, they say, “because mom said so…or, just obey.” Think about the early school years, when a teacher asks the class, he/she gives very little response time before moving on. We are not doing much to create curious inquisitive children who think for themselves. Rather, they tend to learn from the adults around them that the asking of questions is an inconvenience. We don’t have a lot of time for that.
OK to ask = a healthy team
One of the many ways to discern how healthy a team is, is to observe how much space is created for asking questions and how safe it is to do so. I have been part of teams where the culture does not allow for such. Even when a team leader says questions are welcome, it is quite clear when the folks in the room don’t believe that inquiry will be valued. I get to work with a lot of teams, there is a consistent correlation between a low functioning team and a culture that does not value questioning.
Examine your discussions with your executive team on critical issues. Do you spend more time asking questions about issues or trying to find quick solutions? Yes, problems need to be solved. Asking for more details opens new possibilities.
Cameron’s Call to Action
- The next time you meet with your executive team, do not permit problem solving. Instead, let the team know that in response to identified strategic challenges, the group will work together to craft at least 50 questions about the issue at hand.
- Next, out of the list of 50, select the 5 best. Now have the team ask 50 questions about each of those 5 questions. You’ll have a list of 250 queries. “The answer you get, depends on the question you ask.”
- Sit with the list and notice what happens. Notice how the energy in the meeting is different than normal. From that place, invite folks to provide their best strategic thinking. You’ll observe a difference. I promise.