Why (Can’t we) ask why? Questions over answers
Seth Godin came up with a good list of questions (read the blog entry)
Why ask why?
“Why?” is the most important question, not asked nearly enough.
Hint: “Because I said so,” is not a valid answer.
Why does it work this way?
Why is that our goal?
Why did you say no?
Why are we treating people differently?
Why is this our policy?
Why don’t we enter this market?
Why did you change your mind?
Why are we having this meeting?
That’s a good set of questions. Those are questions you ask inside an organization. How about some questions that you ask about an organization and what it does. Here are few that comes to mind, not asked nearly enough. They are about positioning, structure, and assessment.
- Where is our industry headed?
- What are we / can we be the very best at?
- What should we invest in?
- What is the best operating model that supports this?
- Who are the best leaders to put in place?
- What are the best metrics of our success and how do we measure them?
- What compensation and incentive systems support this?
- How do we continually monitor our progress and make adjustments?
- ( rinse, repeat – often, according to the clockspeed of our industry/business – the world)
In Seth’s set of questions, if you hear “Because, I said so” it’s a clear giveaway that you are in an environment dominated by political decision-making. In these environments it’s more important that someone gets their way as opposed to linking the decision to some measurable goal of the organization. In short, it’s about the demonstration and exercise of power rather than making the right decision for the organization’s stakeholders. (Why do some people make decisions to their own benefit when they know they undermining the organization’s stakeholders in doing so? Read some insights from clinical psychologist Martha Stout Ph.D regarding the “organizational bully” here. )
The second set of questions isn’t about political power, it’s about positioning. These questions are not asked frequently enough in a world of continuous change and opportunity. (One of my favorite answers from an entrepreneur when asked about his business model…. “You know that blind spot that you have when you’re driving.. that’s where we are”. Perhaps Borders Books and BlockBuster should have paid more attention to their blind spot to discern the likes of Amazon and Netflix. But now, this ability to see the blind spot or to “see around corners” is no longer needed by those companies – they are out of the race. Read more)
Teaching answers – not questions.
Today in schools we teach kids to show up on time, leave on time, memorize facts, be able to recall those facts on standardized tests, and to not question authority. It seems the perfect factory process to turn out factory workers that … show up on time, leave on time, do their work and only their work, and not question the boss or the company. The perfect factory education for the early 20’th century Industrial Age.
But what do we need now? Perhaps a focus on a new set of skills. What moves the world?
Can Innovation be taught?
Shouldn’t we be teaching our kids to be innovators as opposed to factory workers?
Gregersen and co-authors Clayton M. Christensen (professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School) and Jeff Dyer (professor of strategy at Brigham Young University’s Marriott School), believe that roughly two-thirds of the skills it takes to innovate can be learned. They point to historical research findings that concluded 25-40% of human innovation stems from genetics as evidence.
What are the skills for innovation?
In their own research involving hundreds of innovators and thousands of entrepreneurs, managers and executives from around the world, Gregersen, Christensen and Dyer boiled the formula of innovation down to five key skills:
- Questioning allows innovators to challenge the status quo and consider new possibilities;
- Observing helps innovators detect small details — in the activities of customers, suppliers and other companies — that suggest new ways of doing things;
- Networking permits innovators to gain radically different perspectives from individuals with diverse backgrounds;
- Experimenting prompts innovators to relentlessly try out new experiences, take things apart and test new ideas;
- Associational thinking — drawing connections among questions, problems or ideas from unrelated fields — is triggered by questioning, observing, networking and experimenting and is the catalyst for creative ideas.
Do we teach any of the above in schools?
When I was a kid I used to watch Jeopardy. At the time, me and everyone else thought that those folks on Jeopardy were the smartest people in the world. But were they? What they could do is memorize a vast collection of facts and recall them on demand. Did we think that was intelligent or smart or showed a capability that would make them successful in the world?
What about today? Today everyone has a vast collection of facts at their fingertips – for free – on demand. We can ask Siri almost anything and get a raw fact-based answer (not an insight, not a deduction, not an induction, not a connection or association among facts) in a few seconds. The ability to recall facts is not smart or intelligent. You can imagine the trajectory of Siri and similar systems in the future of facts on-demand. It can only get better.
Wouldn’t it be better to focus more on the skills above?
The fist skill in the list is Questioning… challenging the status quo and consider new possibilities…
Perhaps if we taught kids the skills above then the questions that Seth posed above would be asked naturally by everyone – and Seth would lose a posting idea. The ability to challenge the status quo would reveal the power and political dimension of organizations that undermine outcomes for stakeholders and reveal the blind spots that exist in every organization that hide opportunities. The unique capacity of humans is imagination and the development of the skills above. So let’s use ’em.