I once worked for a company that was seemingly unafraid of change. In fact, in the first month I was there, my department underwent three separate reorganizations, followed by a fourth which was actually company-wide. Each time, workloads were redistributed, the organizational chart redrawn, and reporting lines rearranged. It’s hard to say whether one upheaval was better than another, mostly because none of the changes was given sufficient time to be fully implemented and its kinks worked out.
Now, lest you believe this company’s management was fond of change for its own sake, I should assure you that each departmental reorganization was undertaken to solve a particular problem that had arisen. And though I was not privy to the management meetings where potential solutions were discussed, I do like to imagine that somewhere along the hopscotch way of their discussion the words What if entered into the conversation.
The problem, I also imagine, is that those words were only said once, so that as soon as one manager said something like What if we realign the teams by agency? the discussion veered immediately into an implementation mode.
I think this management team could have benefitted from spending more time improving the question. Or, we could think of it this way: asking the better questions requires a little imagination.
In his book, A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger quotes consultant Dev Patnaik of Jump Associates as saying that “the thing most leaders need to realize is, they’re really bad at asking questions” and that this is perhaps true because business executives are “good at giving answers. But it means they’ve had little experience formulating questions.”
If this is the case, then perhaps it’s also true that questions like What if get lip service, asked as questions that are ready to be answered with immediate, often short-sighted solutions when really, the question ought to be played with a little bit more. In discussing a process of “question-storming” to replace the time-honored brainstorming process, Berger suggests it is “easier to come up with questions than ideas; we don’t have to divine a solution from the air or connect ideas in a fantastically original manner; we just have to come at the problem from a slightly different angle of inquiry.” Once a group has developed a body of questions, they can focus on improving the questions they developed: “opening closed questions and closing open ones. The key is to converge around the best questions.”
Berger cites the example of Proctor & Gamble’s efforts in the 1970s to compete with Colgate-Palmolive’s new soap, Irish Spring, which was marketed on the promise of “refreshment, ” which seemed tied to the soap’s green stripe. The consultant called in by P&G found them testing various iterations of their own soap (with green stripes) as an answer to the question, “How can we make a better green-stripe bar?” He led them to ask better questions, ultimately arriving at “How might we create a more refreshing soap of our own?” They went on to develop just such a brand (with blue stripes). The process of improving the question enabled P&G to “step back from their obsession with a competitor’s product and look at the situation from a consumer perspective. For the customer, it wasn’t about green stripes—it was about feeling refreshed.”
In the case of my past employer, a phone call from an agent unhappy because he did not know which team member was handling his customers’ work culminated in the hasty reorganization of a department so that it was always the same person. Unfortunately, this solution left the agent (and many others) frustrated for brand new reasons, not the least of which was that only one person could now answer his questions, instead of any of the other team members that might be available.
Instead of asking “How might we ensure this agent always talks to the same person?” they could have asked, “Why is it this agent needs to contact us so often to check on his customers’ status?” (Are we chronically behind on our work? Are we failing to communicate with him? And if so, how might we identify and remove bottlenecks in our workflow or how might we ensure he has the information he needs about his customers without even having to contact us?)
Because this management team answered the first question it asked, instead of working to develop better questions, it delivered a lot of dismal “soap” before finally reaching a more refreshing solution to meet its agent’s demands.
We’re reading Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas together this month and invite you to read along. We invite you to share your thoughts and observations in the comment box.
The author offered to answer questions you might have, so feel free to drop a question for Warren Berger in the comments, and perhaps we’ll ping him on Twitter.
Planned reading schedule for A More Beautiful Question:
March 11: Chapter 1 • The Power of Inquiry and Chapter 2 • Why We Stop Questioning
March 18: Chapter 3 • The Why, What If, and How of Innovative Questioning
March 25: Chapter 4 • Questioning in Business
April 1: Chapter 5 • Questioning for Life
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