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A GOOD QUESTION

… is like gold dust.

If I were to say what really gives me a buzz, I might well say: a well put question. Not a day goes by that I don’t ask myself questions or questions about whether I have asked the right questions, be it in relation to managing big projects, managing people, pursuing my own interests, or raising my children. Peter Drucker spoke about nine interesting habits of effective leaders. Firstly, they ask what needs doing, secondly, who is the best person to deal with it …, lastly, they listen first and speak later. He has bequeathed to us some other pearls of wisdom: an intelligent man is known by his answers, a wise one by his questions. But what’s it like in our everyday life? Do we really ask ourselves and others questions or do we constantly try to show our worth by speaking?

Have you ever tried to look at the world as a list of questions in just about any area of life? Take politics and the question of leadership. Earlier, I wrote about the responsibility dilemma in the context of the Greek debt. We can talk about what one or another party wanted to achieve, but the most important thing really is the questions leaders are asking themselves. Can they ask the questions in the right way, can they explain to the Greek people with absolute clarity what kind problem they are faced with, and finally can they find the answers to the questions they have posed? If we ask the questions in the wrong way, we are well on our way to solving the wrong problems, clutching at ideas which are not born of long-term thinking in an ever-more complex environment. Today, multifaceted problems and the interconnectedness of many areas of life require that we truly ask the right questions.

Whenever I look at misguided legal solutions and the intentions behind them, including the business motives, which have fallen short of the reality on the ground, botched projects and disappointed people, I think to myself: what was it you were really after? Did you ask the right questions? Did you ask about the aim, the benefits, the costs and those who would have incurred them, and about the bigger context which can easily put paid to the best efforts. I also think about the educational system: do our schools teach us how to ask questions or do they just supply the answers? Perhaps the triangle of problems which Mr Czapiński said define Polish education: inability to work in a team, no desire for self-improvement, and the rule of mediocrity, is actually a four-point shape including inability to ask questions?

The father of Apple, Steve Jobs, said: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” I like this line very much. Coming from a person who was a hard-nosed and tyrannical leader, the line sounds like a tribute to people who work together in a well-knit team. The way I see it though is that this line passes over a very important aspect of cooperation, which, were it lacking, scuppers any chance of success in an organization: asking questions. Every day I ask myself a number of questions: did I get my priorities right, do I practice what I say, do I analyse every day what has happened that day, do I have enough feedback, do I lead by example for the future? That’s what the interesting FIRST rule says: focus, implement, reflect, seek feedback, transfer. Coaching offers a fantastic opportunity of being able to “talk to oneself” for people with a lot of experience. Acres of print have been written about it! A good coach is one that asks the right questions, and a well-timed and bold question can put many things right in the head. Have you ever experienced this?

If there is a difference indeed between the way women and men do business, perhaps it is in the willingness to ask questions. I am not saying men do not ask questions, oh no … (Honey, any idea where my keys are? ☺). It is one thing to ask questions to cater for your own needs, and quite another to ask questions with a view to building constructive relationships. “Curiosity does not come from nowhere. It’s enough to grasp a little bit of this secret ever day.” I believe that by asking questions I support the people I work with. I simply encourage them to take a bigger stake in what we are creating together.

In the business world, there is often an expectation that the leader knows the answers. That he knows where he is taking the company. That he does so resolutely and consistently and that everything is crowned with glowing achievements. Let us take one leader out of many, say, Jack Welch. His books, speeches and advice sound like answers. But the General Electric culture is deeply rooted in the necessity of asking questions! If we give some thought to what made GE so successful, we will discover that the company staked its future on research, development and innovation. All innovation is driven by questions (questions which challenge the status quo), so the conclusion suggests itself. Constant change and evolution of this company would not have been possible if the communication inside it was reduced to declarative sentences. Only questions encourage thinking – adjusting, modifying, creating, discovering, verifying, identifying, understanding. Is the company culture in our companies based on asking questions?

Another thing is the times we live in. From my first post on this blog to this day, the economic and political situation has not become any less complicated. And yet, despite waves of migrants seeking refuge in Europe, different and often difficult to understand steps taken to defuse the conflict in Syria, despite the economic slow-down in China and the concomitant likely slow-down of the global economy, plus a whole host of other uncertainties, the business must be managed and the business must grow. Today however, this can’t be achieved using only the intellectual tools – the answers. Today, I’d hazard a guess, there are no answers. There are only correctly phrased questions.

Questions? Yes, questions. Questions about our company’s goals. Questions about how to reach those goals. Questions about what can happen along the way. Questions about who within our company or without can be an ally in helping us reach those goals, questions about when those goals can be met. Asking questions does not confine me, I believe, to a realm where there are no answers. That would rule out a dialogue with our goals, which leads to growth. I set great store by questions to the extent that it is the questions that are the driving force today. Questions, when asked correctly, remain current for a long time. Answers are constantly fluctuating as the dynamics around us intensify (a friend of mine claims the world today marches in 25/8 time, not 24/7 time).

And what about the employees? I believe that in today’s business climate a responsible leader must learn to encourage his or her team to ask questions. The right questions. The questions must be phrased to elicit lessons learnt, not to judge people (e.g., “What can we do about it?” instead of “What is wrong with you?”). The questions must seek to explain, challenge and confront information; they should appreciate the contributors’ inputs and encourage involvement in seeking solutions. We must not shun putting questions to ourselves. Finally, on Jobs’s testimony, we hire great people so that they can tell us what to do. Sometimes we hire them so that they would ask us the right questions, which we can’t articulate from where we stand. But where they are coming from the questions present themselves naturally.

And by the way, is managing by participating not a more effective strategy today?

More about questions – this time in a comic strip. But don’t be fooled by the levity of form:
http://kiriakakis.net/comics/mused/a-day-at-the-park

How to manage questions in selling – link to an article by Richard Tibetts, CTO TIBCO Software, MIT graduate, best read in connection with the preceding link:
http://innocuous.org/articles/2015/04/28/in-sales-questions-are-more-valuable-than-answers/

Potted history of GE in the English language Wikipedia has all you need to know about the company:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Electric

Another big boss of GE besides Welch about change:
https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/ges-jeff-immelt-driving-change-can-be-unpopular

Finally, Harvard Business Review on the learning organization – no such organization can be built without QUESTIONS being asked first:
https://hbr.org/1993/07/building-a-learning-organization

KOAN questions in coaching:
http://www.kefann.pl/art101_0_Zycie_to_KOAN.html

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