Questions are the Answer

When I first heard Hal Gregersen describe his maxim, “Questions are the Answer,” at the 2018 MIT Sloan CFO forum, I was underwhelmed.  Wasn’t this just common sense?  Who doesn’t use questions to scope out potential solutions to problems?  How could this possibly be a “breakthrough approach?”

But Hal then gave specific examples of people who had used questions in specific ways to solve problems.  He told us about Fadi Ghandour, the founder of Aramex, a logistics and transportation firm, who decided to have a delivery driver pick him up at the Dubai airport instead of a limousine ahead of meetings with local management.  Questioning the driver about local operations, he learned about problems that his local management team had not seen.

Then there was Rose Marcario, a private equity executive who began to question her career direction after catching a glimpse of herself in the window of her taxi when she was fuming about being stuck in traffic.  She later quit her job, became CFO of Patagonia, the apparel company, and was appointed CEO of Patagonia five years later.

Then Hal had the audience form small groups to run a “question burst” exercise.  He posed a problem – how can your organization become a stronger strategic partner is a world of digital transformation? – and gave each group about five minutes to come up with a list of questions that would help address this question.  After the time was up, he asked whether the initial anxiety that each of us had felt when he posed the question began to melt away as we built out our question lists.  The answer for me and for all of the members of my group was yes.

Hal’s presentation piqued my interest; so I was happy to claim one of the copies of his book that he offered to conference attendees.  Although I was still somewhat skeptical, I found much more in the book than just the maxim.  Hal describes in great detail and from different angles the often difficult task of instilling a culture of questioning within an organization (and within ourselves).

The exercise of power can impede the questioning process.  Children often get signals early on in school that their questioning is frowned upon, especially by teachers who are teaching to standardized tests who do not want their lesson plans delayed by responding to individual questions. This bias against questioning also carries through later in life to many organizations, including the military and corporations that have operating procedures and rules.  To break through these barriers, many organizations try to institutionalize the questioning process – for example, Pixar’s Brain Trusts – to challenge their thinking and avoid blind spots.  Like Fadi Ghandour, they also use questioning as a way to break down organizational barriers to get at the core of problems.

Questions can be an effective way to get at key issues without bruising egos – both for the person asking the question (who may be afraid to look stupid or to challenge a superior) and for the person receiving the question (who may take offense at any suggestion that his proposal might be flawed).  As Hal and the people he quotes say repeatedly in the book, the key to getting the right answer is to ask the right question.  Questioning is both an art and a skill.

The book is well researched.  Gregersen often cites published research to support his major themes.  The book has many examples of how managers have used questioning in a variety of ways to obtain better results.  It provides additional information sources on key topics for those who want to dig deeper.  It is also very well written (which makes it a quick read).

While Questions describes a collaborative approach that is politically correct in the current environment, it does have limitations.  For example, it does not really address non-collaborative environments.  In times of crisis, organizations may not have the time or the luxury to support a collaborative approach; so an authoritative or autocratic approach may be more appropriate.  How can Gregersen’s approach be utilized in such circumstances?

I picked up some new tools for my management toolbox from reading “Questions are the Answer.”  Those looking to add to their own will almost certainly do the same.

December 2, 2018

Stephen P. Percoco
Lark Research
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