Let me start with a question: how frequently do executives and employees ask general, business-related questions in your organization? If your answer is ‘Not too often’, I would recommend to ask yourself ‘Why?’ and ‘How could we change this?’.
A tool for strategic leaders
Questions are an indispensable tool for strategic thinking. Questions are the machete of strategic leaders, enabling them to blaze their trail through the thicket of business challenges in a fast-changing competitive environment.
At the same time, questions can include and motivate employees on all levels in shaping the development of your organization. Encouraging questions can foster an open and innovative corporate culture.
Take, for example, UK-based global pharmaceuticals company Mylan N.V.: its CEO, Heather Bresch, once said that she tries to “create an environment where good questions and good ideas can come from anyone”.
Used deliberately and systematically, questions can significantly improve the planning and implementation of corporate strategies. However, in order to use questions effectively, it is important to avoid the following three mistakes in asking questions.
Three common mistakes in asking strategic questions
1. Leading questions
In order to get good answers, strategic questions should be formulated as openly as possible. Your implicit assumptions and suggestions should not limit the scope of possible answers. If you ask, for example, “How could we achieve a growth target of 10 percent?”, you are already taking a growth target of 10 percent for granted, limiting the scope of answers to this target. Even if others dare to transcend the limits of the question, it may create a priming effect which may unconsciously limit the scope of answers to a figure close to 10 percent.
2. Narrow, closed questions
Closed questions as such don’t have to be necessarily bad. If you ask “Should we aim for growth next year?” this may be a valid strategic question. Although it is closed and basically leaves only the binary options ‘yes’ and ‘no’, it is generic enough to elicit an open discussion. However, the following question would be too narrow: “Should we aim for a growth target of 10 percent?” You could only ask this question after a strategic conversation for getting formal agreement among board members. However, as a driver for a strategic conversation, such a question would be useless.
3. Short-cutting the search for answers
Asking relevant questions in an open way is only the first condition for an effective strategic conversation. The second condition is that you don’t go for the easy answer. Or as US economist and Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson once said: “Good questions outrank easy answers.” In other words, don’t spoil the value of a good question by being satisfied with an obvious, easy-to-find answer. It pays off to dig deeper.
In order to allow for a real conversation and multiple, diverse answers, it is particularly important that the CEO does not dominate the search for the answers, as this could inhibit other executives to come up with their own answers.
Sample questions for the strategy process
There are many suggestions for questions to be asked in order to progress the strategy process. As valuable as it may be to consider these questions, I would strongly advise you create your own set of strategic questions.
Nevertheless, here are three questions from a set of twelve questions I developed for facilitating the strategy process:
- Which vision and strategic goals do we pursue?
- How do we measure performance on our strategic goals?
- Which factors had a significant impact on our performance?
Subscribers of “Strategic Business Insights” have access to the full set of my twelve strategic questions as well as a selection of strategic questions by other authors.
As the sample questions show, strategic questions don’t have to be particularly original or clever in themselves. They should rather be open and thought-provoking, in order to trigger good answers and drive the strategy process.
Feel free to share your own experiences with strategic questions by providing a comment via the reply option below. Let me know, if you need support for facilitating strategic conversation sessions in your organization. I wish you success in utilizing the power of strategic questions.
Additional resource for SBI subscribers
Subscribers of my free weekly “Strategic Business Insights” have access to the additional resource “Selected Questions for Your Business Strategy” (enter the password you received with SBI 43/2015 when prompted).