When was the last time you asked a ques­tion in a meet­ing? Was that ques­tion one that pushed the edge of the sta­tus quo? Were you brave enough to pull back the cur­tain, look under the rock, and ask a sim­ple, basic ques­tion about a strat­egy? Were you con­cerned that your curios­ity might make you look trou­ble­some, dis­re­spect­ful, or foolish?

The Innovator’s DNA is all about how to be curi­ous in an obe­di­ent, hier­ar­chi­cal envi­ron­ment. One of the book’s authors, Jeff Dyer, recently spoke to my team at Adobe, explain­ing why ask­ing “Why?” is an impor­tant skill.

Dyer believes that ask­ing ques­tions cre­ates solu­tions that are unique, pow­er­ful, and provoca­tive. Ques­tion­ing the sta­tus quo digs to the heart of the mat­ter, lead­ing to dis­cov­ery, inven­tion, and solu­tion. No autopi­lot. No assump­tions. No lim­its. It is a way of life for inno­va­tors, employ­ing curios­ity to open the door to new and excit­ing discoveries.

Equally impor­tant, and per­haps even more chal­leng­ing, is find­ing the right ques­tions to ask. As Dyer notes, great answers to the wrong ques­tions can be per­ilous if they fol­low an incon­se­quen­tial line. Addi­tion­ally, it is impor­tant for lead­ers to instill con­fi­dence and cer­tainty about an organization’s path. Ques­tion­ing the sta­tus quo could at times appear unco­op­er­a­tive or dis­re­spect­ful. Dyer sug­gests form­ing a sup­port­ive inner cir­cle of key peo­ple that work well with the ques­tion­ing process to pro­vide thought­ful feed­back, broad insight, and the right questions.

Dyer lists strate­gies to help those in lead­er­ship posi­tions become pro­duc­tively curi­ous, track­ing the paths between “what is” and “what might be.” The list is simple:

  1. Ask “what is.”
  2. Ask “what caused this.”
  3. Ask “why”, or “why not.”
  4. Ask “what if.”
  5. Engage in “ques­tion storm­ing,” brain­storm­ing that only asks ques­tions about a problem.
  6. Nur­ture ques­tion think­ing, turn­ing state­ments regard­ing chal­lenges into questions.

Con­sider Steve Jobs when he returned to Apple, dri­ving his team with the ques­tion, “What would you do if money were no object?” You know the rest of the story. What you may not know is that while Jobs was active on the board of Dis­ney, he prompted Magic King­dom employ­ees in sim­i­lar fash­ion, ask­ing, “What would Tin­ker Bell do?” Point is, there should be no lim­its on ques­tion­ing. You’ve heard it before. There are no dumb questions.

Where to begin? I have found that ques­tions of con­straint, both broadly and nar­rowly inter­pret­ing the task at hand, put every­one on the same page to jump­start inno­v­a­tive thinking:

  • What is our objective?
  • What is the most effec­tive way to do this?
  • What is the most effi­cient way to do this?
  • How do oth­ers do this?
  • How can we do this better?
  • Should we adopt exist­ing best prac­tices or inno­vate our own?

The skill of ques­tion­ing brings to mind one absolutely stel­lar employee who stood head and shoul­ders above the rest on effi­ciency. Duti­fully tak­ing up the ban­ner, this employee con­sis­tently per­formed excep­tion­ally well. Rarely one to issue ques­tions, she finally did ask one, won­der­ing why her peers were being pro­moted and she was not. I was sur­prised by the request, as her past behav­ior did not exhibit the drive or desire to move up. Her con­stant agree­ment with me firmly planted her as a fol­lower, not a leader.

I sug­gested that if she would begin to show the abil­ity to think for her­self, show her curios­ity, ask a few ques­tions, and exhibit that valu­able man­age­r­ial skill set of crit­i­cal think­ing, I would love to pro­mote her. Until she did so, I could not rec­om­mend her for a man­age­ment position.

Yes, it’s that impor­tant. Table stakes required to join the man­age­r­ial game. I believe it’s also impor­tant to our Adobe CEO, Shan­tanu Narayen. He asks bet­ter ques­tions than any­one I have ever known. If he’s ask­ing ques­tions, encour­ag­ing employ­ees to be curi­ous, dra­mat­i­cally short­en­ing the learn­ing curve, we should too.

Whether your ques­tion cre­ates rip­ples, waves, or tsunamis, the dis­rup­tive ques­tion­ing process is one that requires courage. It is some­times uncom­fort­able, but truly reward­ing if it inspires every­one to think crit­i­cally and arrive at inno­v­a­tive solu­tions. As I close this arti­cle, I can’t help won­der­ing, what will you be curi­ous about today?

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