Ask Informed Questions

This request makes a big difference in understanding strategic intent

This request makes a big difference in understanding strategic intent

An important leadership skill is that of asking good questions. An informed question is a question that is grounded in existing relevant knowledge.

As a consultant to organizations, I have learned to identify quickly organizational patterns and executive imperatives. You can do the same.

I advise strategic initiative leaders to pay attention to the messages in town hall meetings, press releases, speeches, media interviews, and other corporate communications. Use that information to demonstrate understanding of the context. Here are three useful introductory statements:

  • “I see that you ___”
  • “You wrote that ____”
  • “You said that ____”

From that you can pose a tentative conclusion, or you can ask permission for additional discovery. The next section provides an example.

An Example: The Case of the “One Company” Initiative

I call a common type of strategic initiatives the “one company” program. They usually arise after a period of growth that results in organizational complexity. As the organization realizes that it is confusing customers with its different systems, and has redundant activities, it starts to centralize and unify its structure. Here is a script using an informed-question approach:

I saw the recent announcement on the launch of the “1 Company” vision that intends to present the company as a single integrated system, rather than conglomerate of diverse business systems. I thought that you will need help in establishing this as a strategic initiative, including a focal point for structuring, leading, and delivering benefits.

Have I drawn the right conclusions from what I’ve read?

Preparing Yourself

As I search for patterns, I test the quality of the information and my inferences. I mentally review:

  • What is the problem to be solved or the opportunity to be captured?
  • How good is the data?
  • What inferences have you made from the data, and are these inferences legitimate?
  • What are the biases behind the inferences, selection or collection of data?
  • How would someone from a related, but different discipline look at the problem, and could an interdisciplinary approach improve the analysis?

The Discovery Phase Expands and Tests Informed Questions

Most strategic initiatives should have a discovery phase, intended to gain a more objective perspective of “what we know” and “what we don’t know.”

Another Example: Overcoming Growth Pains

In one recent discussion of innovation productivity at a successful joint venture, I first reviewed a document outlining current organizational issues. I noted several of the client’s “list of things to improve” that included senior involvement at the right time, project portfolio prioritization, accurate and thorough business cases, and documentation.

I concluded that

The “As Is” for your organization is one of a growing company that is now feeling (or soon will feel) “growth pains.” I can’t assume that everyone in the company would have a shared diagnosis. I can see some patterns that I’ve seen before: A very successful company that has rode up the “S” growth curve in its industry, but is facing increased competition, more sophisticated customers (who might also be competitors).

The informed question is, “To what extent do you agree with my tentative diagnosis about growth pain?”

I continued,

The “To Be” vision is to come, though we can see from the experiences of other companies that there is a “best practice” or state of the art. To be honest, I doubt that the company can double in size without the newer disciplines.

I understand the culture has values and concerns. They include: avoid bureaucracy, preserve agility, preserve entrepreneurialism, keep it simple and practical.

Again, I ask for the evaluation of my opinion. With their agreement, I proposed,

The discovery phase would involve me meeting with stakeholders and interviewing them for patterns, perceptions, needs, opportunities, and ideas. There are probably multiple ideas of the “truth” out there. Through this dialogue, we will find people coalescing around a roadmap for improvement. The roadmap must address strategy and platforms, decision-making, and metrics.

Conclusion

An informed question is a question that is one that is purposeful; it intends to move the needle towards better performance. A subtle point is that the question is not a mindless request for more data. It is intended to show familiarity with the subject, but is done in a way to organize and expand the knowledge structure and to test a hypothesis.

What examples do you have of informed questions?

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About Greg Githens

Thought leader who helps others think strategically, make strategy, and turn vision into action. Coach, advisor, board member, and hands-on leader. Seminar leader and speaker of popular offerings "How to Think Strategically & Apply Business Acumen" and "Leading Strategic Initiatives (Program Management)." Experience in driving change in Fortune 500 and mid-size companies through strategic initiatives and business transformation.
This entry was posted in Examples of Strategic Initiatives, Strategic Planning Issues for Strategic Initiatives, Useful Practices & Management Tools and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Ask Informed Questions

  1. Pingback: Four Things Strategic Initiative Leaders Need to Know About Requirements | Leading Strategic Initiatives

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