By Professor Tom Hunsaker
“You’re not yet sufficiently concerned with the question.” The guidance puzzled me, which must have been obvious because as I looked up to make eye contact with my then doctoral advisor he met me with a wise, yet resolutely silent reply – an encounter I still remember vividly years later. He didn’t say another word – leaving me to personalize the statement’s meaning.
Leading up to the meeting, I had done what I knew to advance my dissertation project; I had reviewed hundreds of articles relevant to my topic, gone through a rigorous methodological analysis, and was well into writing a first draft of over 200 pages. I was devastated to receive advice to go back to the first step in the process. In retrospect, doing so not only unlocked tremendous hidden potential in that project, but it also taught me a lesson that has guided my work since: behind every valuable answer is a more valuable question.
What influences an organization’s ability to sustain growth?
For the last several years as a practitioner and researcher I’ve primarily focused on a single question: What influences an organization’s ability to sustain growth across a variety of operating conditions? Many ‘5 Step’ lists, trendy models, and platitudes such as ‘be flexible’ and ‘change or be changed’ have provided interesting reading, but they prove either too simplistic to capture a significant variety of operating conditions or they lack the concreteness for a leader with real, high-stakes decisions at hand to take meaningful action. Further, these approaches are inherently limited; they cannot deliver any more insight than what their author originally outlined and they don’t naturally evolve with the organization to inform its next move as operating conditions change.
Questions, on the other hand, are concrete and adaptable without changing verbiage; concrete in that they focus leaders’ eyes on specific lines of inquiry and adaptable because, if properly crafted, they can prompt valuable insights across any context as their function is not to convolute, but to refine. They challenge leaders to consider the ongoing relevance of what they know, and encourage them to discover what they don’t. Rather than struggling to adopt others’ experiences, firms are then free to customize their own – where true value creation resides.
To understand the questions that provide the prompts leaders need when pursuing sustained growth, I’ve been part of a multi-year effort to analyze sustained growth’s inflexion points – those demarcation areas where value either increases or decreases. Looking at hundreds of ‘clustered’ firms with similar starting ‘inputs’ (industry, resources, access to information, formal managerial training, and initial product potential, among other considerations) and following their trajectory over time, some produced new levels of growth despite varied operating conditions while many stagnated or disappeared. Four patterns emerged to help explain the difference.
As these four themes took form, care was given to the wording in each question to ensure its repeatable value to firms large and small. Employing these questions has greatly influenced how I now interact with organizations and the ongoing value they perceive from our engagements.
- Are you currently pursuing your value fit maximizing strategy?
- How well do you validate new ideas?
- How aligned are others to your strategy’s success?
- How likely are your firm’s actions to achieve your strategy’s intentions?
The first question considers how effectively and adaptively strategy is formulated in the organization. Facilitated well, this question tends to produce a valuable string of sub-questions that can quickly drive to the relevance of a firm’s current strategies, the influences that shape them, and what signs firms should consider when change is required. The second question prompts leaders to review the disciplined validation approach they use when considering new ideas. As the rate of environmental change increases, the need to integrate transformative new ideas also increases. Yet, tremendous waste is consistently observed as poor ideas are accepted into firms and great ideas are dismissed. The way companies, large or small, validate ideas contributes to the odds of choosing the winners. The third question suggests an important interplay between strategy and organizational behavior, noting that genuine engagement, or its lack, can amplify or minimize a strategy’s success – regardless of how well the strategy is crafted. The final question highlights that efficient implementation distinguishes achieving a goal from falling short, and asks leaders to consider the structures and behaviors that expedite or hinder implementation success. Combined, the four questions highlight the central inflexion point themes to sustained growth that should be the majority focus of executive leaders.
Employing this straightforward, question-centric framework prompts leaders to focus their efforts on the high leverage activities to sustained growth. These four questions motivate a dialogue that transcends budgets, and staffing, and other issues of the day that can consume leaders’ time without providing them the insight needed to drive the next cycle of growth. They penetrate the fundamentals of the business, regardless of its size, and ask it to consider the extent to which it’s maximizing its potential. Rather than assuming answers, this handful of questions leads to conversations that can produce rich, contextually relevant replies. Then they ask the firm to do it again.
As one executive from a major industrial services company summarized following one of our meetings,
“When you know the right questions to ask, the value of the answer grows tremendously.”