Imagine that you have:
- Complete access to all data in your organization
- Excellent insights about customers and markets
- Access to every bit of published data in history
- Practically infinite CPU, disk, and bandwidth
What would you do differently than you do today?
Get ready, because this is the trend line for your organization. This is the future state rushing towards you. Data is abundant. What we call “Big Data” today will seem miniscule in 10 years.
Access to critical data may no longer be a differentiator for your work. In the past we spent enormous effort to acquire information. We’re in transition now to a new situation where the limiting factor is ability to analyze and interpret the floods of information available.
Leaders: Your ability to determine the specifics of the future of your organization is asking the best questions, and seeking those answers. It’s been said that a wise man can learn more from a foolish question than a fool can learn from a wise answer.
The renowned artist Pablo Picasso said “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” Easy questions will be answered by bots like Siri and automated algorithms parsing the abundant data available. This is beneficial but not transformational. Bots and algorithms will improve and continue to impress. Great questions – the ones which lead organizations into breakthrough futures – are still in the leader’s domain.
Another truth about asking questions is that the answer becomes the seed for new questions. Imagine that every answered question leads you to two more questions – the number of not-yet-answered questions grows faster than the number of answers. It’s exciting to think that the level of our known ignorance will also exceed our actual knowledge! There will always be new things to explore and learn.
Here are three recommendations to help you become better at asking great questions:
Ask open-ended questions that can’t be answered with Yes or No.
There are times when you’ll need a direct Yes or No answer. However, everyone learns more when you ask open-ended questions. Questions beginning with the words should, would, is, and are almost always lead to yes or no, and short of a full engagement. Questions beginning with who, what, how, when, where, and especially why will surface more information.
Bonus: ask follow-up open-ended questions to push the dialogue further.
Ask yourself, “What assumptions exist here that need to be challenged?”
Pick anything – there’s a history of decisions, habits, and practices that have created the current state. We get so used to the status quo that we forget to ask if status quo is still good enough. Question the status quo, the history, and the operating assumptions. Better you than a competitor doing this questioning for you!
Stop thinking of asking questions as weak leadership.
Leaders need to make decisions. This does not mean that leaders know the answer for everything, or already have all the input necessary to make a decision. Asking for more information, for people’s opinions and recommendations, for insights about what might be missing or opportunities that most people overlook – that’s strong leadership. Asking questions is a necessary prerequisite to healthy, dynamic, positive leadership. Asking questions is also part of your toolbox for training new leaders.
History shows us many examples of the downfalls of dictators, kings, and business leaders – and failure to ask good questions is a common root cause of their failures.