The rock musician, humanitarian, and venture capitalist Bono is perhaps echoing the thinking among many of today's top business leaders with the line, "We thought we had the answers, but it was the questions we had wrong."
But excellence in asking the right questions is fast becoming an emerging, necessary, and long overdue skill for top performing leaders. And it’s a skill that more leaders need to acquire, according to Stanford professor Tina Seelig, author of the book, inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity.
Seelig’s book details breakthrough ideas for how companies can boost creativity and their innovation hit rate. And the most common mistake that companies make every day, from the top down, according to Seelig?
Asking the right questions.
But how can leaders get to great answers by asking the right questions? And can you reliably tap the wisdom of the crowd for answers that build insights and knowledge for driving great results?
Said more pointedly: How can a leader be less the oracle, and more the miner of gold that sits untapped across the organization?
Trust the Crowd
Honeybees have survived in Earth for centuries and they have a lot to teach us about using collective decision making, according to Thomas Seeley’s book, Honeybee Democracy. And they have a lot at stake, including the life-or-death issue of sourcing, deliberating over, and choosing a new spot to relocate the hive each year.
For business leaders, releasing control is a good thing when it comes to seeking insights and answers from the organization. But don’t just trust the experts. Too many companies are letting the survey specialists determine the best questions, how to structure the surveys, and what to take away from the results. More and more executives dread that process.
Consider opening the process a bit. Your people can give you great answers and ideas if you engaged them in a crowdsourcing exercise with the right questions. Time after time, leaders learn to trust the crowd when they see how it embraces great questions and how crowdsourcing insights build on each other.
Here are four ways leaders can be strategic in tapping the organization for wisdom and valuable insights:
Go Fast & Lean
It’s safe to say that nothing in business is slowing down. In fact, today’s competitive advantage often involves speed to actionable insights. Why should it take so many months for you to get usable feedback about new change initiatives, learning programs, or even new products and services? Perhaps it’s time to reconsider your organization’s reliance on time-consuming and cumbersome surveys that yield stale and dated insights.
It’s critical to compress the time from questions to great answers. With fast-turn tools, it’s possible today to pose questions to employees, customers, store managers, vendors etc. and get answers in a few days vs. a few months. Imagine how valuable it would be if you could ask a question and start getting a valuable set of insights in one week, one day, or even one hour.
Make Less Really More
Companies typically survey people nearly to death—only to face data overload when it comes to the data deluge they get in response. Ask yourself: When was the last time you completed a 60-question survey and actually enjoyed it? Plus, if you’re asking that many questions to ten thousand people, how are you going to get to the right answers? Or are you likely to end up with a team of well-meaning HR people holed up for a weeks analyzing survey results and trying to make sense of the answers? Good luck to the leadership team looking to make sense of that size data dump.
The "right" question needs to be focused on just one issue or area, the one that’s most important right now. And important not just to you, but to the people you are asking the question of across the organization. In fact, one thoughtful question actually might yield more insights than dozens of questions combined. Surveys, for instance, are very self-absorbed—getting at what management, HR, and leadership needs to know. But what if they balanced your needs with the organization?
Create a Great Experience
The quickest way to get to some fast answers is to make the experience a good one, perhaps even delightful. Time compresses when we’re engaged. The trouble is: Most survey methods are too cumbersome and too dreaded because the experience is dry and usually awful.
What if you engaged people—perhaps even delighted them—in the process of asking them questions? This is less about driving people to do a survey, and more about the experience pulling them into a process where they see where others are, contribute, and shape direction.
Facebook and other social media took off when the experience was simple and when people knew they’d learn something as they participated. And, in the process, those experiences created "stickiness"—the idea that people are drawn to return for more. In fact, the dominant social media sites—Facebook and Twitter—each ask simple questions to prompt posts and tweets: What’s going on and what are you doing?
How about something that’s a good experience for the users—a crowdsourcing tool that engages the crowd and people see they can shape the opinion of a company? The process is transparent—people can see what others are doing. You get more engagement and you compress the time.
Let Data Drive Dialogue
What if your data collection helped to actually evolve the data? Could a question create answers that influence each other to foster an iterative experience? Are you after hard data, or are you looking for insights from the crowd that help to ratify or challenge your gut?
Crowdsourcing mines insights that shape each other—the crowd can surface a trend that the crowd helps to explore and evolve—all the while yielding a leader incredible insights and ideas. There’s a place for robust data collection. But there’s also a need for a process that’s faster, nimbler, and gives you more insight for decisions. In fact, with crowdsourcing, one great question will lead you to figure out what the next great question should be.
As more and more leaders breathe a collective sigh of relief at being off the hook for having all the answers, you might ponder an important question: If you needed to ask just one question of your organization today in order to move it towards stronger results, what would it be?
And before everyone in your organization goes about chattering, yammering, and monkeying around with surveys, you might consider tapping into the organization’s wisdom with precision—and then sitting back to watch the great insights flow your way.
—Michael Papay is president of Fort Hill, a learning technology company that developed the innovative online crowdsourcing tool called We Achieve™.
[Image: Flickr user Kate Mereand-Sinha]