Strategic leadership and strategy development is all about asking the right questions. What, who, where, when, why and how??? Five W’s and one H… the questions we ask. Commonly known as the Kipling method as made famous by his 1902 opening poem for ‘The Elephants Child’.
Easy to say – just ask the W’s and one H… Yet, how you ask them could make all the difference. For instance ‘What must be done?’ is very different to ‘What has been done?’ or ‘What is the difference between what we do and what the department down the hallway does?’ etc… The first question requires a work definition, the second an evaluation and the third a comparison. In fact, we could probably ask any of the W and H questions in a hundred different ways.
The first problem, to my mind, when working with questions is the reality of ‘personal agenda’. This relates to motivation behind the question. Mostly there is a person with very specific assumptions and beliefs behind any question. It would be naïve to believe that many questions don’t have predetermined answers. The most obvious manifestation of this dynamic would be the rhetorical question; e.g. ‘management would never say that about us, or would they?’ In this example the purpose of the question was to make a point.
The only way to deal with this possible elephant in the room is not to let it in… It is for this reason that there should be rules for questions. In other words, we must create a basic ‘if…then…’ set of assumptions – if we ask questions for this purpose then we apply those rules… In my work I mostly have one of three reasons to ask questions, and I use different rules for each. These reasons with their rules are:
· If I want to investigate something then use questions that unveil the truth about a past event…
· If I want to enhance process efficiency then use questions that bring order to chaos…
· If I want to create strategy then use questions that bring chaos to order…
Below are some samples (but no complete list) of questions that can be asked to achieve different results…
Questions that aim to investigate:
Questions that define process:
Questions that create strategy:
· Who did what?
· What happened?
· Where did it happen?
· When did it happen?
· How did it happen?
· Why did it happen?
· What is our purpose?
· What must be done?
· Who must do this?
· Which information is needed to do this?
· Where must it be done?
· When should this be done?
The article title claims information on strategic leadership, and I have not said much about that… Now, the primary task of leadership is to influence and the primary task of strategy is to keep relevant, thus questions strategic leaders ask would primarily be to influence relevance. Questions asked at operational level have much to do with empowering process efficiency. Therefor such questions aim to strengthen the genetic makeup of any organisational system. Questions that create strategy on the other hand aims to modify the genetic make-up of any system. Thus, the former enhances an evolutionary process of construction and the latter a revolutionary process of deconstruction. Every construction must be deconstructed and strengthened to stay relevant and every deconstruction needs reconstruction to perform. This is an inverse relationship that must be carefully managed.
Central to all these question is purpose. This is the nodal point of any organised system. The answer to any question only has meaning relative to its purpose. Let me illustrate. If you jump out of an aeroplane at 30 000 feet, what is the risk? Most people reading this would answer that it is a 100% risk, since you will most definitely die! But, you see, there is one very important question that you did not ask, which is ‘What is the purpose of jumping out of that aeroplane?’ If you want to commit suicide, then it is a 0% risk, since there is no uncertainty of the outcome, but if you want to live, then it is a 100% risk. Thus, the difference between a 100% and a 0% risk lies in purpose. Without understanding purpose, no answer has meaning.
Lastly is important to note that asking questions is the foundation of learning. Therefore, the question is more important than the answer, since a right answer to a wrong question will mislead, whilst a wrong answer to a correct question will still teach!
With this I conclude that what to ask is no easy task… In my Strategic Leadership Master Class we thoroughly unpack the nature and methodology of asking questions at executive level…
In the words of Rudyard Kipling…
“I KEEP six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.
I let them rest from nine till five,
For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,
For they are hungry men.
But different folk have different views;
I know a person small—
She keeps ten million serving-men,
Who get no rest at all!
She sends'em abroad on her own affairs,
From the second she opens her eyes—
One million Hows, two million Wheres,
And seven million Whys!”
© 29 March 2015
© 2015 Derek Hendrikz Consulting