Monday, March 27, 2006

A Question Culture

Some ideas are so good that they can apply to many things. In this case, I am double dipping on an idea I got from Peggy Van Pelt who is the head of Disney’s Imagineering group. I had the opportunity to hear and meet Peggy at the American Creativity Conference in Austin last week.

One of the things that she said struck me as really insightful. It’s really a question of culture, and that is – do you have a Question Culture or an Answer Culture. She did not use these words – they are mine, but she did talk quite a lot about being willing to ask questions as one of the reasons that Disney does such a great job creating new ideas.

That got me thinking. In most businesses, you rarely want to ask a question, especially if you don’t know the answer. Most lawyers know you should never ask a question you don’t know the answer to. Asking questions can make it appear you are unaware of the issues, don’t have the knowledge or are just out of the loop. In most businesses, none of these conditions is good for your career.

But what happens if you don’t ask questions is that stuff gets taken for granted, or we accept the first proposal placed on the table. Without questions, no one probes the idea, turns it upside down and examines the margins.

Most businesses I am aware of don’t have a Question Culture – they have an Answer Culture. That’s because we are taught very early on that we should have the answer to the problems right at hand. Getting to an answer quickly is often rewarded in business, and having a plausible answer makes it appear we are “in the know”. The problem with the Answer Culture is that ideas get the “one and done” treatment. An idea gets proposed and someone already has the answer – We’ve done that before or It won’t work here or some other answer. Rather than ask questions and expand the discussion, we seek to quickly provide an answer and move on.

This is a vestige of the industrial economy, when management would receive a question from the hierarchy below and answer it. A quick, concise answer meant the shop worked well, on time and efficiently. However, the needs have changed. It’s not necessarily important to put ideas to bed as quickly as shop floor issues or transactional issues. Often we should ask questions about a challenge or a problem before putting forth an answer.

What’s the culture within your firm? If you reward an Answer Culture mentality, you’ll get a lot done very quickly, but miss the subtle opportunities that require more development. Try injecting a little more Question Culture thinking, especially when considering new ideas, products or services, to give new concepts room to grow.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 4:55 AM


Blogger Dr. Lauchlan A. K. Mackinnon said...

Good point. You could also tie it to the coaching framework and organisational learning literature. Asking questions allows you to reassess and change underlying mental frameworks and viewpoints ('double-loop learning') while finding answers allows you to solve particular problems while leaving the underlying mental frameworks essentially unchanged.

Lauchlan Mackinnon

7:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like your thinking on this. I am writing a book on the subject and have been working on it for 1 1/2 years. I have interviewed some wonderful leaders from around the country who have lead fortune 100 business to Ministers, Rabbis and leaders of non-profits. The messages were all the same - to be an exceptional leader today you must lead with questions. This is not about finding answers or making decisions. The questions move people that move the organization. They do the heavy lifting. You can see some of my writing on the subject at my website:

3:13 PM  
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7:48 AM  
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