What Happens When Leaders Avoid Tough Questions

how to get better results by asking tough questions

In an article, Rohit Kaul highlighted the Quantification bias, where we prioritize the immeasurable over the measurable. This is especially pronounced in the corporate world.

Rohit raised an important point. Tracking tangible numbers doesn’t just feel important; it’s also easier. As a result, it’s popular. In the process, we ignore less tangible outcomes, some of which are more important.

Brands focus on publishing content on their online platforms without checking whether the audience finds their content engaging.

They write blog posts for search engines. Keywords to use, their density, and length of the article, become metrics that dictate the content. But they rarely check whether readers find the content useful.

Companies copy the competition’s features in attempts to build better mousetraps products without checking whether consumers find these features useful.

They splurge to capture market share without tracking how red their balance sheets are, thus placing them in precarious long-term positions.

Such mindsets often stem from a cognitive bias known as the intuitive heuristic.

The Intuitive Heuristic

When our brains face complexity, they perform an invisible substitution. They trade hard questions for easier ones.

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explained this bias with an example of a large financial firm’s Chief Investment Officer who invested tens of millions of dollars in Ford Motor Company’s stock.

“When I asked how he made that decision, he replied that he had recently attended an automobile show and had been impressed. ‘Boy, do they know how to make a car!’ was his explanation.

“The question that the executive faced (should I invest in Ford stock?) was difficult, but the answer to an easier and related question (Do I like Ford cars?) came readily to mind and determined his choice.

“This is the essence of intuitive heuristics: when faced with a difficult question, we often answer with an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.”

Action commands a premium in the corporate world today. Leaders see questioning as “inefficient.” Or they replace tougher questions with easier ones that enable them to take “swift action” and move forward.

how to make customers happy

But when all we care about is moving forward, we fail to check whether we’re heading in the right direction or whether the world has passed us by.


Ask Tougher Questions

Easy questions make businesses focus on preserving what they have and keeping up with the Joneses. This feels comfortable. After all, isn’t the competition doing the same thing?

But this also means leaders fail to notice how the world is evolving, how customer’s behavior and expectations are changing, and how technology can improve effectiveness.

In an attempt to stay busy, they manufacture futile work. Then an unexpected innovative offering disrupts the market. And incumbents scamper to catch up and play the “me-too” game. Or they stick their heads in the sand and slowly suffocate to a painful death.

Innovation is a result of humans exchanging ideas. And ideas get exchanged when the focus shifts from answers to questions. In his book Ignorance: How It Drives Science, Stuart Firestein wrote:

One good question can give rise to several layers of answers, can inspire decades-long searches for solutions, can generate new fields of inquiry, and can prompt changes entrenched in thinking. Answers, on the other hand, often end the process.

Good questions continue to spawn relentless research in medicine. They enable the likes of upstart companies to make innovation mainstream. And while they increase our workload in the short-term, they also let us discover what matters, where opportunities lie, and how to get there.

For instance, Avi Reichental was brought in to save 3D Systems, the inventors of 3-D printing, from going bankrupt. Reichental noticed that a factor limiting 3D Systems’ growth was the restricted number of printers they manufactured and material they used. So among other things, he posed a question to Chuck Hull, the founder of the company:

“Our printers cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and you need to be astronaut-smart to run any of them. So why can’t we make cheap push-button desktop versions?”

Reichental pestered Hull with this question every day for six weeks straight. One morning, Hull beat him to it. He came by Reichental’s office with coffee and said, “I think I know how to do it.”

Together, they built machines that print in over 100 different materials ranging from nylons, plastics, and rubber to biological materials, real waxes, and fully dense metals. In 2015, the company was valued at a whopping $6 billion.

Another example is Jeff Bezos’ “what won’t change in 20 years?” question which led Amazon to pioneer in robotics warehousing, drone delivery, and more.

what happens when we ask questions
Questions can do funny things (source)

Some more examples of good questions are:

  1. With all that’s changing, what business are we really in?
  2. How can we generate engaging and useful content for our target audience?
  3. Do the current systems and processes contribute to the goals we’ve set for ourselves?

… and any question that begins with “Why Not” and “What If?”


Final Thoughts

Warren Berger is right. “The ability to ask big, meaningful questions—and, just as important to know what to do with them,” he wrote, “can be the first steps in moving beyond old habits and behaviors as we embrace the new.”

We’re hungry for better answers and results. But to get them, we must learn to ask tougher questions, identify the right ones, and work on them.

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