“What’s Next?” A Powerful Change Leadership Tool

“What’s Next?”  
 
Jim Harvey
Partner, NextBridge Consulting
 
Why question-asking is a critical leadership tool and should be one of the sharpest in your change toolbox.
“What’s Next?”  It’s a simple question, really. Yet it has the power to dramatically improve your leadership, your team and your organization. The power lies in the ability to create forward-looking, curious, engaged individuals. And, more broadly, to build change agility into the DNA of your organization.
In recent years, neuroscience has confirmed and explained much about the longstanding wisdom and effectiveness of asking questions. With greater use, it builds relationships and improves learning. Those, in turn, are fundamental to effective change leadership, team performance and building an agile culture.
We’ll circle back to the particular effectiveness of “What’s Next?” and what you can do starting today to improve your leadership. First, why are questions so effective?
“We run this company on questions, not answers.”
 
– Eric Schmidt, ex-CEO of Google and current Executive Chairman of Alphabet –
Why Do Questions Matter So Much?   
 
In part, the value of questions is directly related to their scarcity.  Too many leaders spend too much time telling and not enough time asking. According to Gary Cohen, author of Just Ask Leadership, “95% of leaders prefer to be asked questions, rather than told what to do. And yet, according to a survey I conducted, these same leaders gave instructions 58% of the time rather than asking coworkers for their input.” There’s a persistent belief that managers are supposed to have all the answers. Additionally, most business cultures place a premium on acting and doing. It’s no wonder that taking time to simply ask and reflect isn’t a consistent part of most leaders’ repertoire. The power of questions, and their impact on performance, lies squarely in their simplicity and their fundamental connection to relationships, learning and creativity.
“Telling creates resistance.  Asking creates relationships.”
 
– Andrew Sobel, Author of
Power Questions –
Questions Build Relationships.
 
At the heart of great leadership, teamwork and cultures are relationships. Their importance can’t be overstated. Years of research and practical observation demonstrate this. So how do you build relationships? Building rapport and trust are a good starting point. Fundamentally, people want to be listened to, understood, and even empathized with – no surprise to those familiar with emotional intelligence. Asking questions is a powerful way to do all three.
Neuroscience sheds some additional light on the impact of questions. MRIs show that when asked a question, there is greater neural activity in the areas of the brain related to reward and pleasure. Serotonin levels also increase. This is especially true when you’re asked for your opinion. Asking someone a question is like giving them a shot of chemical brain energy. The more important the question is to them, the bigger the shot. No wonder people rate those who ask questions as being friendlier.  Consider it yourself – would you prefer to be asked or told something?
“Without questions, there is no learning.”
 
– W. Edwards Deming, renowned expert in quality, continuous improvement and management –
Questions Increase Learning and Creativity.
 
Since Socrates developed (you guessed it) the Socratic method, the use of questions to promote learning has had an impact on everything from education to problem-solving to self-reflection.  More recently, research done by Clayton Christensen, Hal Gregersen and Jeff Dyer demonstrates that being inquisitive pays off. Their work shows that the most successful and innovative executives are the ones who ask great questions. They challenge the status quo, looking at everything from their business model to their strategy to their planning methodology.  Importantly, they also question their own assumptions.
Furthermore, neuroscientific research on learning shows that asking questions creates mental dexterity. It creates new neural pathways instead of deepening existing ones. Literally and figuratively, it keeps us from wearing mental ruts into our brains. A workforce with greater mental dexterity is exactly the kind of thing that helps build change-agile DNA into your culture.
“A lot of bad leadership comes from an inability or unwillingness to ask questions.”
 
– Michael Parker, former CEO of Dow Chemical –
What’s the Connection Between Asking Questions and Better Change Leadership and Teamwork?
 
Business research consistently bears out that the quality of the relationship an employee has with their manager is one of the top determinants of everything from engagement and retention to development and performance. Likewise, learning also impacts leadership effectiveness. Nimble learners on your team develop skills more quickly and become more versatile and useful to unit performance. The greater the opportunity and ability to learn, the more engaged and career-focused they become. All this bodes well for change agile employees.
Relationships and learning are also essential to high-performing teams. Openness to feedback, conflict resolution, collaboration and decision-making all benefit greatly from the quality of relationships among team members.  If you have a team of people who are good at asking questions and are used to being asked themselves, you have a team that – all other things being equal – will work more productively together. Their collective curiosity and openness to new ideas will engender more creativity and innovation.
Whether your team is engaged in basic problem solving, product development, or process reengineering, a team culture that is comfortable with and good at asking questions vastly outperforms more traditional, hierarchical, stoic teams.
What’s the Big Deal About “What’s Next?” 
 
It’s forward-looking. It encourages people to think and act in ways that are conducive to change and innovation. Asked regularly of ourselves and others, it creates a mindset and habit of behavior that finds its way into the culture. What’s more, this question engenders a bias toward continuous improvement, which is essential in a change-oriented organization.
“What’s next” is also the Swiss Army Knife of questions.  It’s relevant to just about any aspect of development, client relationship management and leadership.  What’s next in my career?  What should my team be focused on next with client X? Who should be next in line for that senior leadership role?  Where will our greatest competition be coming from over the next 3 years?
In most companies, there are business and HR processes and tools that help us ask and answer many of these questions. If effectively managed and genuinely embraced by the organization, they are enormously helpful in supporting the business and the underlying culture. But that’s the point – if the underlying culture discourages people from regularly asking good questions, those processes are building on an uneven foundation. Day-to-day conversations, relationships and team norms over time do so much to build culture.
“Instead of a ‘to do’ list, consider creating a ‘to ask’ list, to see what questions you really need answers to.”
 
– Andrew Finlayson, author of
Questions that Work –
What Can I Do Today? 
 
Certainly, there’s a lot more to building great leaders and great cultures than just asking questions.  But asking questions is a critical building block and a relatively easy skill to learn.  Where to start? Look at your schedule for the rest of the day. Add two questions you have for each major meeting or to-do item left on your plate. One question is for yourself (perhaps around a tough issue you haven’t figured out yet) and the other for an employee, a peer or your manager. At the start every day, do the same thing. Not only will you be asking more questions, you’ll be building in some valuable reflection time.
To accelerate your skill development, you should seek feedback on your questioning skills. At the end of a conversation or meeting ask: “what didn’t I ask that I could have?” People may shy away from providing honest feedback at first. Don’t let it deter you. Be creative.
Finally, get those around you to ask “what’s next?”  In the long run, acting as a role model is the most effective way to do this, but directly encouraging people to ask questions will help others develop the habit more quickly.
Is This the Magic Bullet?… and Other Caveats. 
 
Of course asking questions doesn’t solve all your problems.  However, if done genuinely and regularly, it sure does change the way others perceive you. And it makes you a more curious and knowledgeable person. That said, here are a few important caveats.
First, build trust within the relationship and within the conversation before you ask “what’s next?” You want to make sure your audience knows you value their past accomplishments and respect their ideas and feelings. For example, make sure your employees don’t think you’re never happy with their performance because every time you do something good, you’re asking for more.
Second, make sure you’re walking the talk. Demonstrate that you’re open to questions from others and that you ask yourself “what’s next” on a regular basis as well.
Third, it’s possible to ask bad questions, ask them at the wrong time, or ask too many of them. Here’s a way to think about it. You want to push the boundaries at least a little.  If you’re not making yourself and others at least a bit uncomfortable, you’re probably not asking the right questions.  But if you’re making them really uncomfortable, you’re probably not asking questions in the right way. Start small, learn from your successes and mis-steps, and keep at it.
“Poor leaders rarely ask questions of themselves or others.  Good leaders… ask many questions.  Great leaders ask the great questions.”
 
– Michael Marquardt, author of
Leading with Questions –
Being asked a question makes people feel good. Done regularly and effectively, it helps builds rapport and trust. And trust is arguably the most critical element of a strong relationship between manager and employee, and among high performing team members.
Executive-level role modelling is critical for speedy cultural change. The higher up in the organization it starts, the more comfortable others are doing it and the more fully it cascades. But for your own effectiveness and for your career, it’s important to start where you are. Asking good questions makes you more effective in your job and it enhances your credibility. It also demonstrates intelligence, curiosity, and your interest in others… without monopolizing the conversation. And asking “what’s next” encourages people to be future-oriented and change-focused.
Asking good questions should be a priority for every leader, and one of their go-to tools.  Don’t you think?
Would you like to talk with someone about specific ways to improve the change leadership skills and change-agility of your organization?  NextBridge has been doing just that for nearly 20 years.  How can we help you?

 

We’re please to share Edith’s recently published article on Forbes!

Developing a Change Leader Mindset

Focus on Effort not Difficulty

 Focus on Effort not Difficulty

You know, I’ve occasionally caught myself saying ‘change is hard.’ I’ve recently seen an interesting new insight into the power of language during change or transformation. In an article on HBR.org, Nick Tasler discusses the negative bias we create when reinforcing that change is hard.

For decades, we’ve heard statistics about how infrequently change initiatives and transformation are successful. We hear that 70% of them fail. We hear that 50% of mergers don’t achieve their desired results. In addition, we’ve all had our own experiences with changes that have had varying degrees of success. The message this reinforces is that change must be really hard.

What Tasler argues is that part of the reason change is often not successful is that by saying it is ‘hard’ we are creating a negative bias that impacts the actual outcomes.  He recommends that rather than focusing on the difficulty of change we should focus our messaging and conversations about the effort involved in change.

Let me give you an example. We all know that part of success in any endeavor comes from the effort you put in to it.  Some pursuits are more difficult and require more effort than others. Completing a marathon takes more effort than jogging around the block (although for some of us, they both seem daunting). However, we usually believe something is achievable when we focus on putting in some effort rather than simply focusing on how difficult it is.

At NextBridge, we focus on helping our clients successfully change and transform. We help clients think about the effort needed for successful change and help them achieve it.  I encourage you to think about change that is impacting you. Are you focusing on the difficulty or the effort?

Let’s Lead Change, Not Just Manage It

lead change

Change is a subject that’s near and dear to my heart.  It’s been at the core of what I do for over 25 years.  Lately, I’ve been thinking about the topic of leading change.  We’ve talked for years about managing change but not leading change.

Leading change is different from change management.  Change management is a well thought out set of approaches and tools that supports change, often at a project level.  For example, there is a change management component to installing a new system, transitioning how you do performance management, or introducing a new project. It happens in parallel to the project to make sure the business solution is implemented and that people adopt the new behaviors associated with it. It focuses on understanding the difference between the current state and future state, creating communication and training plans, identifying early adopters and resisters and paving the way for the business outcome to be reached. It is a very important toolkit and competence that should be part of projects that introduce change.

Leading change is about creating and communicating a vision for change and is not directly tied to a project or initiative. It is what drives the business solution, not what implements it. It is transformational. It creates a mindset across the organization that focuses on what could or should be different rather than asking them to simply adopt an already determined solution.  It removes the shackles of how we do things and asks people to truly engage in the change, to become part of creating a solution. It enables others to think differently.  It moves change along more rapidly and more efficiently, even while it creates a sense of upheaval. It is what makes people say “I HAVE to be part of this.” It creates momentum and a desire to continually move to the next phase or next level.

Most executives I talk to and organizations I work with are hungry for change leadership.  What about yours? Do you only manage change or do you truly lead it?