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“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?

 

5 Things the Eclipse Taught Us About Building Companies People Love

In the U.S, on August 22nd there was a total eclipse that traversed the country.  It was an event that captured attention, created interest and built excitement.
As I was hearing about it and waiting for our partial view in New England, I was thinking about why this was such a big deal for so many people. Almost everyone I know was, at a minimum, interested in it and many were almost giddy with excitement.  What if we could create this kind of feeling every day in our companies, to build companies people love?
I believe there are 5 things we can learn from the Great Eclipse of 2017 about how to think about building companies people love:
  • The experience is multi-dimensional: People experienced the eclipse through what they saw, the temperature of the air, the sound during the total eclipse, and more. Companies people love aren’t just defined by a vision, mission statement or set of values that are posted on a wall.  That vision, mission and values are experienced in a multi-dimensional way, from what you see in the office design, to what you hear people saying, to the buzz you feel when you walk around.
  • It’s rare or at least unique:  Companies people love provide them an experience that is difficult to replicate. Others often look to these companies to try to recreate the culture.  What they find is that it’s not something you replicate. It is something the company needs to define as uniquely theirs.
  • There is a sense of meaning: The eclipse was meaningful to many people for many different reasons. Some were drawn from a scientific perspective (a group of scientists boarded plane so they could be among the first to experience it). Some were drawn because it was an event they could share with millions of others.  Some viewed it from a spiritual perspective.  Companies people love create a connection with what their employees (and potential employees) find meaningful.
  • It’s a shared experience: Those who work in companies people love have shared experiences that define who the company is. In some, it’s the way they onboard people (I wrote about my brother’s experience at Apple a few years ago). In others it’s the way people are recognized no matter their level.  For some, it’s meeting the patients their therapy impacts. Those shared experiences live on after people in these companies move on to other jobs. You see them in active company alumni networks.  They share common stories. And, they often say working there was one of the best experiences of their work lives.
  • It creates anticipation about what great thing we’ll do next: After the eclipse, many people described it with one word – wow. And, at least in my house, we were talking about when the next one would occur.  When you experience an event that takes you out of the ordinary, as many companies we love do, you want to know what the next great thing is and how you can be a part of it.
At NextBridge Consulting, we help our clients work at becoming companies people love.  We help them define or refine and then operationalize their mission, vision and values.  We help them develop leaders who make people say “I want to be part of this,” even when the company is moving at a dizzying pace. We work with them to develop teams and organizations that create alignment.  How can we help you?

Over-Collaboration: Solution #3: Designing for Great Collaboration


Our last three blog posts have outlined collaboration challenges and solutions.  In this fourth and concluding post, we’re talking about the role the organization plays in making collaboration work. The way you design your organization — your rules, tools and people practices — has a substantial impact on how effectively you and others collaborate.

Rules
What is the collaboration culture like in your organization?  Are the ‘rules’ about collaboration mostly unspoken or informal? They shouldn’t be.  Organizations that thrive in our fast-moving business environment tend to be intentional about how collaboration takes place.

A good place to start is to look at your decision rights – your framework for the decision-making process in your organization that includes who makes what types of decisions.  Effective decision rights/governance structures include guidance about who and how people collaborate on decision-making. A lot of collaborative effort may not seem to be directly linked to organization-level decision-making. But embedded in the day-to-day collaborative work everyone does are numerous decisions which should follow from and support those higher-level decisions. Being intentional about decision-making clarifies, streamlines, and improves collaboration.

I’ve run into many organizations over the years who, when I ask them to describe their culture, use the word collaborative as one of the first descriptors. What that means need to change as your organization grows. Small start-ups often thrive in a culture where everyone is involved in everything. Different perspectives and viewpoints create energy and momentum. However, as the organization grows, continuing to live by the ‘involve everyone’ mantra actually slows momentum, delays decisions and creates roadblocks. You need to establish and adapt your culture’s norms around collaboration.  The more complex your business, the more you need formal decision rights.

Some questions for further thought…  Is your organization structure designed to facilitate the right level of collaboration and drive effective, timely decisions? Are your senior leaders all explicitly on the same page and do all your leaders have the right knowledge and skills to leverage decision rights?

Tools
There is no shortage of technology tools designed to facilitate collaboration, with more on the way. And with good reason.  Used effectively, such tools can improve collaboration, enhance productivity, and accelerate innovation, among other things.  We’re not experts on specific tools, so we’ll leave questions like functionality, platform and scalability to others. However, there are significant ramifications for what you choose, and some consideration for how you do it.

(1) How does your choice align with your business strategy?  Are you looking to acquire businesses over the next few years?  Are you looking to rapidly expand globally?  Are you about to take on new products and services that impact what types of projects you run or the talent you hire?  Make decisions based not just on your current challenges, but on your future ones.

(2) What problem(s) are you trying to solve?  Or put another way, what are you trying to accomplish?  More effective sharing of resources?  Better decision-making?  Improved communication?  It’s easy to say “all of the above,” but what specifically does that mean?  This should be one of the first questions you ask, and then dig deep on the answers.

(3) How will your choice impact users?  Is the tool great for one group, but not another?  What will the transition to the tool require of users?  What do they lose in the changeover and how will it impact their work?  Does the new tool fully compensate?

(4)  How important is it to standardize your tool set?  Issues arise when the organization allows every group or business unit to determine what its tool of choice is.  Then you have certain groups that can easily collaborate while others either have to spend time learning multiple tools or work around tools which don’t integrate effectively. Even organizations that don’t want to mandate tools and technology will benefit by standardizing or integrating their collaboration tools.

People Practices
Not only are high-performing organizations clear about decision rights and what that means for who and how people collaborate structurally, they tend to be clear about what it looks like behaviorally.

When you consider all the practices that we could discuss here there’s enough fodder for multiple pages.  Boiled down, here’s my mantra… Define it. Communicate it. Integrate it.

Define it.  The most important consideration is this: what does good collaboration look like?  What does a good collaborator do and say?  We covered some basics in our “Solution #2” blog post.  But what does it look like in your business, specifically?  Identify role models.  Break it down to finite behaviors that can be easily understood and replicated.

Communicate it. Starting at the top, let people know what’s expected of them. “Here’s what our company believes in and expects when it comes to collaboration.” Make it a formal part of things like project charters, personal goals and feedback discussions.

Integrate it.  From competency development and selection to performance management and training, ensure that the organization places the appropriate priority on collaboration.  Furthermore, it’s critical not to send mixed messages across practices.  In high-collaboration cultures, it’s not uncommon for goal-setting, development activities and formal recognition programs to reinforce collaboration. And yet, performance management and compensation practices don’t always support it. Research shows that about 20% of an organization’s “stars” don’t collaborate. They hit their numbers (and receive kudos and raises for it) but don’t do anything to amplify the success of their colleagues.  That hurts the business in the long run.

In a world where collaboration is increasingly essential for business success, how you collaborate can create competitive advantage. If you’re mired in slow decision-making, faced with abundant project bottlenecks or losing good talent because of “collaboration burnout,” then you’re not staying ahead of the curve.

Properly leveraging rules, tools and people practices makes a huge difference in how well you collaborate and how smoothly your business functions.

To read the other blog posts in this series go to:
Collaborate The Right Way and Free Up 20% More Time
Solution #1: Over-Collaboration:  Be More Intentional About Meetings
Solution #2:  Over-Collaboration:  Better Skills and Behaviors