This blog first appeared as Steve Wunker's piece for Forbes
By Steve Wunker
We are trained to be solution-finders. In school, we are given questions and graded on the quality of our solutions. As we develop in our careers, management examines the solutions that we propose, not the questions that we have asked. For annual reviews, “performance” is usually defined as creating and implementing solutions rather than finding the best problems to tackle. We become wonderfully efficient at solving problems, even if they are the wrong ones to solve. Few kudos come from asking the right question.
Yet the right question is often the key to breakthrough business success. With a properly-framed question, finding an elegant answer becomes almost straightforward. Bank of America has had a massive win with its “Keep the Change” program that rounds up customers’ debit card purchases to the next highest dollar, sweeping the difference to a personal savings account. The patented program is breathtakingly simple, for both the bank and the customer. The question might be something like: “How can customers save money without thinking, planning, or clearly foregoing consumption?” Tylenol PM, which is marketed as a nighttime pain reliever, has long been America’s top over-the-counter sleep aid despite having exactly the same active ingredient as in less expensive medicines marketed specifically for helping people get to sleep. The question: “How can people get to sleep and stay asleep without feeling as though they rely on sleep aids?”
Asking the right question is also essential for setting effective business strategy. Far too many “strategies” are actually laundry lists of vague, platitudinous goals (one of which always seems to be “develop our people”, even in rather brutal places to work). Typically, they could have been written by any competitor in the industry. As detailed in Richard Rumelt’s excellent recent book Good Strategy / Bad Strategy, effective strategy needs to be framed around the right questions. For a recent client of my firm, those questions included:
1. How do we overcome the disadvantage of our #3 market position, in an R&D-intensive industry, to lead an emerging, high-growth market segment?
2. How do we gain attention selling a single product to a market when competitors are selling a full suite of products?
3. How do we escape a downward pricing spiral in our industry?
Each of these questions was framed around a problem or challenge. While company strategies are often rosy internal sales documents designed to win investment in a business, an honest and confidential strategy should focus hard on tough questions and methodically lay out the challenges.
How can you find the right questions to ask?
Good questions are clear, even if they are broad. They need to be linked not only to an over-arching objective (frequently, as Prof. Clayton Christensen would put it, a customer’s “job to be done”), but also to competitive issues, the challenges posed by current approaches, decision criteria, and the obstacles to adopting new solutions. For instance, imagine that a company wanted to enable nurses to communicate better in a hospital (note – the objective is not framed around selling more of something, but rather helping the customer get jobs done). The questions could include:
1. Jobs to be Done -- How might we help nurses to a) record patient information b) obtain records from medical files c) consult with physicians, and d) check care guidelines?
2. Current Approaches -- Where must we be better than the traditional solutions of paging and walking to the nurses' station?
3. Competition -- What are the inherent limits of generic solutions such as the iPad?
4. Decision Criteria -- How can this be a simple decision for purchasing agents? How can we make it easy for nurses to start using the solution even before they feel they are experts in it?
5. Obstacles to Adopting New Solutions -- What sort of device would sales channels be motivated to sell? What would allow them to provide little training? How do we eliminate perceptions of risk around adopting new solutions in potentially life-threatening situations?
Before the company has defined a thing about the solution, it has gotten very precise about the question. Then, it can devise detailed answers that address the question without throwing in other features the customer may not care about.
This approach originates in product development, but it applies broadly. When thinking about a good employee who is difficult to manage, frame the question carefully. When considering an acquisition, be certain you know what question the deal will answer.
A further advantage of asking the right question is being able to rank the quality of answers with confidence. Too often, solutions framed without a question are judged by implicit decision criteria that never get vocalized, so employees don’t understand executives’ logic and propose ideas that continue to miss the target.
Detailed questions are not as exciting as brilliant answers. They seldom get boasted about at the dinner table. But without the compass heading that asking the right question provides, intriguing solutions may lead companies profoundly off-course.
Click to receive a book chapter detailing how to apply this approach.