Our basic leadership strategy today can be summarized in five words: “Do This, Don’t Do That.” And nearly every management innovation today is nothing but a variation of that fundamentally flawed strategy. Like it or not, it’s time to make a complete flip. Otherwise, nothing else will change.
Our basic strategy today for leading people can be described in just five words: "Do This, Don't Do That."
We lead our employees with rules, laws, policies, procedures, manuals and scripts. And we do this because we hope it will bring us some level of efficiency and control.
This sometimes works — for a short while.
But in the long term, it always backfires.
Your people soon figure out there's no reason for them to think. They shut their brains off.
And so starts a vicious spiral.
Unmotivated and unchallenged, your people do the bare minimum — far less than what they're truly capable.
To compensate for their mediocre performance, leaders launch initiatives — such as Motivation and Innovation and Employee Engagement.
But when you roll out these initiatives, your employees just roll their eyes. They know they have to just humor you and wait you out.
And in this way, the gap between what your people are capable of doing and what they actually deliver continues to widen.
Despite your best intentions, you doom your organization to failure.
There's only one way to escape this downward spiral:
You must be willing to question your reliance on a theory of management that was designed over a century ago. You must be willing to take turn things on their head.
In the new world of business, it is more important than ever before that you groom your employees to be alert, perceptive and engaged. Which means you must remove every excuse employees have to not think.
You must replace "Do This, Don't Do That" with "Ask, Look, Observe" in every situation where safety or legality is not an issue.
None of your other management innovations will succeed until you make this change.
In his book, "The Future of Management," Gary Hamel says, "There are fewer and fewer routes that lead upward, and ever more that lead downward." And just as he predicted, most of the management innovations today lead downward because, at their core, they're variations of the "Do This, Don't Do That" model. They're just trying to compensate for the fundamental flaws in the "Do This, Don't Do That" model. What we need now is a complete flip so we can take the one rare route upward.
Vineet Nayar of HCL tell us, "Remind employees that they should not look to [the leader] for all the answers." And grooming your people so they understand how to "Ask, Look, Observe" — on their own — takes what Vineet says to the next level upward.
Maria Montessori pointed out that "We cannot create observers by saying "observe," but by giving them the means for this observation." This innovation is about giving your employees the means to "Ask, Look, Observe."
These days, everyone is talking about "reinventing." But what most are really doing is making minor variations in how they've always done things. This is window dressing — and a recipe for disaster.
To reinvent means to invent anew and completely — basically, to turn everything on its head. And there's never been a more urgent time to do so.
It is time to fundamentally challenge our most basic assumptions about how we run business today — and move our organizations up to a whole new level.
Today, there are answers available everywhere on how Apple transformed itself from near bankruptcy to the one of the most powerful businesses on the planet. There are answers available everywhere on how Rick Warren went from a small group of people meeting in a small room to one of the biggest Churches on the planet. There are answers available everywhere on how Southwest became the largest airline, remaining almost completely unscathed while all the other airlines have been buffeted around, collectively amassing losses in the billions.
But what have all these answers brought us?
How many Apples do you see? How many Churches as big as Rick Warren's? How many airlines nipping at the heels of Southwest?
On another level, consider ...
We have tens of thousands of books and courses giving us answers for leadership and innovation and employee engagement.
But most people would agree there has never been a bigger shortage of great leaders. Innovation remains the biggest challenge in corporations, as reported in survey after survey. And employee engagement has been on the decline for over 2 decades (so, don't blame the Great Recession).
And despite all the dollars spent on diversity training, discrimination remains a huge problem. In fact one study suggested that the companies that spend the most on diversity actually have the biggest number of discrimination-related lawsuits.
Maybe, we've been focussing so much on generating answers that we've forgotten how to ask the right questions?
Maybe the answer is before us, hidden in plain sight, but we don't see it because we're not asking the right questions?
Maybe we've been focussing on the wrong thing all along. We've been focussing on finding the right answers, when we should be focussing on finding the right questions?
Peter Drucker warned us about that. So did Emerson. So did Socrates and Maria Montessori and a ton of others.
But we continue to ignore them. We're still in search of the right answers!
Yes, it is time to turn everything on its head.
Our focus on finding the right answers backfires on us in the most insidious of ways.
For example, most leaders today are grooming their organizations for failure — and they don't even realize that that's what they're doing.
The problem lies in how we've traditionally run business — which most leaders still use today.
The focus of traditional business is on providing employees with the "right answers" they need to do their jobs. This is why most leaders provide their people answers in the form of manuals, policies, procedures, scripts, lists, rules, laws, processes and methods.
The underlying assumption of this century-old approach is that it will reduce mistakes and streamline performance.
But the reality is that this approach actually creates the exact opposite effect of what we desire.
When you spoon-feed employees with answers, it becomes a substitute for thinking rather than an aid to thinking. You give your people an excuse to not think. You make them mentally lazy. You undermine their inherent creativity. They stop being resourceful. And theystop being attentive. And then, mistakes, instead of falling, start rising.
It gets worse. In spoon-feeding answers, you remove the challenge that intrinsically motivates employees. You suppress their curiosity. Instead of giving them a level of control in how they do their jobs — which all humans inherently need to remain engaged — you take it away. You confine them, rather than unleash their imagination. And then, you have little choice but to launch initiatives for innovation and employee engagement to compensate for the subsequent tsunami of problems.
It gets even worse. The focus on answers assumes that the answers that you used successfully before will help you through with your new challenges. That's increasingly not true. The world of business is changing far too rapidly.
It is time to reinvent how we reinvent management.
It is time to fix the foundation before we begin redecorating the house.
What Traffic Engineers now understand
that business still doesn't
Traffic Engineers have recently taken 8 decades of traditional traffic design and turned it on its head. They've finally recognized that signs and rules actually make drivers complacent and, instead of reducing accidents, actually raises them dramatically.
Traffic Engineers are also now accepting that it's their responsibility to design the road in such a way that drivers have no choice but to pay attention.
In the same way, leaders need to take a century of traditional business practices and turn it on its head. They need to recognize that answers (manuals, scripts and procedures) make employees complacent, and that they actually increase errors and failure.
Management must now accept that it's their responsibility to make sure that employees have no excuse to not think. They need to design every day so it is a "Bring Your Brains to Work Day."
And the easiest, fastest and simplest way to accomplish this is to shift management emphasis from dispensing answers to grooming for questions.
What Master Chefs understand
that business still doesn't
Those who become Master Chefs understand a few things that ordinary cooks — and traditional businesses — just don't:
- Ordinary cooks rely on recipes. Master Chefs focus on understanding ingredients.
- To become even moderately effective, ordinary cooks must remember a lot of recipes. To become great, extraordinary chefs only need to understand a small handful of ingredients.
- Ordinary cooks are doomed to remain ordinary because they use the same recipes as everyone else. Master Chefs quickly rise to extraordinary because they can use their understanding of the ingredients to whip up concoctions that are completely unique to them.
- Because ordinary cooks are using other people's recipes, they are neither invested nor engaged and require constant motivating. Because they have the opportunity and potential to create their own specialties, extraordinary chefs are both invested and engaged in what they learn and what they do.
Most businesses today are doomed to mediocrity because they continue leading and training with recipes. It's time business understands what Master Chefs inherently understand.
What Singapore Math Teachers understand
that business still doesn't
Singapore consistently leads the world with the highest math scores among developed nations. In comparision, the US stands consistely below the median.
The pivotal difference is that Singapore teachers emphasize understanding over memorization. US teachers emphasize memorization over understanding.
This sounds like a small difference. But it makes all the difference in the world. Because memorization always edges out understanding and acuity.
Most businesses today rely on employees remembering the massive rules, laws, policies, scripts, recipes and answers they've assembled. Then, they dispatch leaders, trainers and auditors to assure adherence. It's time for businesses to shift their emphasis up from answers to questions ... from adherence to understanding ... from control to context.
Shifting Up to the Next Level
But how exactly do you reinvent your organization to this next level of skills? How exactly do you shift your people from being answer-directed to question-directed?
It's not enough to put up posters, as IBM once did, to "THINK." It's not enough to implore employees with Apple's slogan, "Think differently."
As Maria Montessori famously pointed out, "We cannot create observers by saying "observe," but by giving them the means for this observation."
In the same way, business leaders can't transform their employees into askers by simply saying, "ask questions." They must teach, guide and nurture their employees to ask the right questions.
This means that business leaders need a suite of the few questions that would ignite the biggest impact within their organizations with Leadership, Innovation, Teamwork, Time Management, Customer Service, Selling, Negotiating, Strategy and more.
Once leaders understand these questions, they can, in turn, groom their employees to ask these questions.
The Skill in Shortest Supply
You would think that, given how urgent and pivotal it is to make this shift, we would be surrounded by courses on how to develop this "single most important skill today." But we're not. This is why this skill remains "the skill in shortest supply."
My work over the years with individuals and organizations has led me to identify a suite of 7 questions that today's cutting-edge organizations use to discover uncommon insights into every aspect of business — Leadership, Innovation, Teamwork, Time Management, Customer Service, Selling, Negotiating, Strategy and more.
The good news in this is that you can start with these questions one at a time, guiding your organization to master them individually. The questions are easy to understand, and they are easy to teach. And they have a reinforcing effect and so, these questions can quickly become a way of life.
These questions also have a cumulative effect — the more your people use them, the sharper they become at using them in unfamiliar situations, unfamiliar tasks and unfamiliar projects.
And "unfamiliar" is the keyword that describes the business landscape today and for the foreseeable future.
Our tendency as human beings is to devote our attention to the trivial many — not the vital few.
We forget what Pareto taught us — that the vital few (in this case, the right questions) lead to 80% of our results.
Actually, as Ralph Waldo Emerson pointed out — there are "millions of answers and then some, but only a few questions" (paraphrased) — the relationship is far more skewed.
And indeed, one of the biggest and immediate benefits when you shift from leading with answers to leading with questions is that you sharply reduce the amount of time, money and energy to lead and train your organization — even as your results sharply improve.
There are many other important benefits as well —
Effortless Employee Engagement:
When you trust your people to ask the right questions themselves, rather than spoon-feeding them answers, you communicate your inherent respect for them. And this respect for their judgment effortlessly motivates and engages them.
Once your people learn to ask the questions they need to ask, they become masterful at doing what they need to get done — even with lessknowledge, less information and fewer procedures. The direct result of this is you cultivate a swift and nimble organization.
When you unleash your people to ask the right questions, they amaze you with answers that go far beyond any answer you could imagine yourself. And, in this way, you cultivate a true innovation culture.
And your people will always be at the cutting edge because, at today's pace of change, no answer remains right for long, but the right questions always remain timeless.
Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Shifting up from an answer-centric model to a question-centric model also addresses some of the key challenges that stump many leaders today. For example:
- "What was he thinking?"; "Why wasn't she thinking?" Read more about this here.
- "How do I get through to my people?"; "Why don't they connect with each other, with our customers, with our organization?"; "How do I get customers to swarm to us?" Read more about this here.
- "How do I train them? There's no budget!"; "We can only afford to train them on one thing. What should I give up?" Read more about this here.
- "How do I prevent Employee Burnout?"; "How do I keep them motivated?" Read more about this here.
- "We trained them on innovation, but why can't they execute their ideas?"; "Why are so many of the leaders in our organization such poor teamplayers?" Read more about this here.
Finally, this section would not be complete without talking about a huge problem inherent with an answer-centric culture:
There are some answers that simply can't be learned directly.
For example, one of the answers we've been given in recent years is that "great leaders are humble." The problem with this answer is that the more you try to be humble, the less humble you become. You can't be humble if you're aware you are humble. The only way to approach being humble is to not pursue it directly — learn to ask the right questions, thus allowing humility to come as a result, without you being conscious of it.
Another answer we've been given in recent years is that successful people are empathetic. But the harder you try to be empathetic, the more your attention gets pulled away from others and back in to yourself. The only way to approach being empathetic is to not pursue it directly — learn to ask the right questions, thus allowing empathy to become a way of life, without you ever needing to think about it.
There are more examples about this very important point here.
The practical import of this is, of course, huge. We can attain many of the qualities we need to succeed in business simply by learning and practicing a small handful of questions.
In this way, with just a fraction of the effort we now put into seeking answers, we can create huge accomplishments.
You might disagree with some of the specifics of what I've presented above, but you cannot dispute that the tsunami of shift from answer-driven to question-driven has already begun.
The newest generation of employees is already demanding the ability to discover their own answers and demonstrating that they will not stand being spoonfed answers any more.
In addition, a few voices (Gary Hamel, Vineet Nayar, Herb Kelleher, Reed Hastings among others) have already been expressing that the current management model is obsolete and irrelevant — and needs to be reinvented.
What is needed right now is a unified voice to herald that much-needed reinvention in terms that are as specific and as simple and as far-reaching as "stop spoonfeeding your employees answers and groom them to ask the right questions" — so that the necessary reinvention spreads like wildfire.