“The important and difficult job is never to find the right answers, it is to find the right question.” Peter Drucker, The Practice of Management (1954)
When Clayton Christensen, the famed Harvard Business School professor, was an MBA student at the school, he had a habit of writing down the best questions he heard in class. At the end of the day, he reviewed the list, seeking traits and patterns that separated the most brilliant questions from the ordinary ones.
Perhaps, then, it’s no wonder he became the scholar who placed the adjective “disruptive” in the business lexicon. For he did so in an attempt to answer two crucial questions: Why is a company’s competitive advantage so hard to sustain? And why do low-end, inferior technologies disrupt the market dominance of superior, established products?
Before Christensen came along, few business thinkers used these questions to frame the intertwined topics of innovation and competitive advantage. In other words, Christensen’s questions themselves were something of a disruption to an existing order, codified in his first book, The Innovator’s Dilemma (1997).
But as popular as Christensen’s questions and precepts have become since then, businesses are still getting disrupted. And not just large businesses. Small ones, too. Entrepreneurial ones, like yours.
The question is: Why does it happen so often?
CEO Blind Spots: Why Disruption Remains Prevalent
I asked this question not long ago to Hal Gregersen, who coauthored The Innovator’s DNA (2011) with Christensen and Jeffrey Dyer. Gregersen, now executive director of the MIT Leadership Center and a senior lecturer in the MIT Sloan School of Management, is an expert on the art of questioning.
After I ask Gregersen the question, he leans back in his chair.
“A disruptive question, as defined by [Christensen], is one that someone else [e.g. an upstart competitor] is asking that you aren’t,” he says. ”And the higher you go in a company, the harder it can be to uncover you don’t know what you don’t know.”
Gregersen believes business leaders are blind to the questions they should be asking for two reasons.
1. In most organizations, you get promoted not for asking questions but for providing answers. You advance by voicing the glib sound bites, not the edgy hypotheticals.
2. Once you ascend to the CEO seat, there are barriers precluding your interaction with anyone who might nag you with those hypotheticals.
For example, only a select few employees–who are also high-ranking–report to you directly. And those direct reports tend to kiss your ass and prepare you with “talking points” that will make sure no one gets upset. “It’s an insulated world, where the blind spot is not explored,” says Gregersen.
3 Methods for Battling Your Blind Spot
How can you do it? Gregersen and I discussed three methods:
1. Create internal disruptive teams. If you, as a leader, are going to be insulated, the least you can do is task some of your employees with the goal of unearthing some potentially disruptive questions–and uncovering what you don’t know. In his forthcoming book The First Mile, Scott D. Anthony, a managing partner at Christensen’s Innosight consultancy, shared one of Intuit cofounder Scott Cook’s techniques for managing internal disruptive teams: Cook stresses that these teams should spend almost no time doing financial forecasting or plotting plans on spreadsheets.
Another key, Gregersen believes, is to staff your disruptive teams with a high ratio of innovative thinkers to delivery-focused employees. On a 10-person disruptive team, you would want eight of the members to have a creative bent, or to display the several traits that Gregersen and other experts have connected with innovative thinking.
2. Address the pain points that your current solutions are creating. Chances are, your current products and services are solving problems for customers. That’s why you’re in business. But have you considered what pain points your solutions are creating, even as they solve the problems?
For example, Gregersen cites the famous story of Doug Dietz, a designer of MRI machines for GE. As functional as his MRI machine was, the one thing its design didn’t take into account was that it was an intimidating thing for small children to approach. So Dietz, with the help of what he learned at the Stanford d.school, set about fixing this problem. With paint, scents, and lights, he and a team turned the scan rooms into “adventures.”
3. Set aside time every day to sit, think, and write down better questions–about yourself and your organization. Gregersen’s 4-24 Project is an attempt to start a movement among leaders to ask better questions. Specifically, Gregersen is urging leaders to take four minutes every day to write out all the questions they have about anything personal or professional.
While there are potential business ROIs in the activity–including, but not limited to, articulating disruptive questions for your company–there are also personal benefits. First and foremost, there’s the meditative practice of simply sitting and thinking. For at least four minutes a day, you will (ostensibly) remove your mind from your immediate to-do list, and think only of questions. On more stressful days, these questions will, of course, pertain to your to-do list, as opposed to long-term, big-picture, high-concept thoughts. But even then, you’ll at least gain the benefit of venting.
Over time, says Gregersen, you’ll be able to do what Christensen did as an HBS student: Review your lists of questions, and notice the patterns.
Perhaps one day, you’ll even hit on the one that saves your organization.