One of the common challenges that we face in professional and even, personal settings is that people argue whether a particular idea is good or not without really knowing what the idea is for and what the argument is for. Also, when you go with a question to your peers or boss, there is always the possibility that they may ask ‘What do you think we should do about this?’. Everyone wants ‘answers’ and ‘solution orientation’ is celebrated in organizations. But this overemphasis on problem solving brings its own side effects wherein quick fixes get visibility and real problems get sidelined because of ‘lack of answers’. Innovation efforts and new initiatives get affected the most as for new initiatives, there may not be enough data points and people start to evaluate an idea through their own opinions. A leader’s ability to drive new innovation needs to be judged by his ability to stay with the question and influence people to come along with him.
In 2012, I was part of a team that designed a business model for a large corporation to help low income patients to afford expensive cardiac therapies in India and we were running a pilot in a hospital in a few cities. Since financing the cardiac procedure is a key component of the model, we introduced the idea of patient counselors who can help the patients who go through the procedure. These counselors had a station in the hospital where patients and their families who need support can go and get advice. After a few months, during a team meeting, two of my colleagues came with the idea of moving this station outside the hospital as they felt there was a risk that the hospital and even the patient may perceive this as ‘non-neutral’. But when they presented the idea, it received immediate push backs within the team saying that the process design will go for a spin. Another colleague argued that managing the staff will become complex. His argument was that we may have to change the organization structure to accommodate a new manager to oversee the staff and also, an administrator to run the office if it is not part of the hospitals which has its own implications on budget when the model is scaled across so many cities.
After a while, one colleague asked a great question – Why do you think we want to move out of the hospital premises? The answer was ‘creating a neutral image in the minds of patients and hospital staff’. He suggested that instead of arguing why a particular solution wont work, he asked us to stay with this question ‘How do we stay neutral?’.Once we started focusing on the question, ‘Going out of the hospital’ was just one of the many potential solutions. What are the other solutions? It brought sanity to a long discussion and finally, everyone started to think about other solutions and also, to explore the reasons that led my colleagues to think about this issue. After intense brainstorming, we came up with a solution that was in the middle between moving out completely of the hospital and operating 100% in the hospital premises. My colleague stayed with the question and instead of getting nudged by the ‘quick fixes’, we came up with options. We might not have come up with the perfect solution, but it opened our minds to not argue with a ‘random’ idea but to stay with the question and not get carried away.
In this context, since everyone was very open, my colleague was heard. But in most cases, just staying with the question alone is not sufficient and one needs to find a way to influence your peers, bosses, spouses to come along with you.
Answers are not permanent. When the questions stop or in other words, when there are ‘no more’ questions, we have an answer. When the question resumes, the answer changes. We call it innovation or improvement or versions etc. Staying with the questions when we seem to have an answer is the way to sustain the growth process.
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Disclaimer:The opinions expressed are those of the author and have nothing to do with his organization or any affiliation.