Podcast transcript: How can questions be a source of competitive advantage?

19 min approx | 25 Mar 2019

Juliette Foster

Hello and welcome to The Better Question. EY's series of podcasts that answer the questions that will help you lead your business through the transformative age. I'm your host, Juliette Foster, and today we'll be going right to the heart of matters to discuss questions themselves. We're asking how can questions be a source of competitive advantage?

We have two guests with us today and they're both champions of the positive power of asking questions every day.

Hal Gregersen is an innovation and leadership guru, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Centre, and a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management. His recent book, Questions are the Answer, outlines a breakthrough approach to your most vexing problems at work and in life.

John Rudaizky is [a partner, Ernst & Young LLP] and the [EY] Global Brand and Marketing Leader. The cornerstone of his work is leading a team in the development and activation of a distinctive brand idea that delivers to EY's purpose.

So, welcome to you both. Hal, John, I want to start with a very simple question, why do questions matter so much to both of you? Hal?

Hal Gregersen

When any leader is operating on the edge of uncertainty or the edge of the unknown, questions really are the answer. In other words, when we're moving for example in a digital transformation, there are so many unknown unknowns out there that we don't have the answers. And what's perhaps counterintuitive for many leaders is, the faster and harder we search for an answer when we’re in that high uncertainty space, the slower we’ll get to one.

But, if we change our mindset and actually try to configure a better question – what I call a catalytic question – we're much more likely to make progress and to create something positive in terms of its impact, if we search for the question first. And so, this is a challenge for any leader.

Juliette Foster

John, why do they matter to you?

John Rudaizky

If you look at some of the biggest, new startups on the planet; they are actually setting up their whole business plan around questions, because no one knows the answer. You know how can you democratize information? How can you mine asteroids for new world solutions? How can you switch to alternative energy? And so many organizations appear to be formed from asking investors to get behind exploring new ways to solve a stretch question.

EY launched behind this powerful purpose around building a better working world. Fundamentally the purpose around building a better working world is, ‘how do we help businesses create confidence in the capital markets? How do we solve complex issues?’ And it soon became apparent that around the organization, we had [EY] people asking very profound questions around how to solve complex issues for our clients, for the business.

Some of the best brand ideas are – and they always should be – a reflection of what the business does. And I think what we ended up with is, the title in many ways of this podcast, is the better the question the better the answer, the better the world works. And that's the ripple effect, certainly at EY, around how do we get the working world to be better?

How do we engage with clients so that we can solve these complex issues? And as you said, particularly relevant in this transformative age today. Sometimes ideas happen because there's a profound shift in the world. And, we’re living in a moment in time where we simply don’t know all the answers.

Juliette Foster

Hal let’s talk about your book Questions are the Answer [Harper Business, 2018], because I know that you interviewed over 200 business and creative leaders as you were preparing that book. What did you learn about the power of questions in a business context?

Hal Gregersen

All of these leaders were exceptional at landing on their feet wherever they were in the world and asking questions that other people weren't asking. And I'm like, this is deeply intriguing because it's so core to the work they're doing. And what was really amazing about it is, they knew what they were doing. They knew what to do in order to ask the better question.

One of the leaders I interviewed was Michael Sippey [Vice President of Product at Medium.com] and he told me that he puts himself in situations where he or others are intentionally going to be a little bit wrong, a little bit uncomfortable and a little bit reflectively quiet.

Those are the three conditions across these 200 creative leaders that consistently emerged. Imagine a CEO or senior leader intentionally constructing an environment around them where she or he is wrong instead of right; uncomfortable instead of comfortable.

And when they get that kind of feedback they don't run from it, instead they're reflectively quiet. When that happens, if it happens over and over, there's a high probability that they will uncover something they-didn't-know-they-didn't-know [sic]. And that is our biggest blind spot from which every disruption emerges. And by so doing, they open up opportunities that other people don't see.

John Rudaizky

The conditions for creating an environment where questions are the precursor to creating completely new answers, new solutions – in our terms, to build a better working world – are essential. And certainly for us there are three key ingredients: confidence; hard, deep analysis work; and reframing it so it unlocks a new solution.

The reason confidence is important is that – if you don't have an environment that starts with the value of going beyond the obvious; that stretches people and creates the conditions that questioning first is important – people leap to the answer. And I think you’ve touched on this Hal … people feel, that if they ask a question they will be judged as if they don’t know the answer. There’s a confidence gap for people.

The second thing is hard work. First time I heard that question ‘what do you lose sleep over at night?’ I thought what a fantastic question. And I've seen it in the boardrooms used very powerful; it usually gets any c-suite leader to distil the most pressing issues in their mind. However, on a day to day basis, if you think about the work, certainly we do with [EY] clients, it’s not enough just to ask that question. You have to probe, you have to have understood what the issues are. You have the understand the marketplace. You have to really get deep into your expertise and the insights. To really think, what are the fundamental questions that this situation calls for, that needs to be solved?

And then it's about reframing that question that creates new energy. I think, you know, you talk about catalytic, which is certainly for me, my interpretation of that is very powerful, Hal, which it’s got a future-directed energy.

Juliette Foster

That leads quite nicely into the subject of innovation. So how important are catalytic or better questions in the area of innovation at work, and what role do they play?

John Rudaizky

Throughout history, the world has changed by asking big provocative questions. There wasn't an answer how to fly, but someone said “how could we fly?" And if you take that through every innovation on the planet, no one has actually known the answer but they’ve started with a very big, galvanizing ‘how could we?’ part to it. So, for us, we have a number of ways of doing this.

The first time I had the privilege of meeting Hal, was at one of [EY’s] innovation events called Innovation Realized, which is a convening of some game changing individuals, companies and [EY] clients, who are reinventing what the future could hold with this converging world of different sectors coming together, exploring the unknown.

‘What's after what's next?’ is the primary question that's asked in that session. And Hal, I've seen working his magic. I know Hal in your book you talk about, the question burst …

Juliette Foster

Yes, what is a question burst Hal?

Hal Gregersen

It was an amazing experience to be at Innovation Realized where you had created this space; this environment; this culture, where people were willing to explore the unknown unknowns. They were willing to be a little bit wrong, uncomfortable and quiet. And within that context, you invited me to work with the groups around what I call a question burst.

And here is the issue. All of us, whether it's professionally or personally, we have challenges or opportunities that we're frankly stuck on. We care about them deeply but we just can't get movement. We can't figure it out.

Twenty plus years ago I was teaching a group of leaders and we were in that moment of stuckedness [sic]. And I had this thought: let’s stop for a minute. Energy was low; people were just wearing out. I said, “let’s just ask nothing but questions for the next ten minutes and fill the boards of this room with as many questions as we can. No answers to the questions, no explanations, just questions.”

At the end of that ten minutes, the energy level rose. We had reframed the opportunities and challenges. We had identified some ideas that could take us somewhere differently. And since then I've used what I now call a question burst process, with thousands of leaders, all over the world.

And essentially, imagine you or me having a challenge. And we pull a couple of people together. And we have two rules. Number one, I'm going to briefly explain my challenge to you in a couple of minutes; make it short and brief. Then after two minutes, all we do is we ask nothing but questions about the challenge.

If people can discipline themselves to follow those two rules for four fast minutes, there's an 80% chance they're going to feel better, rather than worse. There's an 80% chance they're going to reframe their challenge, even slightly. And there's an 85% chance they are going to actually have at least one idea that will help them move forward. It’s transformational and I’ve watched this happen over and over. It’s an amazing process.

Juliette Foster

Okay, let's look at that in terms of business growth; the importance of organizational leaders having a growth mindset. So what are the ways of thinking, or indeed approaches, that you’ve seen successful leaders embracing to help further in that growth mindset? John –

John Rudaizky

At its core, the growth mindset and questions are inextricably linked. In this transformative age that we're living in, we often talk about three-dimensions: ‘Now, Next and Beyond.’

And businesses today have got to look at a growth mindset that asks the question: ‘How can I grow today? How can I grow next and innovate in the near term? And how can I look far out to say ‘what is really going to come and be transformative to help my business grow?’ And that is why, businesses today are setting themselves massively stretch better questions, catalytic questions, to unite their organizations around, because simply all the answers are not yet known.

Juliette Foster

We live in a world where a lack of trust is one of the main challenges facing businesses, as well as other major institutions. Is there a link between asking better questions and building some of that trust with customers, employers and others?

Hal Gregersen

I think it's the toughest questions getting asked that lead to the deepest trust in an organization. And the question becomes: ‘where and when in your organization, on your team, or even in your own life, do the toughest questions get systematically asked?’ And if we don't have a good answer to that question, if we don't know with some level of confidence, where and when it usually happens, it’s probably not happening.

Juliette Foster

Okay, now comes the challenging bit: how do you embed this approach or that way of thinking into a big global organization? In your case John, EY [member firms] employ over 200,000, so how do you embed those ideas in such a huge company?

John Rudaizky

In many ways I don't think it's a challenge embedding it. This idea reflects what our people do at its best. And so there's a natural energy around it; a natural pick up around it. The magic is when you see people winning and creating new [services] for clients through the power of better questions.

And so [EY] people are, in many ways, creating their own momentum around it. It is about the better question. But absolutely critical, it's about the better answer. In fact we often talk about hashtagbetteranswers because ultimately [EY] clients are coming to us to help them find solutions.

And so I think sometimes people need the reassurance that it's leading to the outcome. It's the two together. Is it a competitive advantage? Absolutely, when you think about how it has a profound impact on building trust; driving growth; and at the heart of innovation in these uncertain times. For us what makes it particularly relevant is
through the lens of this powerful purpose, building a better working world.

Hal Gregersen

John, I'm so in agreement with you. And, even though I pay careful attention and talk about the power of questions; I ask all over the world: “does anybody know in the room, anybody in the room, do you know somebody who asks a thousand questions?” And then I say, “what's the one word you would use to describe them?” And I don't care what country or culture I'm in, the common word is ‘annoying.’

And here's the deal: they're annoying because people are annoying by asking lots of questions if they're just asking questions to look clever. But, if they're willing to get up, get out, get into the world and for they themselves to take responsibility to get some answers to those questions. The annoying factor then dissipates.

And so for me it's, it's questions matter, I'm so with you. And the biggest questions we ask often demand the biggest level of uncertainty and fear and anxiety that we can imagine.

Juliette Foster

I want to end this discussion by talking about keystone questions and John I’d like to start with you. What are the questions that matter to you most, personally? And also, the questions that reflect your own purpose and that of your organization.

John Rudaizky

Ultimately the biggest question we ask at EY is what legacy will you create to build a better working world? We have a number of belief systems and programs; a concept called Better Begins With You, with is an internal award program which is fundamentally looking for people who want to leave a lasting effect in the world.

I've got a few on an individual basis which, for various reasons, have driven me throughout my career. A deep DNA of my culture from my first years at a top agency was ‘do you believe that nothing is impossible?’ And in the creative space that I’m lucky to work in, where you’re coming up with new brand ideas and you’re coming up with new creative solutions is: ‘what totally new white space can you create in the world that inspires people?’

Juliette Foster

And Hal.

Hal Gregersen

A quick organizational example, then individual for me personally. I was deeply impressed with Patagonia, which was started decades ago by Yvon Chouinard asking a simple question: ‘how can I make a living without losing my soul?’ And then he started his business and then he started: ‘how do you build an organization that works around that question?’ Then there were a serious of questions that led them up to recently, the most recent one was: ‘how can we make the rest of the industry so uncomfortable about their practices that they will try to do better in building a better environment in the world?’ And recently they changed the whole mission statement to ‘Our purpose at Patagonia is to save our home planet.’

My fundamental reason for doing what I'm doing is to nudge the questioning capacity of the world forward. And especially the next generation of leaders growing up. Because they're walking into a world, whether they want it or not, that AI and everything around it is going to have deeper and deeper influence on who we are and what we do.

And if AI starts asking the better question than humans, I'm frankly worried. And so, my commitment to the future of this planet frankly, is: ‘how can we leverage AI, take full advantage of it?’ I’m hopeful that with the amazing  work you're doing at EY around asking better questions, and our collective work for those in the world who care about this issue, that we can nudge that questioning capacity of the world forward in order to build a much better world.

Juliette Foster

Gentlemen, thank you.

And that’s it for today’s episode. As ever, the answer to a Better Question leads to more. Let me leave you with a few to think about and adapt for consideration within your own organization:

  • Is the most transformative perspective the one you don’t have?
  • Technology can light the way, but do you know where you’re going?
    And …
  • What will your next generation generate?

To read thought leadership relating to themes discussed today and other better answers to many more better questions, go to ey.com. To hear more, subscribe to the full podcast series.

And, if we’ve got you thinking a bit more about the power of asking better questions to generate better answers, consider leaving us a review. The better the question, the better the answer, the better the world works. Goodbye.

Disclaimer: The views of third parties set out in this publication are not necessarily the views of the global EY organization or its member firms. Moreover, they should be seen in the context of the time they were made.