What do you think these three questions have in common?
“How might we survive and flourish amid tensions and contradictions?”
“What is it about your business today that you can’t answer?”
“What if competitors worked together?”
In the eyes of author/journalist, Warren Berger, each of these questions is beautiful. Berger describes a beautiful question as one that is ambitious but also actionable. The search for an answer returns more than facts, it might alter your perception and bring about significant change.
Asking the right beautiful question is a powerful tool that association leaders can use to position their organizations for success.
Lately, I’ve been thinking and writing about what it takes to thrive in the digital marketplace, or Industry 4.0. In researching our new book, Association 4.0: An Entrepreneurial Approach to Risk, Courage, and Transformation, my business partner Kevin Ordonez and I found that curiosity is one trait that all the successful business developers we interviewed shared. It drives them to read voraciously, to explore industries outside their own, to seek opinions from a diverse range of people and. . . to ask lots and lots of questions.
When we interviewed Joanna Pineda, Founder, CEO and Chief Troublemaker, Matrix Group International, Inc., for our book, she described her need to know and appreciation for the right question like this:
“When our business considers undertaking a difficult project, I don’t wonder whether we can do it; I assume we can. The question I do ask is: In order to be successful, what needs to happen? That creates a different dynamic for assessing the situation. . . I’m a data hoarder. I bookmark, I read, I make lots of lists. The downside to this personality trait is that people may think you’re trying to micromanage. When I hire a new employee, I warn them that I ask a lot of questions. I explain that it doesn’t mean that I want to do their job. I just need to know the facts.”
In my experience when association professionals are faced with a problem, the inclination is to focus on a solution instead of exploring the surrounding and underlying issues. That may be a reasonable approach if your bosses on the board are expecting a recommendation at the next meeting.
Unfortunately, in the rush for an answer, it’s easy to fix the wrong thing. You become the doctor who prescribes an antacid for a stomachache when the disease is actually something far more serious. Joanna told us another story that illustrates how layered a challenge can be. Because she was willing to dig deep, she eventually discovered the real problem.
“We were helping a client with meetings issues. In the process, we learned that their conferences were a source of new members, but retention was a problem. (Attendees were automatically given a 12-month membership.) When we introduced the idea of an onboarding program to boost engagement, another aspect of the drop-off was revealed. People who attended a meeting in the fall didn’t officially become members until January. By that time, the great educational experience was a vague memory. At the core of this counterproductive practice, was an outdated system that made ad hoc invoicing difficult.”
This association was being held hostage by its technology deficits. But it took asking the right questions to discover the problem.
Exercise Discipline, Encourage Practice, Create Space
I encounter situations like this in my consulting practice frequently. We’re asked to help an association boost membership or conference attendance and we discover that member apathy is not the problem. Members may want to be engaged but dated technology, inappropriate staffing and inefficient administrative practices are barriers to their participation. And, nobody has asked the questions that would provide a better understanding of the situation. Learning to ask the right beautiful question can:
- Prevent or correct administrative challenges
- Avoid strategies that are not effective
- Conserve human and financial resources
- Reveal your core purpose
- Lead to innovation
- Preserve relevance
Questions are not a routine part of an association job in the way that they are for reporters, physicians, detectives and lawyers. Most people don’t receive training in school or at work that prepares them to probe below the surface and discover a broader context and deeper meaning. It isn’t hard to ask a good question, you just need to give yourself and your team room to practice. Find the discipline to turn off the voices that are clamoring for an answer and open some white space. Here are a few more tips:
- Structure for positive forward momentum using words like where, what and how
ASK: How can we deliver greater value to our members? NOT: Are we delivering value to our members?
- Don’t ask questions that can be answered with one word? ASK: How could we change to deliver greater value? NOT: Do we need to change to deliver greater value?
- Invite follow-up. ASK: What is preventing us from making those changes and why
- After a broad question, narrow the focus. Drill down. ASK: What is our biggest barrier to change, and what could we do to address that issue?
- Keep an open mind. Ask to challenge assumptions not to encourage beliefs
ASK: What resources will we need to make the change? NOT: Do we have the resources to make the change?
- Use an objective tone. ASK: Do we have the appropriate staffing? NOT: Do we need to add staff?
- Listen carefully to answers and acknowledge that you heard what was said.
Joey Knecht, another contributor to our book, had this to say about the value of active listening:
“I observed that the willingness to learn from others and to be frank about what we don’t know is one of our strengths. When we interviewed business leaders about our new product and service model, we didn’t approach them with a solution or even tell them that I understood the problem. We honestly wanted to hear their challenges. I reasoned that the best way we could build a world class customer success model is to interview executives at companies where we know they are doing it right. We needed to honor their accomplishments and ask for advice.”
The challenges we face in a changing business environment are significant. But there is strength and power in knowing that the solutions may be as simple as asking a beautiful question and listening to the answer.