Future-proofing: Asking questions that anticipate great challenges

This is a short post, but I really want to bring attention to this issue because uncertainty is the norm, and we all have to deal with it. How do we do that?

There is no right answer.

But, to start, we have to be conscious about it. Then, we have to make an effort to look at what isn’t there and formulate what could be. To do this, we can start by asking better questions. This is the same dilemma Clay Christensen was in when he was studying disruption. Because he knew that a primary task of leadership is asking questions that anticipate great challenges, to be able to help business leaders better deal with uncertainty and its many challenges, he had to start asking better questions himself.

So, here’s how he figured out how to start asking better questions (last paragraph):

Yes. I realized this back when I was an MBA student. I had an epiphany during a marketing course. We were studying a peanut butter company and I wrote down all the answers that the other students gave. Then I suddenly realized: Why was I writing all this down? I was never going to go work for a peanut butter company, and if I did, I wasn’t going to run into the problems that this management had faced 10 years before. But I paid all this tuition; I had to write something. So what notes would I take?

The next student to speak was a woman who made a brilliant comment. Instead of writing down what she said, I wrote down a question—the question I thought she had to have had in mind to think of this response. A bit later, a guy in the back row made a similarly insightful comment. I wrote down the question that he had clearly asked himself. The next morning, when I prepared a case for the day’s class, I put those two questions on the table next to me. I asked those questions of the case, and, holy cow, I saw things I would never have caught before. I came across as very smart that day.

Thereafter, I kept listening not to what smart people said as answers, but to the questions they were asking. Over time, I realized that although some questions seemed salient only once or twice, others were always important. That’s how I came up with the way I develop theories: Instead of looking at the data about today’s performance, I keep my attention on the questions I need to ask so I can catch the issues of the future.

So, anytime you hear or read an insightful comment, think about the question that lead to that comment. In other words, try to understand their thought process. I cannot stress this enough, it is much more effective to think about the thought process than to simply take everything as a given.

It is a point I take so seriously, that I always ask people how they came up with their ideas. As well as how they executed on them. After the fact, the “what” is irrelevant. It is already done. What is more important, is the “how”. It is the process in between, where all the thinking and rethinking was done, that matters the most.

In the end, you’ll become a better thinker.

Bottom line: Future-proofing yourself begins pondering the impossible. Questions are only the beginning. The next step, is to turn those questions into hypotheses that we can then test in a cheap and speedy way.

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