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How asking tough questions could save your career

Holding back may not be the wisest move.Photograph by Getty Images/Cultura RF

At age four, we’re fueled with curiosity, asking thousands of questions to better grasp what’s going on around us. Already we are aware, at a very fundamental level, that questioning helps us feel our way around a situation and develop entirely new ways of engaging with the world.

It isn’t long, however, before we enter an educational system that rewards answers more than questions. Consider that the average child between six- to 18-years old asks only one question per one-hour class per month. Contrast that with the average teacher, who peppers kids with 300 to 600 questions a day and waits an average of one second for each reply, and you have a recipe for what I call the “Global Questioning Crisis.”

As adults, many leaders perpetuate this answer-centric culture, playing it safe as they get things done. But, based on my research and firsthand conversations with the most renowned leaders of our time, high-impact innovators know that they must question to disrupt, or risk being disrupted. As such, they sustain this critical skillset, not just by asking more questions, but by identifying the “hot” questions – ones that are provocative, emotional and downright uncomfortable – while also encouraging those around them to be passionate about the same. Finally, they actively pursue answers to these hot questions by leveraging several key discovery skills – observing, networking, experimenting, and associational thinking.

For these leaders, questioning is not a means to an end, but the creative intersection where a whole new solution – an innovative moment of truth – can catch fire.

Leading through questions

Every year, Cedar Citrus, a co-op citrus farm in South Africa owned by ALG Estates, received frequent visits from a troop of baboons even though the fruit was not yet ripened. Strangley, the baboons tended to frequent one tree more than any other. One year, instead of grumbling about the pestering baboons, Andries Fickster, a worker on the farm, asked, “Why do the baboons keep coming back to this one tree?” He knew even the hungriest baboons were picky eaters and would not eat sour fruit so he compared the fruit to the trees around it. Although the skin was green, the fruit inside was ripe and sweet. Fickster brought this knowledge to the owners, Alwyn and Gerrit van der Merwe and, instead of ripping out the tree to get rid of the raiding baboons, they asked, “How can we use this?”

Ultimately, the van der Merwe brothers learned the particular tree the baboons were visiting had genetic mutations, causing the fruit to ripen two weeks earlier than all other trees. On top of that, the fruit was much sweeter than the other available fruit. Through this simple question and knowledge transfer between leaders and employees, Cedar Citrus was able to capitalize on the early-ripening trees and double its yearly production.

In a totally different industry, A.G. Lafley, now chairman and chief executive officer of Procter & Gamble (PG), was similarly inspired by one question: “What delights our customers?” In search of an answer, he visited various countries, stores and homes to observe and listen to consumers so he could see firsthand what made them happy today and what might delight them tomorrow. This stockpile of consumer insights would play a critical role when he became P&G’s CEO, revitalizing the company under a “consumer is boss” mantra and introducing several innovative new brands like Swiffer and Febreze – while continuing to focus on consumer favorites like Tide.


The danger of “being too comfortable”

Have you asked or been asked an uncomfortable question from a direct report or distant employee in the past week? If the answer is “no,” you may be missing critical information that could help put you one step ahead of the competition.

Consider the photography world, where questions have played a pivotal force for the past century. The question, “Why can’t I see the picture right away?” from his young daughter reportedly inspired Edwin Land to create the Polaroid camera, removing the “waiting game” from traditional film development. As digital photography disrupted the industry, Fujifilm, Nikon, Sony (SNE) and others continuously asked themselves how they could continue to improve the landscape. They answered this question with constant innovations over the years, from face detection to in-camera red-eye fixes. But struggling Kodak, which ironically invented the digital category, asked too few questions to better achieve the digital and social media synergies behind consumer photography too late. Had Kodak’s leaders ratcheted up their discomfort level by asking and receiving more challenging questions from others, the company may well have sustained its legacy as a key industry player.

As the wild terrain we’re walking into grows more complex by the day, creating the right conditions for ourselves and others to ask the right questions is critical to unlocking new solutions, in work and in life. Failing to do so stunts our institutional, governmental, organizational and personal growth.

To view the full Innovator’s DNA video series, click here.

Hal Gregersen is executive director of the MIT Leadership Center and a senior lecturer in leadership and innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He is the author The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators and founder of The 4-24 Project.