The Surprising Power of Questions

Did you know that asking questions is a skill that can be honed?

Have you ever thought about the benefits of using questions skillfully at work?

What do you think might be the top five reasons to improve your ability to ask – and answer – questions in the workplace?

Sorry to pepper you with so many questions, but what better way to launch into a post about “The Surprising Power of Questions”? (Oops, I did it again!)

An excellent “Managing Yourself” feature in the 2018 May/June issue of the Harvard Business Review by Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John provides the answers to these and other thought-provoking questions.

First, the benefits to skillfully asking (and answering) questions at work:

  • Unlocking hidden value
  • Spurring learning and the exchange of information
  • Fueling innovation and better performance
  • Building trust among team members
  • Mitigating risk by uncovering unseen pitfalls and hazards

So, the benefits are abundant. How do we go about enhancing the power and efficacy of inquiries?  Authors Brooks and John, both professors at Harvard Business School, provide in-depth answers to this question, including a handy chart for both competitive and cooperative conversations. They include common challenges and tactics for handling questions in both types of exchanges.

For example, what to do when a conversational partner is reluctant to share information or may be tempted to lie? They advise:

  • Ask direct “yes or no” questions to avoid evasive answers.
  • Ask detailed follow-up questions to pry out more information.
  • Frame tough questions using pessimistic assumptions to reduce the likelihood that the respondents will lie.
  • Ask the most sensitive question first. Subsequent questions will feel less intrusive, making your partner more forthcoming.

What about when you’re the one in the hot seat? Here are some tactics that everyone could benefit from remembering:

  • Avoid droning on and on. Use energy, humor and storytelling to engage others.
  • Avoid talking too much about yourself and remember to ask questions of others.
  • Deflect tough questions by answering with another question or a joke (if appropriate).

“A conversation is a dance that requires partners to be in sync—it’s a mutual push-and-pull that unfolds over time. Just as the way we ask questions can facilitate trust and the sharing of information—so, too, can the way we answer them,” they note.

Deciding what to share and what to keep private is another important aspect of answering questions in the office (or anywhere else for that matter). I was interested to learn that people “too often err on the side of privacy—and under appreciate the benefits of transparency. Sharing information helps to build trust and keeping secrets depletes us cognitively, interferes with our ability to concentrate and remember things, and even harms our long-term health and well-being,” according to the authors.

All the above reminds me of a great question at our last all company meeting.  One of our senior consultants asked a solid question that I, later, realized many others were thinking.  I gave my best answer at the time which turns out was wrong.  Albert Einstein apparently once said, “Question Everything.” I might add: “Answer questions as completely and honestly as you possibly can.”

The above said, if we’ve answered questions completely and honestly and are wrong, the next steps are to own it, state incorrect assumptions, and share an updated best answer.

Workplace Freedom Yields Engaged Employees

Freedom is a big deal in America. People fight, and even die, for the right to be free.

But what about at work?

Isn’t work the antithesis of freedom? We’re supposed to show up and do what we’re told. If that sounds like an antiquated idea, you might be surprised to learn that it’s still the modus operandi in a majority of U.S. companies according to Harvard Business School professor Ranjay Gulati in a recent HBR article, “Structure That’s Not Stifling”  (May/June 2018).

Gulati’s thesis: “Most leaders view employee freedom and operational control as antagonists in a tug-of-war that can have only one winner. So they tend to pour their resources into regulating workers’ behavior – often unknowingly putting a damper on commitment, innovation and performance. . . By giving people a clear sense of the organization’s purpose, priorities and principles—that is, a galvanizing framework—leaders can equip them to make autonomous decisions that are in the company’s best interests. Employees should be involved in identifying and articulating those guidelines.”

Rarely do I hit upon a single article that so neatly lines up with my own perspective, but if you’ve read my book “The 100: Building Blocks of Business Leadership” you know how much I value employee freedom. We also have evolved systems – annual employee town hall meetings, open door policies, and regular communication that reinforces our values — to ensure that freedom is governed by a flexible framework in which our people have a large say.

From giving our people freedom to decide when, where and how they get their work done, to ensuring all team members have access to resources to keep growing their skills and moving their careers in the direction they choose, Intertech is all about employee empowerment.  As a leader, this empowerment results in freedom.

But freedom at work also means freedom to think. Professor Gulati defines freedom at work as “trusting employees to think and act independently on behalf of the organization. It may also include allowing them to find fulfillment and express themselves.”

As social media empowers people to express themselves, an expectation for more autonomy at work naturally results. And as a business owner, I would argue that’s a good thing! Employees who know it’s OK – and even encouraged – to make decisions on their own tend to be more engaged, energized and productive. Sadly, I appear to be in the minority according to Gulati’s research.

He references earlier Harvard researchers that advised, “Companies need to shift to a model built on engaging corporate purpose, effective management processes that encourage individual initiative, and a people policy focused on developing employees’ capabilities rather than on monitoring their behavior.”  (“Changing the Role of Top Management: Beyond Systems to People,” HBR, May-June 1995). Gulati shares that 23 years since that original article was published in HBR, a majority of U.S. companies still embrace the old control and command model

Maybe my ability to give more control to employees stems from how I was raised.

Growing up on a farm, my folks believed we should be encouraged to make decisions and to act upon them, even if that meant sometimes making a mistake.

I’ll never forget the day I sheared the axel on our family truck because I was revving the truck while parking brake was engaged. Rather than giving me the devil, my dad just smiled and said, “If you never do anything, you’ll never make a mistake.”

In that moment I learned to stop fearing mistakes and to trust myself to make decisions and to act. I urge you to give your employees a flexible structure that emphasizes what matters in the big picture, then stepping out of their way and letting them reach organizational goals in the ways that make most sense to them.

It’s the only way they – and your organization – will ever get anything done!

9-to-5 in 2018: Surprising research about women in the workplace

Dabney Coleman, as the dastardly boss, in the old movie “9-to-5” exhibited all the worse behavior that men can use to make women miserable at work. Way before the #MeToo movement, which focuses exclusively on sexual misconduct, Coleman’s character also brazenly stole the good ideas of the women around him and made sure to “keep them in their place” to ensure his own dominance.

As an entrepreneur running a business in the 21st century – and the father of a whip smart young daughter with infinite potential – I’m committed to running a work place and helping to build a world where “gender equality” is more than just an HR catch phrase.

Achieving something approaching gender balance has become an important goal at Intertech. It’s challenging, in part because women in computer science has been on a decline since the 1980’s.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics and other institutions or studies, as a percentage, the computer science degrees granted to women is in the upper teens.  We’re not willing to use that excuse, though, and have begun looking for ways to actively encourage women IT professionals to apply. I’m also proud that the Intertech Foundation STEM scholarship has been awarded to prom ising young women three out of the four times since we founded the scholarship in 2015.

These are good things, but it’s more than just ethics or political correctness inspiring us to push for gender equity. Common sense tells us that women bring new ideas and approaches to problem solving – or do they? An intriguing and, frankly, surprising article (“What Most People Get Wrong about Men and Women” in Harvard Business Review (May/June 2018) shares the well-researched thesis that “Research shows the sexes aren’t so different.”

Huh?

Besides our obvious biological differences, Georgetown University professor Catherine H. Tinsly and Harvard Business School professor Robin J. Ely write that so-called “gender differences” at work are really the amalgam of popular myths. “Women lack the desire or ability to negotiate.” “Women lack confidence.” “Women lack an appetite for risk.” These and other popular myths are neatly demystified in this excellent article, which also exposes the real reasons women do not advance at the same rate as men in many industries.

As the old comic character Pogo once commented, “We have found the enemy and it is us.” This is not to say that all men are the equivalent of the sexist doofus in 9-to-5, but the research is indisputably clear that myths about women often turn into self-fulfilling prophesies that leave women behind as their male colleagues.

“The problem with the sex-difference narrative is that it leads companies into ‘fixing’ women, which means that women miss out on what they need  — and what every employee deserves: a context that enables them to reach their potential and maximizes their chances to succeed,” the HBR authors.

They recommend four steps for actively advancing gender equity and the advancement of women in the workplace:

  1. Question the narrative: Reject simplistic statements, such as “women lack fire in their belly” to explain why fewer women are in senior leadership positions within your firm.
  2. Generate a plausible alternative explanation: Instead of blaming women, look for alternative reasons such as different access to the conditions that enhance self-confidence and success (such as mentors).
  3. Change the context and assess the results: Treat women the same way you treat “star players” and watch how they perform. The results might (happily) surprise you.
  4. Promote continual learning: As leaders, we need to keep learning to recognize our own unconscious stereotypes. It helps to continually questions assumptions and proactively change conditions to give more women the opportunity to develop and shine.

As the authors conclude, “The solution to women’s lagged advancement is not to fix women or their managers but to fix the conditions that undermine women and reinforce gender stereotypes. Furthermore, by taking an inquisitive, evidence-based approach to understanding behavior, companies can not only address gender disparities but also cultivate a learning orientation and a culture that gives all employees the opportunity to reach their full potential.”

This approach might not make a great movie plot, but it might just win applause from your employees, customers and community.

Father’s Day

There’s been a lot of talk in Minnesota and the country about “inappropriate behavior” by high-profile men that many of us previously admired for their leadership, creativity and contributions to our culture or government. But when the “icky” news began to break, we suddenly thought about those men differently. Their legacies will not make their children proud.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my dad recently. Maybe it’s because of the recent Father’s Day or the fact that dad’s been gone for seven years. He never met my children, the eldest of whom is named for him. Sometimes it’s frustrating because I can’t ask dad for advice or share my proud papa stories with him. Although my mom is always there — and I appreciate that immensely – there’s just something about the father/son relationship that mothers and sons cannot replicate.

My dad, Theodore Salonek, was not a high-profile guy. And he certainly was not the sort of man who ever would have made headlines for inappropriate behavior. But the older I get, the more I realize how much I learned from watching him – and what a first class man he was.

Theodore was a hardworking farmer with five kids. Like many small family farmers, we had some tough times during the ‘80s. That didn’t stop dad from helping others in small and big ways. For example, I remember him “rounding up” when paying hired hands that he knew were down on their luck, giving food to people in need (including a divorced man, which was considered shocking at the time) and continually taking the time to visit an alcoholic who was struggling in rehab. Even when this man let dad down, dad continued to help him and give him opportunities to make good.

I learned a lot about being a person and a father from observing how dad treated others. On holidays, our home was always a place for “stragglers” who lacked a place to go. He and mom would set extra plates on the table at Christmas and Easter for people without family.  As a kid, I didn’t really appreciate these people being with us on holidays. But now, looking back, I can see what a powerful lesson we received about kindness and generosity.

My dad didn’t believe in making a fuss about his acts of kindness. He just did things because he felt they were the right things to do. While the “Bachelor Farmer” is the name of a restaurant today, dad regularly drove two local bachelor farmers who were older and couldn’t drive to countless doctor appointments. And when my grandpa (dad’s father-in-law) had colon cancer and was bed ridden, dad somehow found the money to purchase a washer and dryer so grandma could wash grandpa’s garments. Little things I suppose by today’s standards, but their impact was substantial for the people who benefitted from his generosity. They made a huge impact on me.

One of the best things I ever did was invite my dad to join me for annual weeklong fishing trips before he died in a farming accident in late 2010. I learned more about him on those trips than I did in 18 years of growing up on the farm. His unfailing ability to see the best in others and in difficult situations was remarkable. He looked for the positives in life and he loved people. When we would travel, dad liked to chat it up with people we’d meet along the way. It was rare to see him talk to someone for any period of time and not see them smiling or laughing and patting him on the back.

Now we live in a time when so many men, in public life anyway, seem to be the polar opposite of men like my dad. Humility is out and grandiosity is in. Kindness is naive and personal greed is king. Caring for family, neighbors and friends is a quaint relic of previous generations. Men who are known for their callous treatment of women and disregard for business associates and constituents have been elevated to the highest levels of society.

I hope my son and daughter are too young to notice these men. I hope my efforts to follow my dad’s example (and the parenting by their wonderful mother!) will be enough to offset the corrosive effect of growing up in a world so different from the one my parents created for me.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.  You may be gone, but your proud legacy never will be forgotten.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Get Agile and Get Farther Faster

Those of us in IT have been using “agile,” a flexible methodology that improves software development, for quite some time. We like agile because it speeds up the development process and a whole lot more. So I suppose it was only a matter of time before smart business leaders realized the potential of agile to help other parts of their organizations to quickly adapt to changing conditions.

That’s the topic of the current Harvard Business Review cover story, “Agile at Scale: How to create a truly flexible organization” by Darrell K. Rigby, author of Winning in Turbulence; Jeff Sutherland, a co-creator of the scrum form of agile innovation; and Andy Noble, a partner in the consulting firm Bain & Company. It’s a good read and a terrific overview of how hundreds of companies are working now to integrate agile principles into their operations – from startups to multinational corporations.

What’s happening with agile now reminds me of the Wild West days of the Internet and, later, that other amazing innovation we all take granted today: websites and e-commerce. As organizations sought to harness those tremendous new technologies to reach suppliers, potential employees and, most importantly, customers and prospects, there were missteps, miscalculations and missed opportunities. There were also incredible winners and innovators that evolved “e-commerce” into today’s brave new world of The Internet of Things (IoT) and even Artificial Intelligence (AI).

The authors of the HBR cover story have studied the scaling up of agile at hundreds of U.S. companies. Or, as they describe it, “To go from a handful of agile innovation teams in a function like software development to scores, even hundreds, throughout a company—to make agile the dominant way you operate.”

They describe the challenges as “figuring out where to start and how fast and far to go, deciding which functions can and should be converted to agile teams and which should not, and preventing slow-moving bureaucracies from impeding those that do convert.”

Ah, yes, the challenges of learning to walk before we run.  Always a daunting challenge and yet the rewards of agile are numerous and well-documented: “higher team morale and productivity, faster time to market, better quality and lower risk than possible with traditional approaches.” Agile companies also stay closer to customers and adapt more quickly to changing conditions.

While I cannot begin to capture all the good information and advice in this article, here’s a quick snapshot of some of the key principles the authors recommend for building agility across a business:

  • Apply agile values and principles throughout the entire organization to ensure progress not partisan gridlock between agile workers and those still operating under the older “traditional” modes of operation.
  • Workstreams should be modularized and then seamlessly integrated.
  • Develop systems for acquiring star players and motivating them to make teams better.
  • Combine your annual budgeting process with a venture-capital-like approach. Sticking to a strict annual budget process is the kiss of death for new ideas and approaches!

That’s a lot to digest. But, in a nutshell, think about agile implementations like an unfolding Slinky: unfolding one link at a time until the entire spiral is engaged. Just make sure it doesn’t develop a kink – like bureaucratic systems that resist innovation – or the Slinky will stop dead in its tracks.

Why go slow if agile promises big benefits?

“Big-bang transitions are hard. It’s often better to roll out agile in sequenced steps, with each unit matching the implementation of opportunities to its capabilities,” note HBR’s distinguished experts.

But don’t go too slow or you might just miss the agile revolution.  Remember Friendster, Napster or Netscape? Don’t worry, neither does anyone else.