Answering the big questions to transformation

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Written by Jessica Gregson, Partner, Subsector

We like answers, don’t we?

Individuals and organisations are prone to wanting solutions quickly. We want to move onto the next thing. We want to fail-fast so we can get to the next test.

Solutions seem highly prized – strategy and process easily forgotten.

In our day to day business, as an organisation who help to set the focus for innovation and transformation programmes, we are often asked to help to rectify unsuccessful projects that are the victims of what I call ‘solution-syndrome.’ The treatment has been decided before the problem is even diagnosed.

Here are a few examples, some might sound familiar:

  • The Board of Directors has decided on a set of priorities without any input from the people that the strategy might aim to serve.
  • Answers sought quickly are based on series upon series of assumptions, which ladder-up to a solution aimed at somewhere far north of the truth.
  • Specific initiatives have become the darlings of ‘noisier’ people in the organisation, inevitably teams rally around them and so they appear to be a ‘good idea’
  • Solutions are ‘customer-centric’ but bare no relation to the organisations own goals.

In each case, the initiatives designed in these circumstances find themselves in a solution ‘rut’; sunk costs see them continued despite no obvious results, there is no evidence to suggest the next move, test after test is carried out to no clear end or the inconvenience of changing tactic creates inertia and/or frustration.

In our bid to move to a solution, we forget about a critical component of making decisions about change. The process by which we decide what to change. The reflection on how we make decisions and how we identify the things that will have an impact.

Solving problems like ‘what is the future of our organisation’ or ‘where do we spend thousands (or millions) on innovation’ is not an easy task. The success of large consultancies (and of smaller, more nimble versions, like us) demonstrates this for me. I expect most leaders, behind closed doors, are intimidated by having those questions to answer and so they should be – decisions on things like this have far-reaching implications and are often costly to get wrong.

Despite the risks, I find myself constantly surprised that organisations resist ‘the question-end’ of this process, even when that can be condensed down into 4 weeks. They want answers… even faster.

The opposite of answers is?

There’s lots of discussion about great questions and I won’t be the first to write about this here.

The inconvenient truth is that you can’t provide a great answer (effective, relevant, impactful) without the right question – or you can, but that is the result of luck, not expertise and it’s not reliable, repeatable or scalable.

At Subsector, we talk about helping people to make sure they are ‘answering the right exam question’ before they pour budget, time, energy into their response. The opposite (great response, wrong question) is a fabulous recipe for wasting many of the things listed above.

So how do you identify the right questions?

During my career in digital agencies, sadly we often faced solutions coming first and maybe for a time this didn’t matter so much. A platform became part of the answer, new technology could pass as innovation, reach and numbers might have been deemed to be successful results.

As a Consultant helping organisations respond to transformation, change and growth needs, this approach definitely wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) cut the mustard.

As a digital leader, you might already have worked out that great questions are born out of great processes. Great questions come from using smart methods for understanding complex information and being able to process it in a way that helps you to see the situation in a much clearer way.

Fortunately, there are myriad of tools & methods that almost anyone can pick up and learn to use in order to mine their organisations for great questions. If you have not tried following a structured, proven process in order to respond to complex questions, then I suggest you do. We believe the critical components of the process should be:

  • It should help you to balance the needs of people and the organisation. Serving one not the other is a recipe for disaster.
  • It is evidence-driven. Evidence beats opinion. Spend a little extra time getting it upfront, it will save you time & money down the line.
  • It should help you to reduce bias. It should be sophisticated enough to stop you ‘gaming’ the answer.
  • It must help you to prioritise. Questions are not all equal, you must work out which one has the most value.
  • It should be rapid and allow you to test with more certainty. Loads of tests are fine, but costly – narrow down what to test first and then experiment to your heart’s content.

What complex question are you facing? “What’s the future of your organisation?” “What are the features of our new product or service?” “Where should we innovate? What should our proposition be?” There’s every chance it’s a chunky, and perhaps intimidating problem to solve.

I implore you, next time you’re asked a big question resist the urge to answer (even in part) until you have fully interrogated this question. Avoid solution-syndrome. Try not to decide what comes next until you are confident it’s the right question, that you are addressing the right part and spend (even just a little) time understanding the decision making process you are going through. Try something new and enjoy the process, it’s often more valuable than the answer.


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