Ask a silly question, get a winning answer – how reframing unlocks insight

Questions. One of those deceptively simple words that punches way above it’s length or dry definition. One of my favourite coaches, the inimitable Terry Russell, calls words like these ‘fat words’ because they contain so much more possibility than their superficial delivery or appearance.

The W questions are great examples of how simple questions can quickly provide insight and help reframe activity.

  • What are we trying to do?
  • Why is it important/urgent?
  • Who is responsible for making this happen?
  • When do we need to have this done by?

Whatever W’s you employ, questioning is vital in any exercise to explore possibility because asking the ‘right’ question is a superb mechanism to unlock perspective, break down constrained thinking and challenge assumptions.

The ability of a simple question to reframe and inspire – to change how something is perceived, considered or evaluated makes it one of the most powerful tools in reframing strategy. Why are those three elements desirable in reframing ? Because they require people to engage in what’s possible, rather than remain blinkered in a world of closed options.

Reframing something through asking the right questions is fantastically valuable because it opens up perspective to consider challenges in a different light.

For example, consider the apocryphal story of how NASA spent billions of dollars developing space pens versus the Russians who just used pencils. Maybe if someone had asked “how can we make marks on surfaces in space” rather than “how can we get a pen to write in space”, resources wouldn’t have been wasted on the engineering challenges of getting ink to flow in zero-g.

One of my mentors once explained the practice of strategy consulting to me as “getting paid to ask questions that no one inside the business would, to get the answers everyone inside the business already knows”. (He also went on to say the reason consultants get paid so highly is because they take the blame for management executing poorly on the answers the consultant ‘found’ for them – but that’s another story).

He convinced me that asking a question in an as least constrained way as possible reaps big benefits. Those sorts of questions are often the ones that seem silly to insiders but are worth unpacking to force some disciplined thinking.

One of his favourites (derived from Roger Martin’s Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works) is:

“What Must Be True for [the solution] to be possible?”

Rather than think about how do we solve this problem, think what would we have to be true to make the end state possible.

Matthew May recounts an excellent story on this topic in his post what is your winning aspiration :

The 2007 launch of the 2008 Chevy Malibu was to be a key strategic move for GM. The previous version, the 2007 Malibu sold 60,000 units at retail that year.

[Roger Martin] asked the team in the Fall of 2006 a key question: “What is our aspiration for this launch? What do we really want the 2008 Malibu to do for GM?”

Answer: “120,000 units.”

“The Malibu competes against the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, right?” asked Roger. “How many Camries and Accords were sold at retail this year?”

Answer: “560,000 Camries. 440,000 Accords.”

“So let me get this straight,” Roger began. “Our aspiration is to go from selling 1/10 as many as the category winner to selling 1/5 as many? Do I have that right?”

Silence. Then, grumbles…”not how we think about it” responses from the management team.

“Well, that’s how I think about it,” replied Roger. “The Camry is bang-on direct competitor and your highest aspiration is get to a fifth of their volume with as big or bigger dealer network.”

That is not winning. That is lowering the bar to declare victory.

That simple question of aspiration, reframed for context, opened up an entirely new perspective and ultimately unlocked a radical shift in the quality and sales volume of the product. By challenging the team to answer “what would have to change for the Malibu to be a serious competitor selling 10 times the previous model”, Roger changed the way the team thought and provoked a step change in product quality. Now that’s the power of reframing.