INNOVATE

How to Ask Better Questions

You may have what sounds like the best idea in the world. But before you do anything else, try to poke as many holes in it as you can.
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Some newfangled ideas are just too tempting to pass up. So entrepreneurs and managers rush to jump on them. Never mind asking key questions like, "How exactly will this work?" and "What do we want to accomplish?"

Take C&A Brazil, a South American clothing store that recently launched an interesting marketing campaign. Customers can go to a special collection online and press a Facebook "like" button on specific articles of clothing. The votes get tallied and are displayed in real time on the hangers of the items in the company's São Paulo flagship store.

It's a clever idea that has received a lot of press. But it's also the type of idea that could trip the company into making a bad decision. Tying fashion to fast-moving popularity votes could artificially drive sales to the more favored items without allowing merchandise buyers adequate time to react and adjust inventory levels. Maybe it's something to do only for a short time, in which case the company must justify the cost of implementing the technology for limited use.

The Basis for Good Decisions

The impulse to want to innovate and run the organization more effectively is a good one. However, it can break down early on if no one is asking good questions. Unless you ask the right questions, based on what you're really trying to achieve, the results may be a waste of money, time, and, worst of all, the "willingness" capital of employees to work hard and make something new a success.

A great example of the phenomenon is chronicled in the 2003 book by Michael Lewis, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. On the surface about baseball, it's really about business and the irrational way in which people make decisions.

Many who came up traditionally in the game would resolutely look at the statistics they had learned to follow, such as runs batted in and number of home runs. But it turns out that those statistics weren't the ones that would statistically lead to winning games.

Far more important were numbers like the percentage of times batters would actually get on base. That's because to win games, you need to have people in position to score runs and you also have to reduce the number of outs you make, because reaching three outs ends your turn at bat and completely resets your attempt to score more runs. For years, people running baseball franchises were looking at the wrong numbers because they hadn't closely examined the connections between what those numbers meant and what they were paid to accomplish.

How to Ask Better Questions

The right questions will change, depending on the company and circumstances. But here are some general ones to modify for your deliberations:

  • What is our corporate strategy goal in undertaking this initiative?
  • How would the initiative positively and negatively affect marketing, operations, finance, and other specific aspects of the business?
  • Are there legal, regulatory, or contractual implications?
  • What resources are necessary to make this work?
  • What are the hard benefits to which we can put a dollar sign?
  • Do the hard benefits at least pay for the initiative?
  • What are the soft benefits?
  • What are the pessimistic, realistic, and optimistic projections for success?

Success is never a given, but you're more likely to find it when you look the right way, and that means asking the right questions up front.

IMAGE: Flickr/Novartis AG
Last updated: May 16, 2012

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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