Get Your C-Suite to Lead with Questions, Not Answers

Photo by Andrew Beeston

Photo by Andrew Beeston

The other day a client asked for advice about how his COO and CEO could support innovation. They already have an innovation strategy, a team, a budget and a place to collaborate. The truth is, senior leaders often feel at sea when leading innovation, and why shouldn’t they? Very few senior executives have training or experience at innovation, design, or entrepreneurship.

The first step in setting your C-Suite up for success is to help them adopt the right mindset. The leadership behaviors they exhibit in managing the Core Business do not translate naturally to innovation.

Core Business Goal: Execute today’s promise  Behaviors: confidence + certainty + consistency

Innovation Goal: Explore future possibilities  Behaviors:confidence + curiosity + courage

Look at the contrast: Instead of certainty, they will need to show curiosity – the curiosity to learn in-market. Instead of consistency, they will need to show courage – the courage to pivot. I wouldn’t recommend giving your C-Suite this list of abstract concepts, of course. Instead, next time they ask, “How can I help?” you could answer by recommending a specific behavior:

 “Lead with questions, not answers.”

Why? To embody curiosity, it is important to ask questions. Not fearful questions such as, “How big is the market?” or “What is the ROI?” when the team hasn’t even defined the offering yet. Instead, you’ll want to encourage senior leaders to learn enough about the innovation process to ask appropriate questions that support your activities, such as:

  • What are the key assumptions you plan to test?
  • When will customers see the first prototypes?
  • What did customers say about the first prototypes?
  • What obstacles are you running into? Can I help remove any of them?
  • How is your team feeling about this opportunity? (since much of your exploration is to inform your gut feeling)

I’ve taught versions of these powerful questions to senior executives at several admired firms, and the results have been powerful and lasting. Everyone learns from the exchanges that follow.

What are some other questions that support innovation? I'd love to hear your thoughts.