By Jill J. Johnson
The foundation of effective strategic thinking and strategy development is knowing how to ask the right questions. Learning to ask the right questions can be difficult because most people only know how to ask superficial questions that require easy answers. Asking challenging questions allows you to be more impactful in critical situations, have a greater influence on outcomes, and help your organization achieve greater results.
Ask Questions That Matter
The level of uncertainty in today’s business climate is driving major challenges for most leaders. To be an effective leader, you must fully understand the overall strategic goals of your enterprise and key leadership. Use these goals as the framework to align your thinking.
Understand the critical market forces impacting your business strategies so you can determine the questions to answer. What critical market forces are at play in your industry? Are there forces evolving around you that have the potential to impact your survival or growth opportunities?
Consider what it will take to grow revenue, expand profitability, improve job satisfaction, enhance productivity, or increase customer retention. How does each of these areas impact the questions you should consider? Structure your questions to challenge the critical issues impacting your ability to achieve these goals.
Three Critical Categories of Questions
There are three categories of questions to evaluate when focusing on strategic thinking. These questions allow you to scan the various elements impacting your enterprise. They include reviewing what is going on internally in your organization, exploring external market forces creating new challenges or opportunities, and a review of your organizational relationships.
Here are some examples of the types of questions to consider for each level:
Internal Scan: Ask detailed questions about your customers and their evolving needs.
- What is the impact of your ownership, culture, and stage of your business life cycle?
- Where are the sources of your profitability and capital resources?
- What are your leadership capabilities?
- How deep is the expertise of your team?
Make sure you fully understand the key strategies of your organization and the opportunities you have to implement them.
External Scan: Consider the impact of various market forces on your target market and opportunities.
- What is happening demographically?
- How is your competition influencing your target market’s expectations on service, cost, and quality?
- What generational influences impact your ability to compete for your customers?
- What are the risks of remaining status quo?
Relationship Scan: Consider the status of the strategic relationships and partnerships you and your enterprise have developed.
- How do they impact your opportunities and create new challenges?
- Can you tap into other resources they offer or leverage them to achieve your goals?
- What are your internal relationships and how can you use them to impact success?
Constructing Your Strategic Questions
Focus your consideration of the questions on the key components impacting your enterprise growth or survival. Your questions should follow the format of who, what, where, when, why, and how. They should be action-oriented. As you answer them, they should provide clarity to your strategic direction and focus. This will guide you into areas needing more research.
Align your questions to address critical business issues. Your questions should help clarify the most critical priorities for your organization. Break these into levels of importance: top, short-term, and ongoing. Also consider the time-horizon for the impact: short-term, mid-term, or long-term.
By understanding the time priorities, you can categorize your strategic questions to align them with the key external market forces impacting your ability to achieve your goals. Aligning your questions with the external market forces provides you with a deeper level of critical thinking. As you elevate your critical thinking, you can link questions to impact your overall enterprise strategies.
Make sure your questions require some research or reflection. Questions that elicit a “yes” or “no” response are not strategic. Ask provocative questions to encourage deeper thinking. This will bring a higher level of critical thinking to your planning. If your team cannot ask tough enough questions, find an outside advisor or consultant who can provide insight.
Getting Answers to Improve Your Strategic Insight
Often you will have to do some research before you can develop your questions. Think of this as your homework. The right preparation ensures that you will ask better questions. Look to industry associations as a good starting source for insight about emerging issues and challenges. Study how your competitors tackle challenging market forces.
Consider your options for obtaining the information that will allow you to confidently address your questions. Outside resources can be an objective source of obtaining information. If you keep this research role internal, work carefully to minimize any bias you might inject into it.
Identify the key metrics you should be monitoring by analyzing industry data. Tie your questions to what improves or impacts each of these metrics. Your questions should consider what impacts your profit margin, return on capital employed, return on investment, and return on assets. If you don’t understand these terms, learn more about them.
You will never have all the available data to answer all your questions. The goal is to obtain enough data to make reasonable judgments or clarify the next layer of questions.
Asking questions that matter will build your confidence, and others will be more open to work with you. Learning to ask challenging questions allows you to be more impactful in critical situations, have an influence on outcomes, and help achieve greater results. Thinking strategically is a skill set you must actively work at trying to improve. Find resources to help you learn and practice your critical thinking skills. Building your strategic mindset takes time, discipline, and focus.
What critical questions do you need to ask to improve your business?
Jill J. Johnson is the president and founder of Johnson Consulting Services, an accomplished speaker, an award-winning management consultant, and the author of the bestselling book Compounding Your Confidence. Jill helps her clients make critical business decisions and develop market-based strategic plans for turnarounds or growth. For more information, please visit www.jcs-usa.com.