The intersection of innovation, performance and culture

Leigh Morgan, social enterprise expert and executive in residence at Nia Tero, outlines why business leaders should empower employees to ask insightful questions about any topic – without fear of how anyone might perceive those questions

15Mar

In today's corporate climate, it can be difficult to balance technological innovation with ethical responsibilities.

Finding that happy medium is so tricky that Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple and IBM have joined forces to improve their respective track records in this regard. The group has created a Partnership for AI to Benefit People and Society to think about, address, and – most importantly – ask the critical questions to help strike that balance.

Solving such dilemmas boil down to being humble and brave enough to ask hard-hitting, sometimes obvious, 'crucible' questions. Think about the times that you have been in a meeting when suddenly everyone in the room is struck by one of those "aha" moments. Most likely, those moments were preceded by someone asking an insightful question.

I'll wager that, like me, you can count on one hand the number of times those situations happened. Why is that? And what is the relationship to asking simple, obvious questions? The world needs more of these crucible moments, and leaders play an important role in setting the right tone for their organizations.

Isn't it obvious?

Sometimes it can feel impossible for team members to ask crucible questions.

For some organizations, workplace culture inhibits the free flow of information necessary for innovation and growth. The main driver of this reluctance typically is low trust, which can fuel fear and an unwillingness to speak up or be authentic in the workplace. Have you ever been in a meeting and had an important question you wanted to ask, but you chose to remain silent out of concern for how you might be perceived or fear that your question would not be heard?

Fear of speaking up in the workplace is common – most notably among women, people of color, and non-native English speakers. A joint study by the University of Glasgow and My Confidence Matters reported that 75% of women don't feel confident at work.

Innovative, high-trust organizations, on the other hand, inspire the opposite: They enable open dialogues and the untethered exchange of diverse ideas and perspectives. Crucible questions emerge when employees at all levels feel empowered to speak up and share their curiosity with others.

Challenging the status quo

When it comes to driving innovation and improving performance, leaders must understand and optimize the level of trust in the organization and balance focus on technical issues alongside organizational culture.

The phrase "when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail" explains the difficulty of balancing technical issues with the harder-to-solve problems related to culture and innovation. The hammer is equivalent to an area of expertise a leader might possess – for example, scientists and technologists tend to bring an analytical, rational-based approach to solving problems. They often ask insightful questions about data and think through organizational issues rationally.

While domain expertise and a rational approach can be helpful, asking an irrational question can give leaders important insight into hard issues. Questions like: "What would it take to get us more aligned across the department?", "Why have our strategies not worked as well as we thought?" or "What am I doing to contribute to this hard dilemma?". These are great examples of crucible questions.

But getting employees to ask an irrational question – or an obvious one – won't be easy in a low-trust culture. In an organization where questions are shut down, innovation becomes obsolete.

At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, employee engagement scores indicated that employees were sometimes hesitant to provide candid feedback or share information across silos. In response, my team led efforts to engage employees across the organization to identify strategies to improve four key elements: Respect, trust, transparency and energy. While there is still work to be done, the foundation's culture efforts resulted in improved employee engagement and better cross-foundation collaboration.

Once these changes are complete, your organization is ready to encourage employees to ask the right questions. Here are three questions people should learn to ask:

1. Are we aligned on this? One of the most important things a leader does is align employees, customers and partners around a shared vision of success. A simple tool to help this is to ask "Are we aligned on this?" when a decision needs to be made. A lack of alignment must be addressed to establish a shared vision of success.

2. Out of all these issues, which is most important, and why? C-suite leaders juggle myriad priorities on any given day. To be effective, we need to focus on a critical few issues that are most relevant to the organization, mission and strategy. Proactively engaging your team, board and external partners about their priorities can help clarify where to focus your time and energy. A leader may disagree with input but asking this question in multiple settings will help illuminate important patterns and themes.

3. Why does this seem so hard? I can vividly recall feeling confused about the topics of discussion during an annual strategy meeting with the Gates Foundation back in 2016. I struggled to track the main ideas of the presentation and questions came rapid-fire and from around the room. I assumed I was the only one who wasn't following – then Melinda Gates calmly said, "We need to understand the main problem we are trying to solve." Her crucible question was obvious, but it nailed a core issue that was causing confusion.

Asking obvious, crucible questions like these should be a task for your entire organization. Leaders, however, are accountable for modeling qualities like humility, openness and curiosity. These qualities are the core ingredients of good questions. Team members and employees at all levels watch how leaders behave and this behavior sends powerful signals about what is (and what is not) acceptable.

Navigating thorny, organizational issues is difficult enough when you're not asking the right questions. Create a culture where employees at all levels feel empowered to ask insightful questions about any topic, and then watch your innovation soar.


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