A Beginner’s Mind
by: Lynda McNutt Foster
My first job, outside of my family’s art business, was when I was 16 and working at Bojangles. I remember trying to solve a problem with customer flow. I asked my supervisor when I was working on the line dishing out chicken, beans, and dirty rice, why we did it in the order we were doing it in. I thought maybe it could be more efficient if we changed things slightly as it might make the line go faster when we were really busy and customers were waiting. My supervisor slammed down her spatula so hard that it flew in pieces and exclaimed, “I do not have time for your questions or suggestions. Just do your job.”
My father was a teacher and artist and taught me to question everything. This went well at home when I was growing up and not so good until I opened my first company and seriously questioned how people with bugs were getting service from local pest control companies. Being a beginner in that business helped me ask questions like, “Why does it take multiple phone calls for someone with fleas to get someone out to their house to kill them? What technology is available to speed things up? What types of chemicals might be available that didn’t smell so badly?” I didn’t know a thing about killing bugs. I did know customers did not want to have bugs any longer than they had to and that they didn’t want their house stunk up by nasty chemicals. So, I began seeking others perspectives, asking experts, calling our chemical providers, and going to association meetings to learn more. The marketplace rewarded us when we created solutions for those problems for our customers and grew to the 3rd largest pest control company in Southwest Virginia in 7 years which resulted in a very profitable sale of the business to Terminix International.
Asking great questions in order to seek different perspectives is at the heart of great problem solving. The concept that constructive inquiry, or asking those questions, slows things down is one we learn early in life. In fact, studies are now showing that we hit a peak of question asking at about 4-5 years old. Yep, the minute we hit school asking questions becomes a no-no. For the most part, we are taught that we need to have the right answers. When we don’t we are penalized with poor grades. When we answer correctly we are rewarded with ribbons and pins and a pass to a higher level of learning each year.
The challenge becomes when we are appointed or take the lead in an organization we need to remember and build the skill again of asking great questions. Unfortunately, at exactly the time we should be asking questions we think we should be having all the answers. Perhaps more detrimental is that we think we are good at asking questions.
TEST your skill at question asking: TAKE this free assessment to find out how skilled you are at asking great questions. You’ll get the results immediately.
Solving your toughest challenges at work may require an ability to gain a different perspective. To obtain the highest quality knowledge it can be helpful to take a beginner’s mindset. Here are some small pivots in question asking that can net big results for you.
What resources do I have to solve this problem? versus What resources are available to solve this problem?
How have we solved this problem before? versus Who else has had this problem and how have they solved it successfully? OR What fresh ideas can we consider to innovate through this challenge?
How can we solve this problem? versus Is this the problem we need to be solving right now?
How can we serve our clients better? versus How would our clients want to be better served?
How can we reward our employees for a job well done this year? versus How would our employees like to be rewarded when they do a great job?
WHY build the skill of asking great questions: The research from McKinsey & Company is clear. One of the 4 Keys to More Effective Leadership Behaviors is seeking others perspectives. To be effective at that you need to know what questions you should be asking to get the best advice and input and from whom that needs to come from. Seeking perspective from the same sources all the time will probably net you the same results you’ve been getting. As Stephen Covey wrote in his book the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, seek first to understand and then to be understood. To understand the true scope of a situation you need to be skilled at asking the right people the right questions at the right time.
Einstein is quoted as saying, “ If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” The biggest problem in problem solving appears to be that we “ready-fire-aim”. We are too quick to find a solution and put it at the beginning of the process instead of at the end.
If your organization is facing rapid change and rising uncertainty you need to learn to organize your thinking about what you don’t know.
WATCH this: short 3:23 second video with Warren Berger about asking better questions.
STOP saying “I don’t have time right now to stop and question things”. As a leader, your job is to solve the toughest problems. To do that, we need to take time to ask more questions, better questions, not less, so that we can be solving the highest-level problems.
Don’t mistake this for micro-managing your team members! This is not about following up about tasks or how a small task was done or holding a whole team in a meeting to question specific details of a workflow process. High-level inquiry is about taking the time and thinking strategically to determine what questions will lead to long-term, viable, innovative solutions.
START asking these 3 questions to yourself and to your team about the problem you are trying to solve this week from Warren Berger’s book, A More Beautiful Question:
- Why are we doing it this way?
- What if we did it another way?
- How would we do that?
KEEP doing this: with your team, your peers, experts in your field and your customers – asking great questions. Keep searching for the right question. Keep researching and inquiring from a place of curiosity and uncertainty.
You would not even be reading this if you weren’t open to new ideas and thoughts about the problems you have to solve this week. You are a leader simply by searching for knowledge and taking the first steps to learning more about asking better questions. I can guarantee you that I know you because we share the same thirst for being the best possible leaders we can be. Go forth and slay this week! You got this, my friend!