What crazy questions are you asking today?

Much of the wisdom of an organisation lies in the gray matter of the rank and file staff – who usually know what the real problems are, and how to solve them.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

In the age of artificial intelligence and social media, with abundant answers almost everywhere, the shift is to having the skill of asking the right questions.

‘Why, how, what and when’ are all investigative business questions worth pursuing. For instance, ‘How do we make money?’ This is an inquiry worth pursuing, with the answers not being the obvious.

“I probably give fewer answers and I ask a lot more questions…. It’s almost possible now for me to go through a day and do nothing but ask questions. Through probing, I help [my management team] …explore ideas that they didn’t realise needed to be explored,” says cofounder and the CEO of the US chipmaker and software supplier Nvidia, Jensen Huang.

Nvidia, founded in April 1993 is the current darling of high tech, now having amarket value of $1.915 trillion.

“Nvidia’s stock price jumped 16 percent in a 24-hour period in February 2024, increasing the company’s market value by a staggering $273 billion in just one day, a record amount. The chipmaker has been seeing soaring demand for its semiconductors, which are used to power AI applications. The company’s revenue more than tripled in the latest quarter, compared with the same period a year earlier,” according to Associated Press.

What if?

While investigative questions help the manager to identify and analyse a problem, it’s helpful to move into the domain of speculative questions like: What if? What else? What are we missing? What would have to be true? How might we?

Just as there is always the risk that the CEO and senior managers think they have all the answers, they might also think they have all the right questions. Much of the wisdom of an organisation lies in the gray matter of the rank and file staff – who usually know what the real problems are, and how to solve them. It’s a bit of tragedy if a company’s leadership have not tapped into staffs’ well spring of knowledge and know how.

“As a leader, you don’t have the answers; your workforce [does], your people [do]. That’s completely changed how you have to lead an organisation. You have to unleash the creativity….The innovation isn’t happening because there’s a genius at the top of the company that’s coming up with the answers for everything,” notes Citi banker and CEO, Jane Fraser.

Ask crazy questions

One of the operating principles of being human is that no one wants to look ignorant and silly. Yet asking what may seem like to some stupid questions is smart business practice. It’s often the case, that genuine business insights come from the most unexpected places. And, often outside of that space that we call ‘business’. For instance, if a principle works in physics or chemistry, it will apply in another areas. That’s where creative out of the box thinking comes in. Being able to observe something, perhaps seeing what no one else has seen, and see how it can apply to an enterprise.

Ability to reframe issues and problems is a much sought-after management skill. To look at what is politely called a ‘small challenge’ which in reality is a ‘very big problem’ requires asking questions that flush out information and alternatives.

Asking questions should not feel like a police interrogation, creating a feeling of unease and distrust. As with all communication, what matters is not only what is asked, but the tone, how you say it. One wants to create a feeling of open freewheeling back and forth discussion. People won’t open up if they assume that they are being tested.

Whether in a two-person start-up in Eldoret, or a global tech giant, business success or failure is defined by having staff with drive and curiosity, powered by the freedom to ask questions. And, to think about what they are not asking. One question leads to another question. In the words of Jensen Huang, the star captain of AI tech, leadership involves “getting everybody to ask and answer questions.”

David is a director at aCatalyst Consulting | [email protected]

PAYE Tax Calculator

Note: The results are not exact but very close to the actual.