Is there a better question than “what do yo do?” I am not sure if the askers wants to know my response so they can categorize me or if they are waiting to share their story. Do they want to place me into one of two categories: useful or notuseful? What if I answer astronaut, Banksy, or $250 million lottery winner? Would those responses disrupt their sorting process? What if we consider better questions, like those recommended on LeadershipFreak blog (also consider the bonus material at the bottom).
Some questions I entertain as follow-up questions: What borders have you recently crossed? What insight/realization changed your perspective? Who inspires you and how can I sample their message/work? What ‘help wanted’ sign would you post if you knew a response would come within the hour? What is your super power?
Perhaps the best response to “what do you do,” is to ask better follow-up questions.
What features might we remove and still deliver the highest quality service? What was once essential that is no longer mandatory? What traditions are up for review during this dislocation? If the new way we assemble means place and time shifting, how do we prepare?
This is a powerful moment, do not miss the opportunity to seek new answers to the fundamental questions.
We can fly from New York to Boston on the hour via commuter flights that barely reach a low cruise altitude before descending to the airport. The choice of air travel for this route is usually one of preference and price. The bus, train, on-demand car service, or personal automobile are all viable. A journey that connects significant metropolitan areas is not that remarkable but necessary.
Far more ambitious is a journey into space. We cannot readily hop aboard the next shuttle or rocket and find ourselves unshackled from Earth’s atmosphere. The opportunity to look back upon our planet from the vantage point of the Moon or orbiting space station allows for different thinking. We access a perspective only available to our human nature when we stand separated from that which usually conceals us. This is why mountain peaks, observation decks on skyscrapers, and canyon overlooks continue to fascinate us. We find ourselves suspended in places where we cannot remain.
The challenge to our enterprise is what journey will transform our way of thinking? The shuttle approach works. It is quick, predictable, and alternate forms can be substituted if our preferred method of travel encounters a delay. The journey to space requires the commitment of a team and numerous resources. When successful it tends to inform our decision-making for a generation. The question is, which landscape do you need to see when you are thinking strategically? Does an elevated view of I-95 suffice or does a little blue marble sitting above the horizon of a lunar landscape reorder our ways of thinking? Both journeys are viable, the results are poles apart.
Johnny Carson’s gift to guests on The Tonight Show was his ability to be generous with his questions. He rarely told a cheap joke at the guest’s expense or attempted to tell a better story. His questions were strategically curious, drawing out the best from the person sitting in the chair next to him. Jonny was willing to ask for more. He calculated that his guest’s success would benefit the show for the years to follow.
How can we emulate Johnny and be less insistent about inserting our stories into a conversation? Ever stand next to a stranger at a party and have a remarkable interaction, later to realize that they asked insightful questions such that you spent the majority of the time talking about what makes you unique. Set people up for success and both of you will be rewarded.
Where do we encounter boundaries? Some are visible and others require prior knowledge to know where they exist. Organization’s have boundaries. We discover them when we attempt new ideas that will move the enterprise closer to the edge. No matter how much fuel and momentum we have for the journey inevitably a counter movement will try to stop the advance. Mapping boundaries is unpredictable an imprecise. One way to make them visible is to launch an initiative and see who and what joins the effort and where the forces that are running against you appear.
A few questions to consider: What wouldn’t we do as an organization? Why? What would the board that follows think about our current deliberations? If failure is a distinct possibility what is worth attempting anyway? Is this boundary sacred or intentional and when do we last discuss its merits? What if another enterprise makes remarkable progress on the frontier we are unwilling to enter? Would we reconsider if someone else goes first? Are we trying to be safer or better?
Do you need a path to follow in order to have maximum impact? Are you trying to obtain top speed and the highest level of efficiency regardless of the direction? What are you uniquely positioned to offer your community? If you retraced your steps, would it add value or do you require a new route every time out? What opportunity if it appeared would make you change course? What assumption is holding you back? How do you know? If you could move the frame what part of your world would you place in the center? What would you leave out?
We ask generative questions constantly but do we give ourselves permission to explore the answers? To wrestle with the abstract? Seth Godin encourages us to pick ourselves. Chris Brogan reminds us that nobody is going to give us permission, permission was granted long ago for each of us.
What is the most important question you need to ask?