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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Grow Your Business with Strategic Questions

by Shel Horowitz

Paul Lipke knows how to ask good questions- questions whose answers can change the entire shape of a business. Those who came to his presentation to the Family Business Center October 2 at the Tekoa Country Club in Westfield (a new venue for the FBC) came away with a whole new arsenal of techniques to analyze challenges and convert them to opportunities.

Lipke calls these kinds of questions "strategic questions." What makes a question strategic? To quote from Lipke's slide show, these questions…

  • Are open, engaging and invite further learning
  • Create a sense of options, spur new thinking
  • Create movement, or conditions conducive to it
  • Dislodge old thought patterns, reveal profound uncertainties, and help address our 'change logic.'
  • Never include a conclusion or solution
  • Tend to evoke a deep response, often months later

Strategic questions (a technique first developed by author Fran Peavey), are focused on the positive possibilities: not "why isn't this working?" but "how do we do when we're at our best?" looking at how to take the energy and creative thinking in a peak performance and apply it to the everyday world of an existing business (or interpersonal situation, for that matter).

"The first question drives the direction" of any analysis, Lipke says. By focusing on the positive, on the encompassing, broad-based "how" rather than on the narrower, more defensive "why," strategic questions uncover new opportunities that might otherwise have stayed hidden. Think of them as "long-lever" questions, where the force of a small question can be multiplied to have a great impact.

Quoting the slide show again, typical strategic questions might be framed in ways like:

  • How might we..?
  • What would it take..?
  • What might shift our situation for the better?
  • What in the past leads you to think as you do?
  • How has change happened here in the past?
  • How did the issue of… first get on your radar screen?

Lipke points out that you may get different results depending on who is asking, who is being asked, when the questions are raised, and how much the respondent feels you're really listening and planning to use the information. In other words, power relationships matter. If your employee perceives you as an autocratic boss, don't try to ask for answers at a staff meeting. instead, get a manager with strong people skills to ask in a more private setting.

Strategic questions can help your business last through the ages. Lipke cited a Royal Dutch Shell study of 40 companies that were hundreds of years old (the oldest was a 700 year old Scottish firm). The researchers identified four common characteristics: fiscal conservatism, including large cash reserves; a strong sense of organization, community, and each individual's role; seeking outside influences " for example- ongoing conversations with the most radical thinkers they could find"; and active encouragement of unconventional experimentation. Clearly, the second two hinge heavily on asking strategic questions. But they have to be asked in the right way. " Questions should align with how the hearer believes change happens." You need buy-in, which you won't get unless you understand your respondents' ideas about how change happens. So have meaningful conversation(s) first; only when you understand their "change logic" should you move to the next phase: designing a strategic questions program that is in keeping with the participants change logic.

After dinner, Lipke showed us how to put strategic questioning into real-world business situations. Three FBC members who had volunteered ahead of time went through a mini-version of what Lipke calls "virtual Kaizen." [Kaizen, as long-time FBC attenders know, is the Japanese process of continuous improvement.] Believing that large-group brainstorms can be more effective than one or two people solving complex business problems alone, Lipke had each business owner outline the problem, answer clarifying questions, and receive a barrage of suggestions from the audience.

First up was Skip Matthews of Louis & Clark, a seven unit Western Mass pharmacy chain. He was facing the challenges of rapid growth: trying to integrate systems from several stores that all do things their own way, and at the same time, cost-cutting pressure from insurance companies.

Some of the group's suggestions: Identify the most profitable customers and work to meet their needs; empower the individual stores to brainstorm and implement solutions; leverage the brand (several specific suggestions) and create a climate that is so attractive, pharmacists are desperate to work there; free up pharmacists to fill prescriptions through several specific methods, including:

  • Shift prescription checkouts to the main register
  • Answer customers' questions through in-store computer kiosks and/or a centralized phone help desk serving all stores.

Deborah Kruger's billing service, PsychBilling, suffers when dealing with difficult clients. Among the suggestions: "graduate" the tough clients to a competitor; set up a formal psychological screening process including application forms and interviews (not only with the owner of the firm, but also the person who will be the day-to-day contact); during screening, establish the client's goals for the future and then evaluate whether those goals are being met.

Nan Hulbert of Design Works wanted intelligence about the market and how her competitors are faring. Several attendees questioned whether she actually needs this information to achieve her expansion goals, and suggested she focus on doing the best job she can for her new and existing customers.

Turning back to her immediate objective, ideas included: putting competitors on her board; extracting information from bankers, customers and other sources, hiring a survey company; organizing through a trade association which she could form and head, to put on educational seminars during which attendees could share market information; interview competitors' former employees; create a special events marketing program that would provide so much cachet that competitors' market positions would be irrelevant.

For all three participants, there was a lot more. And there was much more in the first half, when participants practiced strategic questioning. Like all FBC seminars, this one is available on videotape if you'd like to see what you missed.

Paul Lipke, founder and proprietor of Room To Maneuver, where he serves business not so much as a consultant (telling people what to do) but as a resource (helping clients to understand what they and their co-workers already know deep inside and to build their capacity to act on it). He is reachable at 413 367 2878

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