Beware the Idle Question

In his absurdist play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, playwright Tom Stoppard invents any number of ways for the courtiers to pass the time while Hamlet comes and goes:

Rosencrantz: Do you want to play questions?
Guildenstern: How do you play that?
Rosencrantz: You have to ask a question.
Guildenstern: Statement. One – Love.
Rosencrantz: Cheating.
Guildenstern: How?
Rosencrantz: I haven’t started yet.
Guildenstern: Statement. Two – Love.
Rosencrantz: Are you counting that?
Guildenstern: What?
Rosencrantz: Are you counting that?
Guildenstern: Foul. No repetition. Three – Love and game.
Rosencrantz: I’m not going to play if you’re going to be like that.

Our modest heroes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not involved in serious inquiry.  They are burning minutes off the clock.  Their fate has already been cast, and although they don’t know that, they are reasonably certain there is not much else they can contribute because they are but secondary players in Hamlet’s drama, even in a new play named after them.  Good questions, bad questions, neither really matter, and statements result in a lost point.

Is there a business corollary here?  I think so.

When anyone is asked what appears to be a Big Question, it is often a good idea to decipher if the question is real, or if the person asking it is just passing time.  When top management in a company asks for “real change,” is the voice authentic, or simply read from a prepared script for the sake of appearances?  It is never easy to tell, tone only gets you so far.  Knowing the difference may determine whether your full commitment is warranted and can actually make a difference when applied.

Questioning the status quo is the stuff of innovation, the catalyst to progress.  A good question can be provocative, inspirational, challenging, a thought starter — but for a question to have the potential to cause impact, it has to be sincere, honest, clearly well-intentioned.  Not enough questions are like that.  Many only serve to feign engagement.  You’ve been in that meeting, right?  Me, too.

Some questions become legend.  A colleague of mine who worked for a Fortune 100 corporation recalled how shortly after the first dot bomb bubble the CEO turned to him in a strategic planning meeting and said: “eBay, why didn’t you think of that?”  He wasn’t sure if it was a joke.   It wasn’t.  A few months later he was gone.  It was his fault the company had missed the shift to digital.  It had to be someone’s fault, right?

I still gasp when I think about that.

If the top people in your company are asking how they can have all the benefits of the New World without upsetting too much structured order from the Old World, start provisioning the bomb shelters.  If your company is asking what are its core values and how its value propositions can become relevant to new generations of customers, transformation has begun.

Recently in response to my post Creativity and Courage, a friend called me to brainstorm how to more aggressively nudge his company into the 21st Century.  He had been hired by that company’s CEO as a change agent, with plenty of vim and vigor to come in and make change happen.  He had been asked the multi-billion dollar question: What do we have to do right now to reinvent our business before we are toast?

It had been almost a year since that curious question was posed.  Lots of ideas had been floated.  Many follow-up questions had been asked, most of them repeatedly.  To date, no substantive change had occurred.  Blame was starting to appear on the whiteboard where new ideas had been wiped clean to keep the peace — potentially good but uncomfortable answers to the hardest questions were emerging, yet the status quo had largely triumphed without consensus to advance.  It was an anxious peace, which led my friend to believe the question he had been asked was more a checklist item than a true strategic mandate.  Indeed, a perfunctory question is unlikely to elicit an eye-opening answer.  Those charged with asking questions usually get what they want, one way or another.

The second example of questioning is the opposite of the eBay punchline.  The first CEO was angry that no change had happened and needed someone to skewer.  The second CEO said he wanted change, but not too much, there was no reason to upset people unnecessarily and disrupt workflow with festering speculation.  Rumor mills can be ghastly impediments to productivity, particularly when they transmit substance.

Because questions are constructed of words, they can only get us so far.  Your real gauge has to be the reaction to your proposed answers, actions of consequence and commitment of resources.   If a request to bring change is heartfelt, a door has opened and you have the incredible opportunity to close it behind you.  On the other side of that door is risk, and you have no choice but to take it.  You can win or lose the whole ballpark, but at least you are in the game.  If the request to bring change is just passing time, you really don’t need to answer it, better to avoid it entirely to buy yourself as much time as you can — Powerpoint can be helpful to tread water while your wheels spin.  What you really need to do is find someone who asks more honest questions.

Playing at questions can be a pastime or serious business.  When asking, do your best to understand the difference.  When asked, be ready to know the difference.

Shall we play?