By Nathan Rothstein and Dan Rothstein
In the fall of 2002, Mark Zuckerberg entered Harvard. Less than ten years later, he has become one of the wealthiest people in the world. Over the years, he has grown as a leader, but there’s one thing that has remained constant throughout his rise from awkward Harvard freshman to CEO of Facebook: He is constantly asking questions.
In a recent New York Times article, Evelyn Rusli quotes one of his friends and early Facebook employees talking about Mark, saying: “He has a higher ask-to-talk ratio than anyone I know.” There’s a key lesson here: to be great, to be a visionary, and, perhaps, even to become very wealthy, it helps to be curious and to ask the right questions.
The importance of asking questions in business was argued years ago by no less a source than Peter Drucker, the guru of all management gurus, who said: “The most common source of management mistakes is not the failure to find the right answers. It is the failure to ask the right questions.” More recently, Robert Steven Kaplan, professor at Harvard Business School, starts off his new book, What to Ask the Person in the Mirror: Critical Questions for Becoming a More Effective Leader and Reaching Your Potential, with this statement: “Great leadership is not about having all the answers - it is, more often, about having the courage to ask the critical questions.” Kaplan goes on to list a set of critical questions that a business leader could ask, though recognizes that they might now work for all situations.
Perhaps, the need for asking the right questions is most evident in the rushed, fast-paced start-up world. A “lean start-up” strategy can benefit enormously not only from testing assumptions but also from knowing what questions to ask from your customers so that you can truly understand what they need. For example: when I, Nathan, was working with partners to start Swellr- an education fundraising platform - we asked people before the product was released: “Would you use a website that allowed you to support local business and an education project in your community?” Everyone said yes. But it was the wrong question to be asking, which Eric Ries also verifies in his book, The Lean Startup. In the same way that people might add deep and dark independent films to their Netflix queue but actually are watching romantic comedies and action flicks, the gap between intentions and actions grows larger and larger. In the end, when we finally released our product six months later, the process for redemption was too cumbersome and people were only pre-buying gift certificates to a business for the discount, not to make small donation to a cause they cared about. In the end, we were just another classic example in start-up that failed because it assumed its customer would not only say something’s a good idea but would act on it too.
A successful entrepreneur often identifies opportunities in the market by asking questions. The best new business ideas often start with people asking questions. Henry Ford asked a couple: “Why can’t there be an affordable car that appeals to the masses?” “How do I create worker loyalty?” When Tom Stemberg, the founder of Staples, started to investigate the business potential of selling office supplies, he began to ask small business managers how much they were spending on supplies. The managers would say “it wasn’t worth it to send someone in a car to buy them. But if you asked the bookkeepers, you got a far higher number, about five times as much-high enough to get them to come to the store.” He knew not only what question to ask, but who to ask as well.
Asking questions is important in business, but how do you teach someone to ask good questions? It’s usually a skill learned through years of advanced professional training, the wisdom borne of experience (aka/ making lots of mistakes), or, if you’re lucky, you might simply emerge from college, as several college presidents told the New York Times, with an ability to “ask strategic questions.”
You might. But the skill is not actually deliberately taught. Not in kindergarten, not in middle school, not in high school, and, according to many graduates and faculty of institutions of higher education, not even in graduate school.
No surprise, perhaps. It’s a sophisticated skill even though it seems quite simple. How do you teach it? Here at the Right Question Institute, we (Dan and colleagues) have spent more than a decade testing out many ways to teach the skill to all audiences; from young students to barely literate adults to Harvard Law School students, medical researchers and CEOs of hi-tech start-ups. Now, Harvard Education Press has published a book based on this work: Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions. The book not only makes the argument that all people can learn to ask their own questions, it also provides a clear step-by-step process for doing it.
It turns out the sophisticated skill of question-asking can be taught easily, but the bad news is that there is at least one major challenge. It requires devoting some time to asking questions, some time to improving the questions and some time to strategizing on how to use the questions. The good news is that once the process is learned, the skill can be used quickly and adeptly to make all sorts of better informed and more nimble decisions.
And better informed, nimble decision-making is the lifeblood of start-ups and the key to continued business success.
Nathan Rothstein is the President of Project Repat, a social enterprise that upcycles t-shirts into more functional and fashionable clothing accessories while creating fair wage employment opportunities in the USA. Dan Rothstein, is the Co-Director of the Right Question Institute and the Co-Author of Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions (Harvard Education Press: 2011). In their filial/parental relationship, the questions go back and forth.
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