The 5 Questions Every Company Should Ask Itself

In interviewing some of the biggest innovation experts, including Clayton Christensen and Eric Ries, Warren Berger found that asking the right questions can be more challenging than finding answers.

"One does not begin with answers," the legendary business consultant Peter Drucker once said. "One begins by asking, ‘What are our questions?’"

The notion that questions may at times be more valuable to a business than answers is counterintuitive. But in my research into the value of inquiry, I’m finding a growing number of today’s leading business consultants share Drucker’s view on the critical importance of getting company leaders to focus on asking the right questions. "It’s the number one thing I spend my time thinking about these days," says Dev Patnaik of design firm Jump Associates. Eric Ries, meanwhile, finds that as he trains companies in Lean Startup methodology, one of his biggest challenges is getting his clients to "acknowledge uncertainty and ask the seemingly dumb questions." According to Keith Yamashita of design consultancy SYPartners, "In business, our ability to ask questions is an opportunity to reframe the challenges in front of us."

But as Yamashita notes, that can only happen if business leaders are willing to question boldly. He says we’re coming off an era of "small-minded questions" geared to efficiency: How can we do it faster, cheaper, where can we cut? "But in order to innovate today," Yamashita maintains, "companies must ask more expansive questions."

What follows are five big, bold questions every company should be asking, according to Yamashita, Ries, Harvard Business School professor and author Clayton Christensen, and consultants Jack Bergstrand of Brand Velocity and Tim Ogilvie of Peer Insight.

1. What is our company’s purpose on this earth?

Keith Yamashita

Sure, it’s a bit grand, as Yamashita acknowledges. But the business environment of today and tomorrow demands a company mindset that goes beyond mundane corporate concerns. To arrive at a powerful sense of purpose, Yamashita says, companies today need "a fundamental orientation that is outward looking"—so they can understand what people out there in the world truly desire and need, and what’s standing in the way. At the same time, business leaders also must look inward, to try to clarify their own core values and larger ambitions. In trying to unearth all of this, Yamashita doesn’t just use one big question; he employs a series of them. What does the world hunger for? What are the big challenges? Who have we (as a company) historically been when we’ve been at our best? Who must we fearlessly become?

In terms of tackling the first two questions, Yamashita believes companies "must develop a culture that is excessively curious about the outside world"—and be able to identify deep needs as well as the right "hairy problem" to focus on. Rather than try to save the whole world at once, companies should zero in on the challenge that’s most compelling and appropriate. In his client Coca-Cola’s case, Yamashita says, because of the sheer volume of bottles they put out into the world every day, the need to develop local, closed-loop recycling emerged as a pressing grand challenge.

The "who we’ve been" and "who we must become" questions require a willingness to look back (because at the finest moments in a company’s history, Yamashita holds, its core values come shining through) while also looking ahead, to envision a version of the company that does not yet exist. At the intersection of these questions resides the big overriding one about purpose—the question that matters above all else: "In the end, as a human being or an institution, you have to understand why you were put on this earth," he says, "and what actions you’re going to take to deliver on that purpose."

2. What should we stop doing?

Jack Bergstrand

There’s a natural tendency for company leaders to focus on what they should start doing immediately. But the harder question has to do with what you’re willing to eliminate. If you can’t answer that question, Bergstrand maintains, "it lessens your chances of being successful at what you want to do next—because you’ll be sucking up resources doing what’s no longer needed and taking those resources away from what should be a top priority." Moreover, if you can’t figure out what you should stop doing, it might be an early warning sign that you don’t know what your strategy is.

And yet, Bergstrand notes, it is very difficult for most companies to decide to stop doing things—especially programs or products that were once successful. "We don’t like to kill our babies," he says. Corporate politics can get in the way, too; individuals or groups within a company are naturally inclined to protect and defend their own projects. On top of all that, it’s just a lot more fun to focus on the new than to deal with the old. "Even asking the question about ‘what should we stop’ makes people inside a company uncomfortable," Bergstrand says. "It often takes an outsider or a new management team to even be willing to raise the question."

3. If we didn’t have an existing business, how could we best build a new one?

Clayton Christensen

Christensen, who pioneered the concept of disruptive innovation, observes that business leaders can sometimes use hypothetical "what if" questions to temporarily impose artificial constraints: What if we had to sell our $100 product for a buck; how might we go about doing that? Such questions can also be used to temporarily break free of existing constraints and biases.

Christensen’s big question is a classic example of the latter, and he loves it because it enables leaders to stop focusing on pre-existing beliefs and structures—"the stuff they’ve already invested in"—and come at the business with a fresh approach. He says the question is most useful "if, at any point in the future, you see the possibility that the core business might slow down." But even if your company is going great guns, answering this question can point to future opportunities and help your share price to outperform the market by showing "that there’s more growth here than analysts may have thought."

Christensen’s question could be seen as a cousin of the famous one asked by Intel’s co-founder Andrew Grove when the company was trying to decide whether to shift its focus away from making memory chips. If we were kicked out of the company, Grove asked his partner Gordon Moore, what do you think the new CEO would do? They reasoned that a new leader would feel no emotional attachment to the declining memory chip business—and would probably leave it behind. Grove and Moore did likewise, as they shifted Intel’s focus to microprocessors.

4. Where is our Petri dish?

Tim Ogilvie

Ogilvie’s question is really asking, Where in the company is it safe to ask radical questions? As Ogilvie sees it, you can’t necessarily do that everywhere. "As an established business," he says, "you’ve got all these promises you’re keeping to your current customers—you have to stay focused on that. But that may not have a future." So the question becomes, "Where, within the company, can you explore heretical questions that could threaten the business as it is—without contaminating what you’re doing now?"

In answering that question, it’s up to company leadership to "provide permission and protocols for experimentation," he says. That means supplying the time and resources for people to explore new questions, as well as establishing methods: "how might we" questioning sessions, ethnography, in-market experimentation. It can also mean cordoning off this area of the business, but not too much. There should be a clear line of visibility between the core business and the "Petri dish" part of the company—so that each can influence the other.

Ogilvie says another way to phrase this question is, Where is the place we can be a startup again? And surprisingly, he thinks it’s a question that even startups should ask themselves. "Startups are so desperate not to be a startup," says Ogilvie (himself a former startup CEO). "They’re so anxious to be post-revenue and post-profit that you can almost give up what’s great about being a startup too soon. They get built for execution, and once they’re having success they’ll very quickly start thinking, ‘We’ve got to stick to our knitting.’" All of which means they’ve outgrown their original Petri dish—and might need a new one.

5. How can we make a better experiment?

Eric Ries

Shifting emphasis from Ogilvie’s where to the how of experimentation, Ries’s question is counterintuitive for most managers, who tend to think in terms of "making products," not "making experiments." But as Ries points out, anytime you’re doing something new, "it’s an experiment whether you admit it or not. Because it is not a fact that it’s going to work."

So how do companies get better at experimenting? Ries says you start with the acknowledgment that "we are operating amid all this uncertainty—and that the purpose of building a product or doing any other activity is to create an experiment to reduce that uncertainty." This means that instead of asking "What will we do?" or "What will we build?" the emphasis should be on "What will we learn?"

"And then you work backwards to the simplest possible thing—the minimum viable product—that can get you the learning," he says.

Just this one change—before you get to any of the more complex Lean Startup methodology—can make a world of difference, Ries insists. For one thing, it can help unlock the creativity that’s already there in your company. "Most companies are full of ideas, but they don’t know how to go about finding out if those ideas work," Ries says. "If you want to harvest all those ideas, allow employees to experiment more—so they can find out the answers to their questions themselves."

In the second of this two-part series, we’ll consider five more bold questions from Christensen, Ogilvie, Patnaik, consultant/author Noel Tichy, and creative consultant Min Basadur.

[Images: Sketch and Petri via Shutterstock]

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13 Comments

  • If I am allowed to add at least one more to the list, I would really like to see companies asking themselves very often - 'Where are we heading, anyway...?'

  • Jonathan Whiting

    Great article. I've been running a business for the last 3 years and hadn't considered most of these questions until introduced to them recently. Simple questions like, what should we stop doing? can be incredibly liberating. I'm still trying to answer most of them. Thanks for the great article

  • Madeleine Suzanne

    Absolutely agree with you Doug. "What is our company's purpose on this earth" is certainly one of the most powerful questions we can ask. Hopefully it will lead to more companies being driven by more than just the bottom line too.

  • Chris Kelly

    As a designer, I'm regularly surprised that this question isn't at the core of every business. Turns out many businesses I've worked for and interacted with have no idea what they are offering and to whom. Glad to see this reflected in this list

  • Doug Levy

    Great questions!  I wonder how the practice of marketing would be different if the first question that marketers asked is, as suggested by #1, "Why is this company's or brand's purpose on this Earth?"  

    The typical first question, "Who is my target audience?" (followed by "What do I want them to think or do?") leads to manipulation and distrust. 

    Just shifting that question would go a long way, I believe, to helping brands create authentic relationships and true advocates. 

    - Doug Levy (@douglevy1), MEplusYOU

  • Troy DuMoulin

    Very Interesting

    The author makes reference to the concept of a "Lean Startup" (Really just a way of thinking about what we are doing with practical lenses)

    The premise here is that we need to never stop asking the basic questions of reason, relevance and resolve

    All human systems are subject to entropy without the constant injection of new energy and re-invention. In essence staying relevant is a continual journey through these basic questions.

    What are we doing that we need to stop
    What are we not doing that we need start
    What do we need to keep doing.

  • Mhasebou

    "What is your company purpose? What should we stop doing?" are just two simple questions that directs you easily what sustainbility is about, and how we should address it as corporate.

  • Simon de Kretser

    Great article - for me it seems to reinforce the idea that before embarking on a design project for a client to fix some existing problem that they think they have, we should seriously ask 'why are we starting from here?'

  • MyLoudSpeakerDotCa

    Love #4, going to ask that more often. #2 is a good reminder. Thanks for the article, Warren.

  • Roogs

    Does Eric Ries have a PhD? Because he sure sounds like a scientist. Right on, simple experimentation can efficiently test multiple ideas to see which have the most traction. Unfortunately, there are too many people who don't even know what an experiment is, or how to perform one.
    My solution: utilize scientists (trained experimenters) to teach businesses the scientific process. After all, the job market for scientists is thin right now and many of them are looking for jobs away from traditional science but still want to use the skills they were taught.
    -Tom R. @letUbeU:twitter 

  • Patrick

    I would argue that a true scientific method is not what you want here.  It is too rigid, you are not supposed to change or introduce new variables until the experiment is over.  That is not how the world works.

    What he seems to be speaking to is closer to the creative process.  There are guidelines, but the experiment is in a constant state of flux.  You apply what you learn as you are learning it, you don't report on it at the end.

    I haven't done a true scientific experiment in a long time and never at a very high level.  I have, though, had many conversations with NASA scientists... and perhaps more importantly leaders at NASA... about their processes.  One of the biggest complaints of the leaders: the desire for pure scientific experiments means it takes way too long to find out anything meaningful.  This is one of the primary reasons the project to replace the space shuttle was killed. People were afraid to fail.

    Instead, we need to quickly iterate, prototype, and test ideas.  We need to fail early, often, and spectacularly to learn quickly. This means the sample sizes may not be large, but the findings are no less valuable.  We need many good experiments, not one perfect experiment.  Traditional business culture creates a fear of failure, start ups embrace it.