The Five Obstacles to Asking Questions

Innovation requires a culture that not only accepts but embraces the questions that lead to change.  Here are the five classic obstacles to questions and change.

Tight Schedules: People are busy and asking questions requires a bit of trial and error.  Questions assume a willingness to listen to and evaluate a range of answers (your own and those from other people).  Sometimes asking questions results in answers that impose delays, and anyone working under a tight deadline or a full daily schedule will avoid anything that causes delays.

Blinders: “I’m the expert.”  This is the single most insidious obstacle to change and innovation.  I once joined the Board of an organization set up to support the local library.  I posted a question on the Board’s email list about the future of public libraries.  My objective was to stimulate a discussion because I was then (and am now) convinced that public libraries are going to change dramatically and no one can know for certain what those changes will be.  (Who at Kodak, the photography experts from the 60’s through the 90’s, understood the implications of digital photography?)  The result of my query was a lecture from the two librarians in the group.  They were the experts.  They knew the future.  They knew the answers.  The questions created an opportunity for the librarians to get fresh, outside input on a question that is absolutely critical to their professional lives, but instead they shut down discussion by being the experts and providing “the answer.”

Inflexibility: “We’ve always done it that way.”  People often have a process that is familiar so they can do it automatically.  Working on autopilot is easier than absorbing and adjusting to change.  One of my assignments when I was sent to Japan by Beckman Instruments was to introduce a new competitive strategy.  Beckman sold scientific instrumentation that produced reams of data.  Scientists were expected to manually analyze the data, a process that took much longer than generating the data.  As competitors steadily commoditized the hardware side of the business, Beckman sought to sought to shift the competitive field by integrating data analysis software into the instrumentation.  Around the world, but especially in Japan, sales reps had trouble with the new strategy.  They were used to selling hardware specs, not software conclusions.  Software was seen as a give-away as opposed to a strategic value add that was worth money to the customer.  When asked why they resisted the new strategy, they simply said, “That’s not the way we’ve always done it.”  When I pointed out to them that  Japanese companies like Sony, Matsushita, and Toyota had created their global successes by establishing traditions that were, at one time, new and highly innovative, slowly, over time and many beers, the reps came to accept the value of change.

Routine: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  There will always be some people who just don’t like change.  My grandmother was that way.  I’ve come to correlate acceptance of change with “being old,” and I have known a few people in their twenties who, in this respect, were more “old” than other people I have known in their 80’s and 90’s.  My father, at the age of 85, sold his Southern California home of 31 years and moved to Colorado.  He loved the California house.  It was full of memories, art, and souvenires from a lifetime of global travel.  But he knew it was time for a change, so he moved.  The changes in climate, physical living facilities, people, and daily routine that the move forced him to accomodate have kept him mentally and socially young.  At 88, my father is less “old” than many people I work with on a day-to-day basis.

Disconnect: “It’s not my job.”  Have you ever had to work with someone who, every time he was asked to do something, would get this look on his face that said, “Hmmm….  Is this in my job description?”  That reactionturns up frequently when people are asked to think about ways to make changes that will improve someone else’s (or even their own) circumstances.  On the surface, the work done by an executive assistant in the finance department can seem removed from the company’s product or service offering as seen from the view of the customer, but every role in the company impacts cost and quality, which are inherent to the customer experience.  Therefore, change, and the acceptance of questions that lead to change, is every employee’s responsibility.

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