Thanks to Patty Azzarello I was made aware of a concept/study that Malcolm Gladwell references in one of his books. In this exercise one group of people is asked to generate a list of items that are white. Another group is asked to generate a list of white items that are commonly found in a refrigerator. Interestingly the group that generates the list from the refrigerator generally comes up with a longer list. The point of the exercise: Oftentimes by putting specificity and concreteness into the question people can focus and think more clearly. I experienced this recently in a business context, which I found both interesting and perplexing.
On multiple, separate occasions last week I was with leaders of different (complex) organizations. I asked each of them “What is limiting your organization’s success?” The response I received in each case was both the same as well as quite surprising: Silence. They thought for a while and then looked at me with sort of a questioning look – as if they didn’t understand the question.
To help clarify and provide focus I (inadvertently) used the technique that Gladwell relates: I provided some additional context: “What is the highest priority item that needs resolving in order to improve your organization’s performance? Funding? Better technology? Visibility? Talent? Something else?” In both situations I could see a light bulb come on and they then gave me a concrete response. We were able to continue our conversation based on what they thought their top priority limiter was.
I was struck by two things based on these exchanges:
First: Why weren’t these leaders able to answer my question immediately? I would think (hope) that people in their positions would be thinking constantly about what was required to improve their organization’s performance. They not only had to think about it – but to a certain degree I had to guide them to an answer.
Second: As Product Managers to what degree are we getting weak customer data because we’re asking questions that are too open-ended? Maybe in an effort to be as unbiased as possible we’re not helping our customers give us input that would benefit them as customers/users and us as providers of products/solutions. Providing some detail in our questions may enable us to receive more accurate and helpful customer input.
As business leaders it’s critical to know the highest priority success limiter – at all times. One would think it would be their constant focus. And as Product Managers / Business Planners we need to be sure we help leaders stay on top of those issues – even if it takes a bit of guidance from us to get them there.