Big Questions

//Big Questions

Big Questions

What are the worries, fears, opportunities, or challenges that make you lose sleep? How do you resolve them?

In traditional planning, a common path to responding is to set goals. These may be big hairy audacious goals, SMART goals, even plain old regular goals.

Setting goals moves your organization into the future. Although important, it can disconnect you from the reality of your current challenge(s). The resulting plans, though well-meaning, may become stale when things change (often quickly) or gather dust because the plans are so removed from the current situation.

Asking questions – BIG questions! – the ones that give you chills or keep you up at night, is one of the most important aspects of strategic thinking.

In this post we will introduce using big questions as a way to enhance strategic thinking – both during planning processes and as an on-going means of staying nimble in our ever-changing environment.

First, what is a big question?

La Piana defined the concept as “an opportunity or threat to which the organization must respond. Usually, it is beyond the scope of the organization’s current strategies, thus requiring a new strategy.”

Using big questions removes assumptions about the status quo and takes a critical look at what are the big opportunities, threats, or changes that require a response.

There are three types of big questions. Distilling them into generic questions, the three themes are:

Opportunity questions: Should we do this, and how? (e.g., new funding opportunity)

Competitive challenge questions: What can we do now that this organization has arrived? (e.g., new player enters the market)

Business model challenge questions: Can we survive this change? (e.g., policy shift that impacts entire field)

(insert your particular opportunity, competitive challenge, or business model challenge into the “this” and you the start of a big question).

In our work, we’ve found that most people (and organizations and collaboratives) have many big questions. A critical skill in effective strategic thinking is prioritizing the big questions. Which are the biggest? What does big even mean? It could be big because of urgency (we need to respond yesterday!) or importance (this is huge!), or many other potential factors.

What question is the lead domino? One that leads to the most change? If one response could answer five other questions, then that is probably a good indication of importance.

Framing the question

How you frame the question can influence what types of options (strategies) emerge. Be careful to ask questions clearly. As an example, if your organization loses a major funder – what to do next is a big question. The implication of asking the question as “how do we trim our budget to fit our new size?” is very different than “how do we replace the funding?” Both are different than, “is now the time to collaborate more strategically with our partners?”

What’s the right question?

We have found that generating as many question frames as possible, then consolidating them into themes is the best way to move forward. That usually provides the easiest way to identify which questions resonate the most with your team. It may be that you decide to ask multiple, related questions together (or trim to just one).

So, now you know how to ask and prioritize questions. High functioning, strategic-thinking organizations ask, sort, and respond to these questions on a continuous basis, not just during a planning process.

If you are already in a planning process, asking big questions is the turning point after reviewing your strengths and current landscape but before setting forward on a new path.

For those not in a planning process, regularly asking “what are our big questions?” and “how will we respond” are a way to stay connected to the results of your efforts, the trends that influence change, and help you stay on a course towards greater impact. Integrating generative questions into meetings can be a way to instill a strategic, rather than status quo, focus.

Our purpose here was to introduce a different way of thinking, using questions.   Asking questions is an important part of embracing the divergent zone of decision making. Next week we will highlight a tool to support figuring out what to do (the convergent zone), the strategy screen.

So what are your big questions? How will you respond?

Looking for more strategy resources, check out La Piana’s book – it is an easy read that walks through the principles, process, and tools to develop more effective strategies.