4 Tricks: Asking Questions To Drive Strategy

Asking strategic questions to create valueDo Your Questions Drive Strategy?

Becoming a “strategic partner” has become a bit of a cliché.  It’s a tired phrase that is often ill defined and confusing, particularly to people so focused on the day-to-day, transactional work of getting things done. It’s easy to ask the right questions when we know the content; however, it can be very difficult to know what to ask when you want to position yourself to bring more to the table. At the end of the day, asking strategic questions is all about creating value: how much do you add, how long can your business could go on without it…and why in the world would you want them to?

In a dark room, with no one listening, ask yourself:

  • Do you (or the people who work for you) know what it means to be strategic?
  • Are you (or they) consistently invited to the ‘right’ meetings to influence business decisions?
  • Are you (or they) sought after to facilitate critical dialog between stakeholders or people involved with an issue because of your keen perspective or facilitation skills?
  • What percentage of your time do you spend on transactions vs. strategic business influence?

If you or your team are not as strategic as you’d like to be, or if you’re getting feedback to that effect, here are some things to think about to help you craft questions that drive strategy. You don’t have to have the answers. Driving strategy is often in the questions we ask that make people think differently.

Clarify The Strategy

Ask questions about the strategy and how well people are aligned around it. This returns a drifting focus back to the end goal and surfaces opportunities to create alignment and clarity where there is none. These types of questions are also great for minimizing hidden agendas.  For example, if you’ve got an “empire builder” in the group trying to add staff, they won’t stand a chance when you return the focus to a strategy that requires increasing focus on driving critical organizational capabilities for which he is not responsible.

Example Questions to Clarify the Strategy

  • What is the strategy? Has the strategy changed or should it?
  • What did we agree to about our strategy?
  • Does this enable or distract from our strategy?
  • How does the strategy differentiate us from our competition?

Ask About The Customer

It is often surprising how many business discussions happen without any reference to the customer (whether internal or external). If you are meeting with a group who is ‘heads down’ in discussions about themselves, sometimes the most strategic thing you can do is bring the focus back to the customer. Time and time again, I’ve seen these types of questions make heroes out of the people who ask them, particularly when the person asking does NOT have a lot of customer contact.

Examples of Customer Questions

  • What do the customers think?
  • What does success look like to the customer?
  • Who is the customer?
  • How does this impact the customer?

Focus on Capabilities

To drive strategy, an organization must be able to do certain things; these are organizational capabilities.  For example, at a high level, a retail chain must be able to identify locations, build stores, purchase products, get them to the right location, merchandise them and provide customer service.  All of these capabilities can be broken down into smaller pieces, but often the organization, or a function within it, is not clear on the capabilities required OR which are most important to invest in or align around.  Asking about the capabilities and/or priorities between them is often a great way to surface that more work is needed to determine HOW to effectively drive strategy.

Example Capability Questions

  • Have we identified and assessed the capabilities required to drive strategy?
  • Do we know which capabilities add the most value and/or are the most important in which to invest?
  • Are our investments (or structure) aligned around building or supporting the most critical capabilities…the ones that will move the needle on our strategy the fastest?

Know The Competition

Probably the least frequently used strategic questions are those that show knowledge of the competition; these  often stand-out and demonstrate commitment to the big picture. This is because they require a higher level of effort to gather information and sometimes risk admitting what you did. Things you learned on a ‘secret shopping’ trip can be used to spark thinking. So can articles you found about a competitor or the competitive landscape on FlipBoard or from a Google Alert.

Example Competitive Questions

  • I noticed that [big competitor] is now offering ApplePay at the registers. Should we be thinking about alternative payment options?
  • I read an article about a lot of consolidation in our industry beginning in another state. How does that affect our strategy?
  • We are the only company in the industry that hasn’t expanded into [example], is this something we can use to our advantage or will it hurt us in the long run?

Asking questions that drive strategy is an art form. Being perceived as strategic is a significant prerequisite to being promoted to an officer in most companies. In our leadership coaching practice, it is the issue most often brought up to us as a gap in knowledge for future leaders. If you and your team need help thinking strategically, or being perceived as such, call us.  We can help.  It’s what we do.