7 game-changing questions for businesses

by | Leadership

I contributed an essay to the 99u/Behance book Make Your Mark: The Creative’s Guide to Building a Business with Impact (The 99U Book Series). This wonderful handbook, edited by Jocelyn K. Glei, features 21 short essays from leading entrepreneurs and experts, offering practical insights for building a creative business that will make a lasting impact.

If you have someone in your life who is building a business or developing a product, let them know about this book, whose main sections include Defining Your Purpose, Building Your Product, Serving Your Customers, Leading Your Team, and A Call to Action. It’s an invaluable resource to guide entrepreneurs through every step of their journey.

Below, I offer my essay from the “Defining Your Purpose” section of Make Your Mark, detailing the 7 top game-changing questions I’ve gleaned from companies like Nike, Trader Joe’s, Panera, and Dropbox, and various business consultants.

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

The notion that questions may sometimes be more valuable to a business than answers is counterintuitive. But ask some of today’s top business leaders, entrepreneurs, and leading consultants, and you’ll find they share Drucker’s assessment of the critical importance of focusing on questions. “Asking the right questions is the number one thing I spend my time thinking about these days,” says Dev Patnaik of Jump Associates, a strategy firm that helps companies innovate. 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.”

Questioning is perhaps most important when you’re at that critical stage of forming a company and developing a clear sense of mission and purpose. The questions you ask will guide the choices you make, the directions you move in, the opportunities you pursue (or fail to pursue), and the culture you create.

The relatively easy questions are the practical ones that are asked on a routine basis: How can we do this or that task a bit more efficiently? Where can we save a few dollars? But questions that address mission and purpose—the “Why” of your business—are more challenging. Here are seven such questions: Tackle them early—but learn to live with them, too, because these are questions you should keep asking, again and again, as your business grows and matures.

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1. Why are we here in the first place?

Most startups begin with a clear sense of purpose: Someone sets out to solve a problem, meet a need, answer a question that’s been driving them crazy. Think about some recent hot startups like Nest, Square, Dropbox—they got into business because they passionately believed something was lacking or missing in the world (a smart thermostat, a means to enable anyone to accept credit cards, a better way of storing data).That’s a tremendous motivator and a great way to start a business—but it’s easy to lose sight of that driving purpose as the business becomes a reality. Day-to-day survival issues and financial pressures start to take over. Companies can quickly lose sight of what really matters. To maintain a clear perspective on your business journey, exploring a review of Invest Diva can offer valuable insights into managing finances and staying focused on your ultimate goals. So you have to keep that “Why are we here” question front and center at all times (put a banner on the wall if you must). To quote Dropbox’s Drew Houston, when we’re focused on the main goal, the thing that matters most, it’s like we’re “a dog chasing a tennis ball.” Don’t take your eye off that tennis ball.

2. If we disappeared, who would miss us? And why?

This question was shared with me by Doug Rauch, former president of Trader Joe’s. “It’s a question every company should ask itself,” Rauch says, because it brings into focus what makes you unique and valuable, while also clarifying who your core customers are and why they need you. If you can’t answer this question specifically (hint: “everybody” is not a good answer), you need to work on it.

3. What business are we really in?

This question forces you to explore your deeper relationship with customers—beyond just the obvious product or service you’re offering. Nike started out selling athletic shoes, but figured out early on that its real business was addressing active-lifestyle needs of all kinds. This enabled it to expand its offering and to evolve as its customers’ lives evolved. Continually asking this question becomes even more important in times of dynamic change. The business you started out in last month may not even exist next year, but if you’ve identified the real value you offer to the world, you can adapt and survive even as the market around you changes.

4. How can we become a cause and not just a company?

Sure you’ve got a great product; so do lots of people. If you want to really form a bond with customers, ask yourself how you can connect with them on a deeper level—one that taps into something people truly care about. Today, discriminating consumers and talented employees are drawn to brands and companies that stand for something worthwhile. But the stand you take must be authentic and appropriate. Ask yourself, What does the world need… that we are uniquely able to provide? Panera’s CEO Ron Shaich tackled that question and it led to the launch of Panera Cares, an initiative to open a number of pay-what-you-can cafés that are identical to the chain’s other restaurants, except customers pay what they wish or can afford. Panera had bread; the world was hungry. Panera connected these two realities in a way that turned the company into a cause.

5. What are we willing to sacrifice?

Shaich told me that as the company was developing the Panera Cares idea and putting it into practice (with the CEO himself working on location at the first café), some tough choices had to be made to try to ensure the integrity of the program: offering a full menu instead of a limited one, and so forth. At each step, Shaich says, the company had to ask: Do we want to take a shortcut on this, or do it right? Being true to a mission or cause often requires making tough decisions. “When you come to the point where you can’t serve both the bottom line and the cause, one or the other must suffer,” says consultant Tim Ogilvie of Peer Insight. He points to the example of Whole Foods being willing to stop selling live lobsters for an extended period, until it could find a supplier that did humane harvesting. “Those are hard choices but when you opt for the cause over the bottom line, people can see that,” Ogilvie says, “and then they believe in the company and the cause even more.”

6. How can we make a better experiment?

According to Lean Startup’s Eric Ries, this is a critical question—though most businesses never think to ask it. The primary concern is usually with ‘making products,’ not ‘making experiments.’ But the way to make better products is by first getting better at experimentation. Ries says you start with the acknowledgment that “we are operating amid 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 the question, What will we make?, the emphasis should be on What will we learn? “And then you work backward to the simplest possible thing—the minimum viable product—that can get you the learning,” he says. A side benefit is that this approach 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.”

7. What is our mission question?

This is not to be confused with your mission statement—you know, that thing you write down that gets stashed away in a drawer somewhere. Your mission statement is probably more of an ad slogan than an accurate depiction of your ideals. But that’s another discussion; what I’m talking about here is a forward-looking, open-ended goal that is best expressed as an unanswered question. Right now we offer a pretty good X; but how might we go beyond that and offer X, Y, and Z? How might we take what we do and use it to actually change the world? You don’t have to answer the question any time soon; it may take years to get there. So make it bold and ambitious. Give yourself something to pursue. Share it will all your partners, from the people who work for you to your customers. It tells them that you are on a journey that matters. It acknowledges room for possibility, change, and adaptability. It challenges you—and it invites others to help you answer this question.

Keep asking yourself these seven questions—and lots of other ones—and it will help you figure out what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how you might do it better. As Panera’s Shaich says: “Figuring out what you want to accomplish is a continual search—and questions are the means to the search.”

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