Much of real management wisdom could be summed up in the sentence: “Slow down, and use your head.” In The Management Mythbuster, David Axson writes, “Perhaps the one good thing to emerge from these tumultuous times is that questioning the effectiveness of long-established management practices has gone from being interesting to imperative.” Many of the management practices are outdated says Axson. They are rigid, calendar-based and excessively financial in focus. They can’t keep up the speed of today’s world. We need management practices that function in real time.
He takes to task six traditional management practices that he believes are no longer suited to today’s business world. He argues: Strategic plans are of little use in times of great uncertainty and volatility; Operating plans and budgetsprovide a false sense of security; Management reporting is driven by an obsolete view of the world; Incentive compensation rewards poor performance and penalizes outstanding performance; Investments in staff education have been inadequate and misdirected; and Technology has failed to improve and in many cases has reduced the effectiveness of management.
In one section he asks, “What makes a successful leader?” From his experience he concludes that the most successful ones share one characteristic—they ask great questions. He observes:
Great questions are not complex questions; in fact, the best seem blindingly obvious. Unfortunately, a relatively small proportion of people in leadership positions have the courage, confidence, or even the basic common sense to ask the right questions.
Contribution Syndrome: No matter what the situation, it is the compulsion to contribute; to show how smart you are at every possible opportunity. Our whole merit system is based upon getting the answer “right.” As we move into the business world, contribution syndrome infects our every pore. We must be seen to be contributing in every meeting or on every project. For some, this manifests itself in a complete inability to sit quietly and listen. It seems part of their DNA to feel that if they are not talking, then they are not working.
As you move up the corporate ladder, a subtle change stats to take place. The best stop talking. They sit quietly, taking in the contributions of everyone else, and limiting their own contribution to asking a few pertinent questions that lead the discussion in a constructive manner.
The most potent question anyone can ever ask is the simple three-letter inquiry, “Why?” In the world of commerce it is best used in serial repetition. Ask the “why” question at least five times in response to earnest arguments for a particular scheme or plan.
The key is to keep asking dumb but great questions. This demonstrates a level of humility that is essential for effective leadership. Complexity has become synonymous with sophistication. How do we get better at asking great questions: practice.