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On Questioning Questions in Organizations

Reflect on how much of your day is spent asking questions and answering questions. How many questions do you ask a day, what kinds of questions do you ask, and why do you ask the questions you do. Try having a conversation with a colleague, or a friend, without asking questions, how long might you go without asking a question? The simple answer: not too long. Questions, and questioning, make for an integral aspect of our lives. Yet, how many of us take the time to be mindful about the questions we ask and how we answer questions. Within organizations, the asking of, and responding to, questions, makes for a critical mechanism through which we elicit information and construct dialogues. Managers that ask good, and hard, questions of their employees in an efficient, and respectful, manner are respected by their employees. Conversely, managers who ask ‘dumb’ questions (yes, there are things like dumb and stupid questions), and do not following basic etiquette when doing so, are more likely to be dismissed by their employees as being incompetent. Similarly, employees are perceived as smart (or foolish) based on the questions they ask and their ability to respond to questions. For the last few years, I have been fascinated with the concept of questions and the mechanics of questioning.

Questioning plays a critical role in organizational discourse. We often hear statement such as: ask the hard questions, question the status-quo, or there is nothing like a stupid question, among others. These statements give lip service to the concept of questioning. Managers are some of the most poorly trained questioners. Students in disciplines such as psychology, medicine, and law, are explicitly taught how to question. Business students almost never examine the art, and science, of questioning in a thoughtful manner. As a result, one of the most cited reasons for organizational failures (such as corporate scandals or committing to a failed course of action), is the inability for those who were observing the disaster unfold to be courageous enough to ask the right questions (and seek appropriate answers). Just imagine what would happen if a psychologist did not ask questions appropriately or if your physician did not ask the right questions to diagnose ailments. Would we tolerate this level of incompetency? Probably not!

Organizations need to urgently embrace the art and science of questioning. I believe that organizations will be healthier if individuals knew how to ask the ‘right’ questions and how to respond to questions. Being deliberate about the concept of questioning will lead to organizations expelling less effort in achieving their goals and objectives. I am currently beginning to write a few articles on questioning. While most of my writing will be for a business (management) audience, they are relevant to fields such as engineering, new product development, and education, among others. I want to encourage all readers to share their experiences with me on the topic. What do you think about questioning? How do you differentiate a good question from a bad one? What kinds of questions do you ask and why? Do you know of people who ask the ‘right’ questions, if so, why do you think they are successful in asking questions? These are just some of the questions that I would love to get answers to. If you have other reactions to the issue of questioning, please do share them with me.

If you would like me to come to your organization and conduct a workshop on the topic, please do not hesitate to contact me. I guarantee that if your organization gets smarter at the art and science of questioning, it will be a more ‘intelligent’ and ‘mindful’ place.

Rewards for Idea Generation and Mobilization: Good/Bad Idea?

A question that I often get from managers and senior executives is should the organization provide rewards to encourage idea generation and mobilization?

I have seen a wide array of tactics deployed to encourage idea generation and mobilization. In my forthcoming book, Intrapreneurship, I explore how leading organizations foster entrepreneurship by employees by enabling them to leverage their ideas. In this blog post, I draw on material that I put together for my book to answer the question of whether rewards should be given for idea generation and mobilization.

I believe that no rewards should be given for the generation of new ideas. By rewards, I am referring to extrinsic rewards such as bonuses, American Express gift cards, or even recognition as “Idea Generator of the Month.” In my experience, extrinsic rewards do not work because they set the wrong precedence and can be easily gamed. Employees should not be rewarded for a required activity (you do not reward employees for coming to work on time!). Contributing ideas needs to become second nature and part of the work fabric, and employees should not be rewarded for the same reason that they are not rewarded for carrying out their regular job responsibilities. I might even suggest that for those employees who do not contribute ideas, disincentives and negative reinforcement be used. Similarly, managers who do not foster employee creativity and build a constructive environment should be coached or moved out of their management position.

The other reason that I think rewards do not work for idea generation is simply that they can be gamed. For example, when a reward is given for the most ideas submitted, employees might submit a large number of low quality ideas in order to get a reward. Here, you may get employees contributing worthless ideas in order to get gift cards or to get a leg up on their peers. This may have the opposite of the desired impact, as Alcatrel-Lucent discovered. They offered new car for best idea for part of a “Stretch Your Mind" event. As Guido Petit, senior director at Alcatrel-Lucent commented, “It was a big event, but a bad practice…It created more negative energy than positive energy because there was one happy person and 149 unhappy people…And although the contest tripled the ideas generated, none of them became products.”[1]

I do believe that rewards play a vital role in fostering the mobility of ideas. Employees who take time out of their schedules to communicate ideas to their peers need to be rewarded. Simply put, this behavior is not natural and cannot be expected. Moreover, employees’ actions to look beyond their own interests and collaborate with their peers needs to be recognized and rewarded. In some organizations, employees are polled regularly for the names of the people from whom they received the most ideas and the most valuable ideas, and asked to describe how they furthered the idea. The employees then write a personal letter of thanks and appreciatio,n which goes a long way in showing their gratitude. In some cases rewards will be given across departments, where one department will use part of its budget to reward an employee in another unit who has helped the department with its ideas. Such peer-to-peer recognition of the value of idea mobilization is energetic and vital.

A case in point: Whirlpool convened a research team in the Alps for the sole purpose of creating exciting new products, but the team returned with only non-starters. David R. Whitwam, Whirlpool’s recently retired CEO, didn't give up. Instead, he decided innovation could occur along with normal work, with every employee’s contribution. The first successful step towards an innovative scale-up was convening an Innovation Team to examine every department and ask employees for ideas—and no idea was outrightly rejected.[2] The team included employees from almost all departments and almost all functional areas.[3] They created a screening process to review every idea, focusing on customer needs, not existing technology or skills.[4] Every idea was graded and recorded. The review board persists as a crucial component of the innovative effort, and is still in place to this day. The grading scheme focused on customer needs and Whirlpool core competencies to maximize the possibility of finding the very best ideas.[5] Quickly, Whirlpool created internal courses on innovation which focused on two components of creating good ideas: product development skills (such as emphasizing customer needs) and venture capital skills (such as marketing and implementation concerns).[6] Whitwam demanded that employees come to him with ideas—any ideas—if their managers won’t listen.

Those who complete the company’s internal course on innovation skills (a five and a half day process) and then oversee the generation and advocacy of a few products can become I-mentors, or Innovation Mentors.[7] These mentors are key figures in the Whirlpool innovation process because they serve as innovation managers: their role is not to control or oversee, but to support and advocate for those with ideas, and to connect ideas with departments or people who might benefit from them.[8],[9] Mentors nurture the beginning stages of innovation. The role of mentors is not limited to seeking ideas, but also includes actively generating them. I-mentors lead team meetings in which employees reflect on customer knowledge, business trends and their own experiences, and “insights” are developed and recorded.

Whirlpool supports employees who act like entrepreneurs, and funds their ideas, not just by providing time, but also investing in employee business notions and allowing them to open businesses within the organization.[10] For instance, one employee, Josh Gitlin,  dreamt up in-home cooking classes across the country, using Whirlpool’s KitchenAid® line as well as other Whirlpool products. The generous budget for innovations also has a carrot for managers: managers’ pay is linked to revenue derived from new products and services.


[1] Dutton, G. "Innovation Acceleration." Training, January 15, 2010.

[2] Warner, F. “Recipe for Growth.” Fast Company, Oct. 2001, 40-1.

[3] Arndt, M. “Creativity Overflowing.” Business Week, May 8, 2006.

[4] Warner, F. “Recipe for Growth.” Fast Company, Oct. 2001, 40-1.

[5] Arndt, M. “Creativity Overflowing.” Business Week, May 8, 2006.

[6] Dolezalek, H. “Imagination Station.” Training 40, no. 6 (2003): 14.

[7] Cutler, G. “Innovation Mentoring at Whirlpool.” Research Technology Management 46, no. 6 (2003): 57.

[8] Melymuka, K. “Innovation Democracy.” Computerworld 38, no. 7 (2004): 31-2.

[9] Cutler, G. “Innovation Mentoring at Whirlpool.” Research Technology Management 46, no. 6 (2003): 57.

[10] Arndt, M. (2002) “Whirlpool taps its inner entrepreneur.” Business Week Online, Feb. 7, 2002.

Building the Business Case for Knowledge Management and Innovation Programs

Resources are needed in order to invest in knowledge management and innovation programs. Whether it is discretionary resources to acquire a new system for knowledge discovery or cash to buy gift cards to be used as incentives to promote knowledge sharing among employees, it is important to remember that resources can make, or break, a knowledge management effort. Not all resources are of a monetary nature. Many times, the most valuable resource required is attention. Employee attention to the knowledge management effort (e.g., a new method for codifying knowledge) is also salient for success. To get employee attention, in most cases, you need the attention of senior executives, who give their attention to the projects in which they invest significant resources. So, there is no getting around the fact that securing resources for knowledge management is a critical issue.

Unfortunately, few managers know how to write business cases that attract the necessary resources for their knowledge management and innovation programs.Business cases are strategic artifacts aimed to sell internal and/or external stakeholders on the merits of a project. Upon reading a business case, one should come away with a clear strategic understanding of the project and its value proposition, confidence in the project team, assurance that the budget for the project is reasonable, and awareness that the high-level project plan is sound. Based on my experience, I would suspect that out of every 20 business cases for a knowledge management related effort, about one is funded at the level requested, up to three are funded at 30% or below of what was requested, and the rest are not funded at all!

First, the scarcity problem means that organizations do not have unlimited resources (e.g., capital, or even more intangible resources, like managerial attention), meaning all needs are not going to be met. Recognizing the criticality of the scarcity problem means that when an organization considers a case for investing in knowledge management, it is going to be evaluated against every other case that is asking for resources. Too often, knowledge management business cases do not understand or account for this reality, and go by the wayside.

The second thing to understand is that knowledge management efforts need to show payoffs. In an organizational context, payoffs are compared across projects that are candidates for investments. Business cases that are able to demonstrate payoffs that are worthy of the effort (time, cost, personnel, etc) of the investment, and present convincing arguments on why the payoff will better the organization towards its future objectives, stand a high chance of being funded. Simply claiming a high payoff is not sufficient. The business case presented must be sufficiently evidenced to show that achieving the payoff is reasonable.

From the outset, one must realize that making the case for a knowledge management effort and calculating payoffs is not easy, when compared to making the business case for a new piece of manufacturing equipment, such as new welding machine or a color photocopier. Investing in a piece of new machinery can be directly tied to increases in product quality and/or quantity through multiple metrics (e.g., lower defect rates, finished products per hour, etc). Calculating the payoffs for investments in knowledge management efforts is not as easy, nor is it as direct, and first-order effects are difficult, if not impossible to measure. Knowledge management efforts lead to changes in behaviors, approaches, and methods that, on their own may not have direct bottom-line impacts. However, when these are mapped and traced to organizational processes, the impacts can be measured and articulated. Needless to say, this is often a more time consuming and creative effort than simply measuring direct impacts as in the case of outcomes from a new piece of manufacturing equipment.  Equally important is that there is a lag time between when one invests in a knowledge management effort and when one witnesses outcomes that result in payoffs. Accounting for this lag time is not easy, yet it is essential to building an adequate business case.

The third, critical realization that we need to appreciate is the fact that investing in knowledge management is akin to a group as a whole investing in a common effort. Consider the case of investing in initiatives such as the promotion of fair trade practices. Most people agree that increasing the adoption of fair trade practices benefits society. The challenge arises when we ask who wants to take responsibility for investing in these efforts. If taxes were raised to support these efforts, would you be happy? Rational individuals often want others to bear the cost of these common efforts and gladly enjoy the benefits, yet hesitate to initiate responsibility. A similar predicament faces knowledge management efforts. Departments within an organization want their peers’ units to invest in a common effort. Each department might see knowledge management as an effort someone else should put up resources for and hence defers spending its own resources. In some organizations, knowledge management efforts might be viewed as a tax levied on a department’s resources. This tax, is something every department either does not want to pay or wants to pay the lowest possible amount; yet any outcomes from the tax, such as infrastructure (e.g. a new intranet) is of interest to all. Moreover, the departments may get upset if they see the common effort they invest in does not perform up to par. This is akin to how one feels when one drives down a poorly maintained road, knowing that one has paid taxes for its upkeep. Knowledge management is seldom viewed as a profit center in an organization. It is important to remember that building a business case for a knowledge management effort is often similar to trying to build a case for increasing investment in an effort common to the whole organization.

The above three challenges, while severe, are not insurmountable. To learn more about how to build a good business case for knowledge management and innovation programs, please send me an email and stay tuned for my forthcoming article in Business Information Review.

Without a good business case, knowledge management will remain a theoretical, and even an impractical, concept in organizations. Good business cases give individuals a chance to put theory into practice, by providing resources for implementing knowledge management programs, processes, and technologies. Writing good business cases requires time, effort, and practice. Seldom is one born with the ability to write good business cases.

Idea Experimentation: Putting Your Ideas to the Test

Once you have advocated, screened, and funded ideas, the next step is to engage in experimentation. To experiment is to try something new. It allows you to observe the interplay between cause and effects—i.e., it is the application of scientific methods to generate actionable knowledge. Simply put, experimentation can be considered the sum of all activities we engage in to test the feasibility and elasticity of an idea. On the feasibility side, we are normally looking at the cost, benefits, effort, resources, and risks involved in transforming the idea into a viable product and/or service. In addition to feasibility, the experimentation process will also unearth the elasticity of an idea. Idea elasticity focuses on the reach of the product and/or service. Elasticity tries to see how far you can stretch ideas, both in terms of the number of products and/or services that you can develop from them, and also the domains in which you can deploy them.

It is through the process of collecting data through the conduct of experiments that we can find support for the ideas. Data collected during the experimentation process will help us gather the necessary evidence to support decision-making. Today, there is a big movement in medicine called evidence-based medicine (EBM), which demonstrates that a move towards more scientific and data-driven decision-making can prove to be valuable, rather than purely relying on gut instincts. Dr. Dave Sackett, a pioneer in the field states “EBM is saying rather than just rely on tradition, expert opinion, wishful thinking, let's try and find the evidence and apply it.” [1] To build a culture of experimentation one must focus on the following principles: 1) do not just discard ideas without adequate evidence, 2) do not support or move ideas ahead without adequate evidence, and 3) always look to exploit data from experiments.
While at Amazon from 1997-2002, Greg Linden prototyped a system that would make personal recommendations to customers as they checked out. Linden commented, “I heard the SVP was angry when he discovered I was pushing out a test. But, even for top executives, it was hard to block a test. Measurement is good. The only good argument against testing would be that the negative impact might be so severe that Amazon couldn't afford it, a difficult claim to make.” [2] Linden’s experiment showed how much the customer liked the feature and it won praise – the end result is that this has become a signature design feature for Amazon, and most online web marketers have introduced a similar concept. This illustrates the value and capabilities of organizations to test incremental ideas and achieve innovation through “continual tiny experiments in such areas as business processes and customer relationships rather than a single, company-transforming idea.” [3]

Experimentation needs to be made part of every employee’s work and has to move beyond the R&D Labs. The R&D Labs have natural constraints that leave a lot to be desired in terms of experimentation. For example, most of the R&D personnel are detached from the day-to-day running of the business and hence are not the best people to experiment on the problems and solutions of interest for today. In addition, these labs are often physically secluded from the operational centers of the business. This separation leads to difficulty when you try to transport (mobilize) ideas from the lab in order to address problems that are happening on the ground. Finally, you also have a numbers issue. The number of individuals working in an R&D lab is minimal compared to employees who are involved with the day-to-day running of the business. As such, no matter how brilliant your R&D lab personnel are, you will be at a loss if you cannot find ways to tap into the 85-90% of your organization’s employees who do not work in the lab. At the Engaged Enterprise, we had a R&D lab, the Institute for Engaged Business Research (IEBR). IEBR was focused on working on applied management problems that had value propositions to our clients. We determined upfront that simply relegating experimenting and innovation to the labs was not optimal. We needed to find a way to blend the experiences of those working on the consulting side with the R&D side. In addition, we needed to find ways to take knowledge that was being generated on the consulting side (as experiments were conducted “live” while projects were being done – i.e. as we tried to install a new service or strategize with a client – we were in essence engaging in experimentation) and move these into the R&D lab. We did this by having people share their time between consulting and R&D. Also, we had our R&D folks develop a method and handbook that could be used for experimentation which explained the basics of experimentation and how to capture and store results. We also encouraged sharing of results from experimentation efforts so that others might use the results, or provide their reflections on the experiments.

The effort to move experimentation beyond the R&D labs needs to be a conscious one. Both, organizational (management) and employee level interventions need to be in place to promote this concept. Managers should not only encourage their employees to experiment with their ideas, but even go so far as making it a requirement when ideas are being developed and proposed. In addition, employees should take responsibility to engage with the experimentation process, and be aware of methods and practices for conducting experiments.

please stay tuned for my new book or send me a note via email…

[1] Sackett, Dr. Dave. (October 30, 2009). Interviewed by André Picard. Available at: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health/when-we-began-we-were-almost-pariahs/article1344833/
[2] http://glinden.blogspot.com/2006/04/early-amazon-shopping-cart.html
[3] McCann, David. (March 15, 2010). Testing, Testing: The New Innovation Game. Available at: http://cfo.com/article.cfm/14482988?f=search