I’ve concluded that I’m writing this article as a bit of catharsis. It’s the culmination of recent observations, and my pondering on those observations – not to mention reflection on my bad habits, which I hope are finally waning. Also, if I find it interesting, maybe you do too. Let’s see.

We like answers, don’t we? Solutions, responses. I do. These days, however, I’m trying harder and harder not to want them so quickly, or so wholly. I’m trying to be much more comfortable (and enjoy) the grey space of working it all out. Of bringing the pieces together a little more slowly, not deciding the answer before I know the question. Becoming a Partner at Subsector has had a huge influence on my responses personally and professionally. Historically, like many of you reading this, I might have tended to ‘skip to the end.’

“You might have ‘questioned the brief’ but you didn’t normally question: the business model, the product, the customer experience or the priorities that led to the brief existing. When you did, you knew that was a risk.”

In almost 20 years of working in agencies of different sorts, this way of thinking gets conditioned into you. Agencies are expected to have answers, not questions (not really). Certainly not when I was working in them. You might have ‘questioned the brief’ but you didn’t normally question; the business model, the product, the customer experience or the priorities that led to the brief existing. When you did, you knew that was a risk.

When I work with agencies (excluding most innovation/service design agencies) there is often resistance to probing for the right question. There can be a reluctance to follow a process and trust it to bring elements together at the right time, in the right order. ‘Business-As-Usual’ often entails making decisions in unstructured meetings (albeit with expertise and passion). This is followed by looking for evidence to back up the decision. This ‘bakes-in’ subjectivity and misses the chance to reveal new opportunities that might be surprising (albeit sometimes inconvenient). Often these teams want the answer to be quick, and they want it to be suited to their current offer. Our Subsector crush, Daniel Kahneman talks about the pitfalls eloquently here (the MAP process outlined has many parallels to our own N2D Method®)

As I write, I realise that it’s unfair to pick out agencies as being most guilty of this approach. It happens in some of the traditional, large corporate organisations we spend time with too. The difference is that as they are often faced with the consulting megaliths and so our nimble, evidence-driven, decision-making process seems rapid and pragmatic. In this scenario, getting from the BAU state to something rigorous and less subjective is a little easier to adopt – especially when it reduces risk and helps deal with the bane of modern business, UNCERTAINTY.

If we’re not focused on answers, what are we focused on?

I don’t want to start banging on about great questions, there’s enough of that about. However, I can’t avoid mentioning it. You can’t provide a great answer (effective, relevant, impactful) without the right question – well, you can, but that’s luck, not expertise. At Subsector, we talk about helping people to make sure they are ‘answering the right exam question’ before they pour budget, time, energy and often good relationships into a response. The opposite (great response, wrong question) is a fabulous recipe for wasting many of the things listed above. We’ve all been there.

I read in a recent LinkedIn newsletter that the difference between agencies and consultants is that agencies are paid to come up with solutions and consultants are paid to work out the questions. I’ve used a similar analogy myself – and as an agency person (especially a ‘suit’) turned ‘consultant’, it’s a challenging shift to make. While I am uncertain if the ‘agency/consultant’ differentiators will sustain (when many agencies are slowly moving towards consultant behaviours) I do think that these descriptions are useful to think our professional approach – do I always want to skip to a solution? How confident do I feel in designing the right question?

Tool Up

I was always led to believe that ‘strategy’ (whatever that means) was something that Planners did, the super-smart, cerebral people who sat around with endless bits of paper – seemingly able to make any set of information in a pithy, succinct chart (I still can’t do this). In fact, the larger the organisation, the less everyone was encouraged to be involved in the ‘question end’ of the work. What I’ve worked out in the last few years is that to be one of the people who do this stuff really well, isn’t some innately born quality. This has been like having the recipe for the secret sauce revealed.

Great questions are born out of great processes.”

What I have realised in the last two years since joining Phil Dearson at Subsector, is that great questions are not born out of being great with questions, or having all of the answers. Not from being able to retro-fit questions to the answers either. Great questions are born out of great processes. Great questions come from using smart methods for understanding complex information and being able to process it in a way that helps us see that situation in a much clearer way.

You don’t have to use our Method for this, although of course, you can. You should, however, use a method – there are loads, fill your boots. There is a joy, which many are yet to experience, in watching the pieces all come together and critically, not feeling the pressure to have the answer yourself, immediately. It’s very liberating to be relieved of the expectation that the answer to a complex problem can be magically plucked from the air as if it were a Unicorn falling from the sky (clue: Unicorns are heavy, pretty rare, and hard to catch).

What complex question are you facing? “What’s the future of your organisation?” “What are the features of our new product?” “Where should we innovate? What should our proposition be?” There’s every chance ‘smarts’ alone won’t help you skip to the end on these. For every complex question, find a suitable way of breaking that big question down into smaller ones (I wrote about that recently here) and let the process unveil itself. Easy, or much easier, to say the least…

I used to be intimidated by not immediately knowing the answer to big, complicated questions. In my organisation and for my clients. I somehow thought that as a business leader I should ‘just know’. Now, I respond to questions like this every day. I didn’t get smarter. I just got some new tools and I got a lot more comfortable in the grey area.

Next time you’re asked a big question. Resist the urge to answer. Don’t skip to the end. Skip to the start.