How Would You Put Your Organization Out of Business?

closed business A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of hearing Adam Grant speak. For those of you who are unfamiliar with his work, he is a wunderkind. He’s a wildly popular professor of management and psychology at Wharton, has written two great books (Give and Take and Originals), recently co-wrote a new book with Sheryl Sandberg called Option B, and his Ted Talks have been viewed by more than 9 million people. Get familiar with his work. It will make you smarter and better.

Among the things he discussed in his keynote was how to combat groupthink. Groupthink may be the most dangerous force running rampant within organizations today. It’s certainly deadly to innovation. Here’s a definition of it from Psychology Today:

Groupthink occurs when a group values harmony and coherence over accurate analysis and critical evaluation. It causes individual members of the group to unquestioningly follow the word of the leader and it strongly discourages any disagreement with the consensus.

To combat Groupthink requires divergent thinking. But that is much easier said than done. The forces of conformity and social norms are incredibly powerful. It requires some very intentional effort in order to succeed.

Adam Grant described one organization’s ingenious approach to unleashing divergent and nonconformist thinking. The CEO of this particular organization was frustrated by the lack of new ideas from his leadership team about how to stay ahead of the competition in the future.

So, instead of asking them how to stay ahead of the competition, he chose to ask a different question:

“If you were our competitor, how would you put us out of business?”  

By asking this question, he freed people to be more creative. The pressure to come up with a good idea was replaced with  freedom to point out areas of deficiency or gaps in strategy. According to Adam’s account, by changing the question asked, the CEO unleashed the energy and creativity of this team.

Turns out, it is easier to talk about a new service model for clients that a fictional competitor might employ than to suggest a change to your existing model. One is speculative, the other potentially critical. Speculation doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings or step on anyone’s toes.

This organization apparently found great success by using this approach. In fact, Adam suggested that leadership teams should be putting themselves through this exercise a few times per year.

There is tremendous power in the questions we ask. We can change the trajectory of our work and our results by asking the right questions.

Here are some examples of questions you might use to force divergent thinking for your team (or yourself).

  • If your department, team, or role was disbanded tomorrow, how would the work get done? What work might just go away?
  • A new product has launched that caused your organization to rapidly lose half its business. What kind of product is it? Describe it.
  • If you were a competitor starting up, what would you offer to our top people to recruit them away? What would you say to convince them to leave?

These are just a few examples, but if you sit with any of these questions for a few minutes and really ponder them, you’ll see how they might lead to some pretty divergent insights. The first question challenges you to think about the value you or your team create. The second helps you spark innovation by tapping into the disruption you’re most afraid of. The third challenges you to face down where you might be falling short for your most valuable people (an insight you should probably take some action on).

The divergent idea may not always be the most fruitful to pursue, but it will almost always help you see your opportunities and challenges more clearly. And, many times, it will unlock the door to an entirely new path forward that was being hidden behind the veil of groupthink.

What kind of questions will you ask?


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