Through my university research on strategic leadership, and my advisory work with senior leaders over the past two decades, I have observed a strong correlation between a leaders’ ability to frame and pose profound strategic questions and their ability to think strategically. In other words, strategic leaders think in the form of questions—the ability to frame strategic questions and engage in strategic dialogue is a key dimension of strategic leadership.
In my work with executives, I can generally gauge a leader’s ability to think strategically by the quality of the questions they pose. The strategic questions a leader poses are the outward manifestation of his or her internal thinking process and their general orientation to the business. Strategic leaders tend to be broad-gauge thinkers and wide categorizers. They ask big-picture questions that serve as an early warning system, so the organization doesn’t get blindsided by the future. Well-framed strategic questions help leaders make sense of complex market dynamics and patterns. The questions a strategic leader poses, whether they are spoken or simply reflected upon by the leader, are not designed to be answered on a point-by-point basis per se but are meant to marinate and produce a deeper set of questions that produce deeper understanding into market dynamics.
Types of Strategic Questions
Accomplished strategic leaders tend to have a broad repertoire of strategic questions for recognizing market patterns and assessing the strategic and financial health of the enterprise.
Here are a handful of examples to illustrate:
- What are the key trends and patterns in the broad market landscape and what threats and opportunities do they present?
- How are industry and competitive dynamics evolving? How is the basis of competition shifting and what are the implications for our business model?
- How are customer lifestyles, attitudes, needs, and purchase and consumption patterns evolving? How will customer and economic value be created in the future?
- What are the key trends and dynamics in our distribution channels? What are the implications for our business?
- What is the strategic and financial health of our organization? What is the longer-term growth and profitability picture? What are our next-generation growth engines?
- What new capabilities must our organization build to sustain its market leadership and capture emerging growth opportunities? How must our culture evolve?
Big-picture, enterprise-level questions such as these are central to the long-term competitiveness and economic viability of the firm and help a leader rise above the operational fray and maintain a strategic perspective.
Industry Disruption and Reinvention
Today, nearly every industry, from financial services to farming, is undergoing some form of disruption, transformation, or reinvention. Low-cost digital technologies have lowered barriers to entry precipitously, giving rise to new types of competitors and business models, creating an accelerating world that has quickened commoditization cycles and shortened corporate lifespans to where they can be measured in dog years. Paradoxically, the digital revolution has brought dramatic growth in strategic complexity—socioeconomic, geopolitical, technological, customer, channel, competitive, and organizational—placing immense cognitive demands on leaders. When scanning the external landscape for disruptive threats and emerging opportunities, leaders are unsure of what they should be looking at in the external landscape, let alone how.
Questions Are the Answer
As Gabriol, the 11th century philosopher noted, “A wise man’s question contains half the answer.” In simple terms, the better you are at framing strategic questions, the better you will be at recognizing the intersecting trends and patterns that create and shape markets.
As an organization matures from a fledgling start-up to industry stalwart, the field of vision often narrows, and the organization finds itself peering at the outside world through a peephole. Individuals undergo similar life-cycle changes as they grow and mature from starry-eyed children with boundless curiosity and imagination to buttoned-up executives who interpret the future through the prism of past experiences. Left unchecked, these perceptual filters become self-limiting and self-sustaining, suppressing the
long-term imaginative thinking that is essential to sustained value creation. This explains why, in incumbent firms, most growth opportunities are hidden in plain sight.
You will be amazed at what you can see when you wipe the residue of past experiences from your lens and scan the market landscape with the curiosity and imagination of a five-year-old. Subtle cues that are invisible to the naked eye will become crystal clear when you sharpen your ability to frame strategic questions and develop your strategic eye.
About Dr. Jeffrey Kuhn
Dr. Jeffrey Kuhn is a distinguished thinker, author, strategy advisor, and educator with expertise positioned at the intersection of strategy, innovation, growth, and organizational renewal and vitality—the work of strategic leadership. His work centers on helping senior business leaders develop the capacity to think and lead strategically in dynamic market environments undergoing profound change. He holds a doctorate from Columbia University and has served on the faculty of Columbia Business School and Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a founding member of the Strategic Management Forum and is a Fellow at the Royal Society of Arts. In 2017, Dr. Kuhn was inducted into Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches.
Dr. Kuhn is doing three more IMS programs this month. Learn more about them HERE.