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What if you don’t know what to ask?

Great executives and managers seem to intuitively know what they don’t know.   But it is not at all uncommon to not even know what questions to ask.

How do you avoid being sideswiped by the new product you never saw coming, or by the “black swan” event no-one ever thought of – that might threaten your business?

Speaking with a roundtable group of fellow associates, most all of them CEOs, we addressed this question and spent an hour brainstorming how to protect against just such a lack of forward vision.

One CEO stated that she engages regularly in scenario planning with her executives, asking “what if” questions to explore the edges of the group’s thinking about everything from disruptions of supply to changes in customer taste to acts of God such as floods or earthquake.  The group agreed that this is an excellent process, engaging the entire team and members’ experience to explore the unknown.

DBconsulting1But what if no one in the group thinks to ask the pertinent question that leads to the most impactful unknown?  What if that threat is outside of the experience of anyone in the room?  What if no one knows what to ask?

[Email readers, continue here…]  Another CEO chimed in with an answer that made us all think.  Most every technology advance has been predicted in works of fiction years before the fact, he stated.  Why not look to fiction for clues?  From devastating events like tsunamis to future user interfaces predicted in such films as Star Trek or Minority Report, there are liberating clues within the experiences of most of us.  Think of Flash Gordon or Dick Tracy, characters from many decades ago with communication devices that have not only come to life but have been far surpassed in reality.  Tom Cruise’s virtual handling of graphics by hand movements came true only a few years later, even popularized as a game with Microsoft’s Kinect system driven by body movement alone.

Our frame of reference must be as broad as possible when asking “what if” questions to protect our future.  Read more science fiction if you are involved in technology.  Read more disaster novels to expand your thinking to the very edge, even if only for a minute as you examine what and how to react to the unknowns that are sure to someday challenge us.

  • Michael Flynn

    Good point. Boards and C-Level execs, especially CEO, should have backgrounds from a broad range of experiences and perspectives. Makes me think of the difference between say Bill Gates and Steve Jobs…

  • I think it boils down to a risk/reward calculation. Spending thousands of hours on an extremely unlikely event makes little sense. On the other extreme, ignoring the flow of current technology is just as unwise. And, that the rub. Is it art and/or magic to come up with the right balance and catch every black swan event?

  • Reading speculative fiction certainly is a way to open our minds. Going after specifics in these works can be a problem because as many ideas don’t become reality as do, maybe even more.

    For over a half-century speculative fiction has had future cities, maybe as far in the future for them as the year 2000, with flying cars and undersea communities.

    Predictions about the future seem to fall into three categories. The first are those with which CEOs must be very concerned. These are the predictions that overestimate the time required for the new invention to appear and be widely adopted.

    The second are those that come later than predicted but do come, often in a different manner than originally predicted but with the same impact. These are not much of a worry.

    The third are those that just never happen. It may be due to technological issues, such as faster-than-light travel. It may be due to societal issues. Undersea cities come to mind. It may just be simple economics so that, by the time the technology is available, something else is better.

    This latter case is the one alluded to in the introductory email.

    It’s not enough just to open your mind. You also must practice some serious critical thinking so that you’re not protecting yourself from ghosts and using up valuable resources doing so.

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