Looking for answers is a poor substitute for good questions

For the past seven years I have  taught a course on strategic thinking to students at the University of Cape Town. I ended up doing this by accident.

Prof John Simpson, well known for starting and leading the UCT Unilever Institute of Strategic Marketing was the previous convenor of the course and asked me to help him out after a guest lecture I did on the changes we were navigating in our startup bank.

With the Prof’s wanting to focus on the Unilever Institute after his retirement, I took over the convening of the course a few years later.

I was intrigued to bring together my business experience of strategy and the academic world of strategy. I started on a steep learning curve attempting to create an environment where final year Business Science students could think more strategically about the business world that lay ahead. 

The students come predominantly from a finance background (60%) which is roughly split in half between those aiming to become CA’s and those not. The next biggest segment is marketers and then actuaries, organisational psychologists and a handful of people majoring in technology.

I quickly identified three significant challenges that I faced in teaching the class.

  1. Students adopt a strategy of getting to the other side of exams with as many marks and as little work as possible.
  2. The text books are more suited to academics than to preparing students to be strategic thinkers.
  3. The education system encourages the finding of ‘right answers’ over asking useful questions. 
The first item is a possibly a universal given for any student.
The second I addressed by replacing a single text book with selected readings from contemporary journals and books covering a wide range of topics related to thinking strategically. 
The third I decided to take on as a challenge which still engages me.
My experience of working in my own business and working with many large and small organisations over the past 25 years has confirmed that there are few easy answers in the world of strategy. Leaders who are seeking a single answer to a strategic challenge are possibly naive or missing the point.
The problem with strategy, is that we do not know how the future will play out and despite our best guesses, plans or budgets, to think otherwise is irrational. 

So rather than look for an answer to this dilemma, a good question offers many nuances that are useful to our thinking process. Open and insightful, a question which challenges our thinking can lead us on a much more useful thought process than spending our time trying to find the single correct answer.

While a question is the start of this process,  an answer often signals to us that we have reached the end and can stop looking.  This finality, while tempting, can be fatal for a business person on the way up or at the pinnacle of success.

Questions and answers are of course linked. However we need to resist jumping to answers before we have spent enough time on the question. 

Anyone who has tried to implement the suggestions in a business advice book will confirm there are no model answers in business.

We have more chance of success by getting clear on the question. By refining it and polishing it and allowing ourselves the indulgence of thinking deeply over a period of time, new possibilities can open up. 

In a world with all information available to mostly everyone all the time, the opportunity for eureka moments is long gone.

Our challenge comes in navigating information, making connections, synthesising and integrating. A good question is a great pilot for this navigation. 

And to my students frustrated by the lack of clearly defined answers in the world of strategic thinking, here are some questions.

How can you engage in the practice of strategic thinking?  

How have the answers you have arrived at been tested by insightful questions? 

And, isn’t there something else you may have missed?

Questions are more powerful than answers











Image source: http://bit.ly/GTzVxu 

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There are two types of qualification.

One is those that are bestowed on you externally by universities and colleges, professional bodies or schools. 

They confirm that you know or can do something to a standard. 

They are necessary but are only part of the picture when thinking about qualifications. 

External qualifications cannot replace our own personal sense of feeling qualified for what we do.

In the past this was learned through experience, think apprenticeships, and it was accepted that it took time.

Today there is a race to notch up externally approved qualifications.

Many people move so fast in the external qualification world that they forget to work on their internal qualification.

Getting ourselves to a point where we internally feel qualified to do what we do is a challenging introspective journey that nobody externally can bestow on us.

When we align our external and the internal qualifications, we can feel truly qualified. 


Degrees and qualifications are only part of the story


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race 4 literacy

It’s ten past eight on the 12th April 2008. I’m sitting in a hotel in Port Elizabeth and tomorrow is the Ironman. My first Ironman so I’m a little nervous. Actually make that a lot nervous. My wife Dee flew up today to support me which is great. I’ve had a good day getting everything ready for tomorrow. Lots of checks and re-checks of equipment.

The thing about Ironman is that besides the fitness and the racing there is a whole lot of other logistics that need to be in place. Things like bags for running and cycling gear which we pick up during the transitions from each stage so that we can get changed. The bike, making sure it all works and that I don’t have a last minute puncture. And so on…

I’ve also spent the day responding to mails about the race 4 literacy which is an initiative we launched to link our Ironman effort with building a classroom for kids. The classroom is an Edutainer which is a converted shipping contained – so maybe the reference to Iron is appropriate. I’ve included a picture below and if you read how significant this classroom is to these young lives and how positively affects them, then you will probably feel like the many many people who have provided sponsorship for our Ironman event so that we can build a classroom. You can read about this at www.performancezone.co.za/race4literacy. We’ve had a fantastic response and have already raised a lot of money from all over the world. It’s great to have linked our efforts to something so meaningful.

So the months of training are now at an end and tomorrow morning at 7am we dive in the sea and start what will be anything from a 12 – 14 hour effort. I started thinking about what would be success tomorrow and quickly realised that by putting just a time to it, I would put myself in such a hard place to succeed or fail. So while the time I do is important, there are many more and better things that I can build into my plan which are in fact much more strategic as well.

So I came up with a race strategy which consists of Four ‘F’s which include what I believe are the key aspects for me to have a successful race. This is my first one so I’m sure by this time tomorrow I’ll know if I was on the right track or not. Part of doing an Ironman is to learn (more on that in another post) so irrespective of what happens tomorrow, if I come away wiser I will be satisfied.

My Four ‘F’ strategy for Ironman consists of:

  1. Food – the nutrition and drinks that I need leading up to, during and after the race to perform at my best and recover.
  2. Fun – enjoy myself and don’t take things too seriously. I’ll have a chance of interacting with many fantastic people during the day.
  3. Finish – while this might sound obvious, going out too fast, not looking after myself or trying to perform outside of what I have trained for, and am capable of, will put this in jeopardy. An hour spent irresponsibly at the beginning of the race will have dire consequences later on. So maybe obvious but very important for me, as I have a tendency of going too fast too soon.
  4. Follow the plan. I created a basic plan which has plans for what nutrition I will take, what heart rate I will stick with based on my training programme with Mark Allen and the pace that I should work towards. The pace does of course give me times to work towards which should be the worst case. The pace/time is also secondary to this strategy and I won’t push beyond my heart rate to achieve the time. My heart rate is the most important indicator of what is going on in my body. Too high and I’m pushing too hard or not taking in enough fluid, too low and I’m possibly in need of food.

So I have a strategy which I think is sound. I’m excited about the day and looking forward to getting started now. So I’m going to sleep and will post a follow up when done.

Don’t forget to support those kids at www.performancezone.co.za/race4literacy

You’ll make a real difference in their lives.

Story of Stuff

I had a look at Annie Leonard’s video, The Story of Stuff today and was amazed at some of the facts and figures and the perspective that she offers. She basically walks us through the cycle of the consumer economy and with a few digs at the US government and corporates shares the stark facts and figures of our current reality. A bit like a lesser researched “Inconvenient Truth”. She’s not going to win the Nobel Peace prize but she has done an excellent first take at simplifying the overall picture and showing how we contribute to the environmental challenges we now face.

At a point she mentions retailing analyst Victor Lebow who when talking about how to rebuild the American economy after world war two suggested, “Our enormously productive economy … demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption…. we need things consumed, burned up, replaced, and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”

At the time President Eisenhower’s council of economic advisors chairman stated: “The American economy’s ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods.” Not better health care, education, housing, transportation, or recreation or less poverty and hunger, but providing more stuff to consumers.

Not really surprising, we find ourselves where we are. It’s going to be fun if we all aspire to live like American’s although I think many of us have moved on over the last few years and raised our goals.

The video is beneficial for anyone wondering what all the fuss is about recycling and climate change and why we should be concerned about it as individuals. If you’re into this theme then you must have a look the book Hope for the Flowers written in 1972 by Trina Paulus. She does a magnificent job of illustrating the futility of the rat race.

As my friend Paddy says, “even if you win the rat race – you’re still a rat”

The Story of Stuff is available as a web stream or is downloadable from the web site.


Learning to fly

What a fascinating week I have had. I recently bought a VLA (very light aircraft) with some friends and I’ve had to do a conversion so that I can fly the new type of aircraft – the Czech built Jora UA2 Special.

On Thursday this week, I had planned to fly with a friend of mine Jamie who is in the process of getting his pilots licence before doing my conversion in the afternoon. We hired a Cessna 152 from Stellenbosch Flying Club. We headed out off runway 19 and turned to the north heading for Fisantekraal airfield.

We did a couple of circuits and watching Jamie getting his head around what was going on in the cockpit while lining up for final approach was interesting for me. It took me back to when I learned to fly in the early 90’s. At the time I couldn’t get my head around the number of things going on in the cockpit as I struggled to line up all three planes and walk away from my landings.

I remember everything happening so quickly and how I struggled to coordinate my actions. I would be left of the runway and as I adjusted my flight path to correct that, I would find myself having dropped too low. When I adjusted my altitude, I would find myself right of the runway and so it continued. Very frustrating and left me with feelings of total inadequacy.

Flying with Jamie, made me feel quite proud of what I had achieved over the years, as I was able to effortlessly make corrections as I brought the plane in to land. I mentioned to James that it was a bit like driving a car. Once you get to the point when you don’t need to consciously think about what you need to do then you have arrived. Little did I know what was in store for me later in the day.

We landed back at Stellenbosch in time for some breakfast and then I was meeting up with my partner Phil to fly in our new Jora in preparation for me to do the conversion a few hours later. Sitting in the Jora, as with moving to any new plane, felt quite different.

The cockpit is open at the top to give a full overhead view, flying with a stick instead of yoke, breaks on the stick instead of the rudder pedals, throttle next to the door instead of the middle, everything was different. What it did was send me all the way back to the beginning in terms of my flying.

When it came to the landings, it felt like everything had sped up again, I couldn’t coordinate the various inputs and I felt like a complete novice. It was a humbling and wonderful learning experience for me. It really emphasized the Conscious Competence Learning Model which states that we go through 4 stages of learning:

1. Unconscious Incompetence – we don’t know what we don’t know
2. Conscious Incompetence – we know what we don’t know
3. Conscious Competence – we can function by being conscious
4. Unconscious Competence – we can do things on auto pilot (pun)

The things I notice that are different between Conscious Competence and Unconscious Competence are that everything slows down and there is a sense of time and space. Perhaps it is that the unconscious is taking care of a lot of what needs to be done, leaving the conscious with more time.

The cycle was a lot quicker because I have the base knowledge to fly one type of plane and I am converting my knowledge rather than starting from scratch. It was interesting to experience feeling incompetent in an environment where I had previously felt so competent – on the same day.

What have you learnt recently and where you could apply the Conscious Competence Learning Model?

Learning from Africa

Alex Lindsay was in town a couple of weeks ago and I got to do my tourist thing taking him around the Peninsula. I was really impressed with his vision for Pixel Corps and the project he is busy with in Zimbabwe. You can follow his journey at http://alexlindsay.vox.com/.

One of the most interesting things was his view that the people who do all those amazing Zimbabwean rock sculptures are so skilled that they can sit down in front of a computer and be modeling 3D images in a couple of days. It really struck me as such useful connection between 1st and 3rd world.

It also challenged me to think about other ways in which we can learn from African traditions. One of the most obvious is of course in the executive coaching field. I remember years ago sitting one evening with a local tribe in Namibia. We all sat in a circle drinking Mohango Beer as each person told their stories of the day, their trials and tribulations and a conversation was held to support the person.

In our world we sit down one to one and do the same thing only we call it coaching and we do it for money. The commoditising of the process is a good reflection of the world we live in – not good or bad – just that things of value need to be represented by money and packeged in a way to fit our fast moving world – ‘confirming our next session, 8h30 on the 13th’ has replaced a timeless conversation at the end of the day with the African sun setting in the distance.

The world changes and it stays the same.