S+B: So the first step is learning to ask better questions.
CHRISTENSEN: Yes. I realized this back when I was an MBA student. I had an epiphany during a marketing course. We were studying a peanut butter company and I wrote down all the answers that the other students gave. Then I suddenly realized: Why was I writing all this down? I was never going to go work for a peanut butter company, and if I did, I wasn’t going to run into the problems that this management had faced 10 years before. But I paid all this tuition; I had to write something. So what notes would I take?
The next student to speak was a woman who made a brilliant comment. Instead of writing down what she said, I wrote down a question—the question I thought she had to have had in mind to think of this response. A bit later, a guy in the back row made a similarly insightful comment. I wrote down the question that he had clearly asked himself. The next morning, when I prepared a case for the day’s class, I put those two questions on the table next to me. I asked those questions of the case, and, holy cow, I saw things I would never have caught before. I came across as very smart that day.
Thereafter, I kept listening not to what smart people said as answers, but to the questions they were asking. Over time, I realized that although some questions seemed salient only once or twice, others were always important. That’s how I came up with the way I develop theories: Instead of looking at the data about today’s performance, I keep my attention on the questions I need to ask so I can catch the issues of the future.
- Art Kleiner is editor-in-chief of strategy+business.