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Asking the Right Questions Can Frame a Successful Transformation

When plotting strategy, leaders should worry less about solutions and more about identifying the precise problem they are trying to solve.

Recently, I had a call with a company's entire executive team. When they told me they wanted to deploy technology across all aspects of their business, I asked one seemingly simple question: Why? I had to repeat it as they struggled to give a clear and compelling answer, and it was clear that despite the lip service they paid, the team didn’t really believe in the potentially transformative investment the company was planning to make.

When done right, business transformations can solve major problems, the kind that often force you to take a make-or-break leap into the future. When such transformations go wrong, even after months of careful planning and implementation, the results are dispiriting. And so the prospect of a transformation is understandably daunting. That’s why when company leaders ask me where they should start, I tell them to start asking questions.

Albert Einstein once reportedly said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I knew the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” Einstein knew he had to understand an issue deeply before addressing it in order for his solution to have the most meaningful impact. You need to overcome the core, often hidden problem in your work — not just the visible stumbling block.

Let’s say you're a retail executive and your company is losing market share. You urgently need to solve that problem. But the question to ask isn’t: Why is our major competitor picking up 100 basis points of market share? Rather, you have to delve deeper. Why might customers expect in-store services unrelated to what they're buying? Why will some competitors adjust prices in real time? Why might trade regulations compel us to change our product mix? Why will Internet shoppers want alternatives to home delivery? Why will technology turn shopping aisles into showrooms? The answer to each of these questions will likely offer useful guidance on how to boost market share.

When formulating questions, it’s important not to view your conundrum from a single angle. Fundamental questions should be asked, and answered, by a diverse set of people who together can reach deeper insights. This power of perspective is one of the core principles underpinning our BXT method to transformation. (BXT stands for business, experience — for both customers and employees — and technology.)

You can’t predict the future, but you can think it through by isolating it.

Consider an auto industry CEO and her immediate problem of how to sell more cars. Talking to the marketing and sales teams would likely lead to suggestions about bumping up incentives or increasing advertising. But if she were to gather connected thinkers steeped in user experience, emerging technology, demographics, and other areas throughout the business and ask them to pose forward-looking questions, they would likely come to understand the true nature of their problem. The competitive approach isn’t a set of tactics that will enable the company to sell more cars next month but rather a set of strategies around how to use technology to give customers the mobility they want over the next decade.

Frames Matter

Posing questions thoughtfully is a useful way to frame the problem before solving it. Think about what a frame does for a picture: It focuses attention to produce the greatest impact. You probably know where you have a concern. But brainstorming the right framing questions can lead organizations to focus resources and attention on devising the most powerful solutions. As you assemble a diverse team, don’t worry about questions that surface that seem off-topic. By asking four kinds of questions, you and your colleagues can think all ideas through methodically and develop a future point of view.

What are the big trends that will reshape the business environment? First, establish a starting point for your future point of view. What are the powerful forces sweeping across the business world that will have the greatest impact on how your industry evolves? Will economic power shifting from west to east make today’s leading business models obsolete? Will customers flocking to cities overturn winning ways to play? Is technology at a tipping point, on the verge of turning the industry into an unrecognizable version of itself? What happens when these trends collide?

How will these trends disrupt my industry and business? A company can’t control flows of trade, investment, or people. But it can control its reaction to — and anticipation of — the trends informed by these movements. So the next step is to bring the big trends down to the level on which you can act. Ask how can these trends drive disruption via changes in customer behavior and competition (market environment), regulations (nonmarket environment), and distribution and technology of production (operations).

What are the highest-impact, most uncertain issues these disruptions bring — and what possible future scenarios do they suggest? You can’t predict the future, but you can think it through by isolating it. What are some key uncertainties that drive a set of plausible scenarios that could unfold in the next, say, five to 10 years? What do they tell you about who will be the winners in the actual future that will be positioned somewhere within these visions?

What are these scenarios’ implications for transforming? Finally, given your forward-looking point of view, ask what actions are required today so that your organization can strategize and enact the transformation that will empower your future.

Stepping into Tomorrow

We’ve found that executives get energized by the insight sharing and debate that takes them through the first three questions. But the payoff comes in pushing through the fourth. Get specific about implications. Take action. Transform.

Do you want to get started on your transformed future? You can take the first step in the next five minutes by using PwC’s Disruption Profiler to uncover insights you likely don’t even know you have about disruption in your industry. Let this start the questions that develop the future-aware knowledge that can take you to a new kind of transformative experience.

Tom Puthiyamadam

Tom Puthiyamadam is the U.S. digital products and U.S. advisory consumer markets leader. A principal with PwC US, he is based in New York.


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