Transformational Questions

In the 1980s, Pepsi and Coke were engaged in an intense battle, fighting for tenths of a percent of market share. Coke was not doing well. CEO Robert Goizueta had an insight. He believed that his people were spinning their wheels because of their mindset. The focus was on the beverage market. They needed to think in a new way. To change their thinking, Goizueta proposed a new question: “What is our market share of the stomach?”

This was a shocking question. He was asking, what was Coke’s share of all fluids consumed by humankind? Suddenly the enemy was not just Pepsi, but coffee, milk, tea, and water. Instead of being one of two big fish in a small pond, Coke was suddenly a small fish in a huge pond. The vision, culture, and psychology immediately changed and eventually profits soared.

In September of 2001, Robert Mueller became director of the FBI. The FBI was in the business of solving domestic crimes and bringing criminals to justice. A week later, on September of 11, there was an attack on the United States. Shortly after, Mueller reported to President Bush. In the meeting, Bush asked a question: “What was the FBI doing to prevent future attacks?”

The question was transformational. The FBI, designed to be a reactive, law enforcement agency, encountered a new image. It was a vision of a proactive organization that prevented attacks on the country. The culture and psychology changed. They agency began to produce new outcomes.

These are two examples of transformational inquiry or questions that change an entire organization. I share them because I believe we can train ourselves to ask transformative questions in any situation.  We can asked them of ourselves, we can ask them of another person, we can ask them of an organization.

Every team, unit, and organization has a culture. It reflects some form of conventional thinking. It cannot change unless the thinking changes. Telling people to think differently usually does not work. A person who focuses on the highest purpose and asks a transformational question can have immediate and extensive impact.

Reflection

  • In what way is your unit reactive and what is the highest possible purpose of your unit?
  • How would you like to see the culture and psychology change?
  • What is the most potent question you can imagine?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?
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