As leaders, we most often look to blogs, books or boardroom meetings for guidance, and yet sometimes it’s everyday life that hands us the best leadership insights. Recently life gifted me just such a lesson: the importance of asking, “How is this different?”
While preparing for work in another part of the world, I took part in a security briefing. The conversation was sobering. The subject of crime in that part of the world took center stage. We were warned to watch out for everything from petty theft and homicide to local crime and terrorism. I started to wonder why I would leave my home to go to this new place and expose myself to the possible dangers — that is, until a colleague asked a question. “How is this different from life in my city back home?” she asked.
It was a fair question, a good question. It was also a question the presenter — who had likely taken part in hundreds of these briefings — not only did not anticipate but, stranger still, had never been asked and was unprepared to answer. “Huh,” he said more than once in response. Then, after having given it thought, he said, “Actually it’s far safer there than at home.” It was a mindset-flipping revelation to all of us. And a seemingly innocent question had made it so.
In our briefing we’d been told a part of the story, crafted out select facts. Mind you, the intent was good: to focus on the details that would keep us safe. The fact remained, however, that the approach had been deeply skewed — until those four key words: How is this different?
Why questioning is important
What if that question had never been asked, or maybe allowed? How much would each of us headed to this new place have closed off to it, to its people, to their ideas? What limitations would that have placed on our ability to gain value from our work? Would we also have unknowingly hardened into our well-trodden ways and missed the implied opportunity of going to this new place? Here’s a question for you:
What’s happening, or not happening right now — in your organization, with your team, because you’re not asking: How is this different?
As you think about it, consider a familiar example: annual strategic planning. Most organizations do some form of this, yet fail to ask: How is this — this time, this coming year, this business environment — different? The data show that in most organizations, planning — a time-consuming, even distracting process — tends to follow a rote, almost fill-in-the-blank exercise. If something isn’t glaringly out of whack, leaders and their teams mostly adjust a few numbers and rubber stamp old plans tied to old assumptions with new dates.
But what if something is different from the last time? You’d think if it was, it would be obviously so, but as my security briefing story highlighted, maybe it’s not. There’s just one way to know: Ask, “How is this different?”
Status quo has changed
In a time past, things changed, just not much. Many leaders and organizations came to expect a high degree of status quo in much of their work. If it was ever true, that’s passed. The world today is a deeply abnormal one, for everyone, even the mightiest. Walmart’s CEO Doug McMillon summed it up nicely. Where big strategic decisions used to change on an annual basis or maybe quarterly, he told Harvard Business Review, it’s now daily. He even joked that hourly was a more accurate description.
It’s worth noting that he said this before the COVID-19 pandemic. The world hasn’t become more certain, but less, and by orders of magnitude. In a business environment like today’s, “How is this different?” must become the bellwether of, well, everything.
There’s a part two to this lesson worthy of note: A growing number of leaders see the value in these four words, but they see that value as something applying to and used only by them, as the leader. Especially in this environment, it’s a graver mistake than to have never asked, “How is this different?” at all.
It’s time for change — and questions
With the changing landscape, leadership must change too. It simply is not possible for one person at the top to see it all, sense it all or conceive how to adapt to meet it all. Operating in that way is like being the person giving my security briefing — and not taking any questions.
The real power in “How is this different?” is in making it the guide to the collective conscience of the organization. When a team asks, “How is this different?” each member inevitably answers from their own vantage point. When all are expected to ask and answer, each person begins to take note — not only of their own inevitably limited view but of their fit in and ownership of what the collective is trying to deliver.
Shockingly, it’s all too common that most in the organization, regardless of level, can’t even tell you how they fit, or even what they fit into. Why? Because they never get asked or get to ask, “How is this different?” or any other probing question. At best, they just get briefed. If the opposite were true, everyone would exclaim, “Wow, this is different!”
There’s a better way for all of us, and it starts with one simple question.
Larry Robertson, named a Fulbright scholar in 2021, is the founder of Lighthouse Consulting and works, writes and guides at the nexus of creativity, leadership and entrepreneurship. He’s the author The Language of Man. Learning to Speak Creativity, A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and Its Moment in Human Progress and the new Rebel Leadership: How To Thrive in Uncertain Times.