Framing the question – Harvard Insights 7

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For the first time at Harvard I experienced a class that did not grab me. The art topic that was on the agenda is not close to me and our guest speaker could not mesmerize me with his royal stardust…. Actually, the fact that he stressed the commercial aspect of the art industry really turned me off. I love when people enjoy beauty in the form of art. But when it becomes the way for billionaires to show off their power, it’s a turn-off for me. I experienced the same distance to some of the readings too. When reading in Thorstein Veblen’s book Absentee Ownership, the chapter of The Captain of Industry I couldn’t help think, so what? Yes, we moved from captains of industry who did it all to the need for more expertise and management. So? I didn’t get the message in this… So this class was on its way to becoming the off-day of the course… And than…

…at the end of the class I was back in my excitement seat. When we discussed the dialogue between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, something fell in place. In the dialogue when both candidates were indirectly asked what kind of president they would be, Obama played the card of being the visionary. The man with attention to the bigger picture, who can’t do it alone and need to form a strong team around him to make it happen. Hillary made sure she made the point of being in control. She would be on top of things. She would know exactly what her staff was working on. She would take matters into her own hands. Beautifully summarized as the leader versus the boss. So who would you choose?

Professor Rollert came back to the notion that it’s about framing the question. Is your question: “How do we make sure we’re in control in this country and deal effectively with matters that cross our path?” Or is your question: “How do we make this country the best there is?” Or questions along those lines… Which candidate you choose, depends on your question and on who answers your question.

Framing the question is a topic that we had earlier discussed. When we first discussed it I understood that you find out what the people want. Or in other words find out what their question is/get what they are looking for and make sure you are the answer to their question. You make sure that what you are saying makes your audience feel that you are solving the issue they have. When they see you’re the answer to their needs they choose for you.

What kept popping into my mind was the question of authenticity. The question of how you can defend your own values and beliefs, when you are in fact answering someone else’s question. Where does authenticity live when this question does not match your values and beliefs?

And than last night I realized it’s more marketing than I initially thought. It became clear to me that, just as marketers create a need in consumers, (political) leaders CREATE the question. Apple has created our need for iPods and smartphones with which we do practically everything except simply call. We had no idea we needed this in our life and now we have no idea how we can live without it. In the same way can leaders make you aware of the problems you have in life, so they can come to the rescue and solve your problems.

This may sound fake, but in fact I feel it’s a smart way to get people’s attention. It’s a great way to win the people over with the strength you have to offer. If you are true to your values and your beliefs and you truly believe what you have to offer will make things better for your audience, it’s a great way to lead them to a better place with authenticity.

So slowly, step by step, I see the pieces of the puzzle falling into place and I see clear assignments for myself in my leadership journey. The question I need to ask myself is: “What and who do I want to be the answer to?”.

Now this is easier said than done. Because getting to the core of what makes you the best to lead in a certain area is hard work. To decide what questions you answer and what not is a difficult task. I found a blog from Tim Hulme from OpenIDEO who has some great tips on how to do it well. In fact they link closely to the way I approach the Creative Problem Solving (CPS) process with my clients. (1) Take framing the question serious. Spend about 20 percent on defining the right challenge/question, before moving to all the ways to answer it. (2) Start with the end in mind. What this means is that you first think of what success looks like by being at your end goal and looking back at how you got there. At OpenIDEO they morbidly call this pre-mortem and the reason for that is because they actually use it to avoid failure. They suggest imagining you’re at the end of the project and asking yourself why it might have failed. (3) Get to the best question by generating many questions. Too often we define a question/idea and start building the solution/answer. The best results come when you first generate many options and than choose the best (or combine some into the best). Different questions lead to different answers. So the more questions you have the more choices you have to become real specific about your answer. (4) Don’t get stuck in the middle, as marketers say when trying to be the answer to all questions. Instead choose wisely which question you have the best answer to. (5) And when you have chosen what your answer is to what question, you are not done. You need to continuously evaluate in order to evolve and continue being the leader who knows how to answer the most important question in the best way.

I am currently at Harvard in Boston for a summer course in Leadership. For this course I write blogs to deepen my learnings from our readings and discussions. To give those who are interested an insight in my students life and in my leadership questions and insights I share my class blogs here. When they are impossible to understand when you weren’t in class or participating in the discussion I will of course limit myself to fragments or I will rewrite slightly for them to still make sense.

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