The one question you need to ask if you want to win big

The one question you need to ask if you want to win big

The pace and intensity of modern markets require us to have betters answers, faster than ever. But are the kinds of questions we're asking getting us to the kinds of answers we need to take our business to the next level?

There's one particular type of question we can ask that, when answered, leads to the kind of inventive solutions all businesses need to progress and grow. It's called a "propelling question," and it harnesses the constraints we face every day to our ambitions. Rather than trying to wish away the inevitable limitations that thwart us, a propelling question demands we use those very limitations as the impetus for invention.

"How do we win the race with engines no more powerful than our competitors'?" was Audi's propelling question as it prepared to enter one of the most prestigious automotive races in the world: the Le Mans 24 hour race in France. Its ambition was, obviously, to win. But Audi did not have the more powerful engine that some would consider a serious limitation--surely a more powerful engine is a prerequisite for winning. So when Audi's Chief Engineer framed the question the way he did, he denied his team that most obvious solution and pushed it to find new ones.

The answer was ingenious: use the more efficient turbo diesel technology Audi was known for on the racetrack, and consequently make fewer pit stops. No engine, no matter how powerful, could make up for time lost pitting over 24 hours. The Audi R10 cars finished first and third 2006, and won again in 2007 and 2008.

In previous columns we've seen how a propelling question drove the dramatic success of the punky Brewdog from Scotland. The answer to the question "How can we fuel the growth of our business when the banks aren't lending?" led to a crowd-funding campaign called Equity For Punks that not only raised plenty of money, but also created the kind of advocates that other brands spend millions trying to create--even though the money flowed in the opposite direction!

The charter school system LPS faced an unmotivated student population and budget cuts, but created the clarity they needed by asking a powerful propelling question: "How can we accelerate learning 3-4 grade levels in a single year, when our students have given up on school?" which implicitly denies them the use of any commonplace "solution" which obviously wouldn't work in the face of such a bold ambition.

A powerful propelling question cannot be answered simply by trying harder, or applying what has worked in the past just a little more efficiently. Answering a propelling question requires us to find entirely new kinds of solutions never used before. It harnesses the tension between ambition and the constraint to propel us down entirely new paths toward entirely new solutions.

How does it work? A psychologist would tell you that "paradoxical frames"--questions that don't make immediate sense, or ideas that don't seem to fit easily together--are a vital force for creativity. They confuse us just enough to start wiring new synapses together, and that's a good thing for generating the new.

What's more, developing a PQ demands that we think a little harder about what problem we need to solve to change our fortunes. Gung-ho exhortations to "double the size of the business by 2020" become more grounded in reality when paired with a constraint, which helps define where to start looking to create the kind of transformational growth that the ambition requires.

So, three takeaways:

  1. If you want to accelerate the growth of your business, start with a better question: a propelling question that couples bold ambitions to significant constraints, forcing you to break out of the tried and true when trying to answer it.
  2. Spend time defining the ambitions of your business in fresh, new ways, too. You want growth, of course, but what are all the ways to create that? Coca-Cola famously wanted to be "within an arms reach of desire," which drove innovation in channel strategy and vending machines; Chipotle has ambition around quality with its "food with integrity" mantra, which drove innovation in the supply chain; Zappos aims to "deliver happiness," which drives innovation in the customer experience.
  3. Once you have your ambitions defined, pair them with constraints. Look for solutions that allow you to meet your ambition using the things that you typically see as limiting.

Answering propelling questions can be challenging, and you'll need a determined and optimistic mindset to succeed (more about that in our next column). But in a world where almost anything that can be copied will be copied, long-term competitive advantage will largely be found in a capability to generate growth from constraints. So what is your propelling question?

Challenging ideas, something out of nothing, lover of progress. Mark Barden is a partner at eatbigfish and based in San Francisco.