Colleen is a lawyer and works in the legal department of global retailing company. She wants business leaders in her company to consult with her earlier in their decision making process so she can mitigate risk to the company before agreements are finalized.
Jacob’s company produces advanced chemicals for use in manufacturing plants. The company has transformed its approach to selling. Instead of promoting the features and functions of his company’s products, Jacob now leads a sales team including chemical engineers who are expected to solve their customer’s problems with a combination of products, data analytics and on-going consulting support.
Alfie leads an agile software development team supporting the technology needs of his financial services company. Alfie often feels frustrated and overly constrained by requests from his internal customers. He wants to discuss options with business leaders before they become fixated on a specific solution.
One might presume that when it comes to their job descriptions, Colleen, Jacob and Alfie have nothing in common. Colleen is an attorney, Jacob is a salesperson and Alfie is a software engineer. They work in different industries. They have different functional expertise. Their success is measured in different ways.
Despite the obvious differences, they share a common mission. Like many of us, they want to help decision makers make better decisions. Colleen has expertise that would help her company’s leaders avoid costly mistakes. Jacob’s customers often miss out on valuable insights about how to use his company’s products and services. Alfie’s internal clients regularly overlook creative options for solving their technology problems.
Being the most skilled and knowledgeable lawyer, salesperson or software engineer does not necessarily mean that your expertise will be used. Professional expertise is necessary, but not sufficient. Professionals who want to help decision makers make better decisions also need advising expertise.
Advising expertise relies on the ability to influence and the ability to align. Advisors need a variety of tools and skills to influence and align. A Google search on “influence without authority” will turn up several books, articles and ideas for getting your professional expertise used by decision makers.
One promising and perhaps counterintuitive approach to helping advising professionals has been gaining traction lately: Instead of honing your ability to give advice, ask better questions. For example, the journalist Warren Berger has devoted his career in recent years to writing and speaking about the power of inquiry. The Right Question Institute hopes to create a movement that improves decision-making through the participation of stakeholders who learn to ask better questions.
In essence, a decision is an answer to a question. A decision maker looking at a menu is answering the question, “What do I want to eat?” A decision making team at a strategy offsite is answering the question, “Where will we invest our resources in the next three years?” A customer meeting with several sales teams is answering the question, “who do I want to do business with?” Let’s consider an example to highlight the difference between influencing the decision and influencing the question that the decision answers.
Imagine that a marketing executive in Colleen’s global retailing company brings her a contract to review. The marketing executive is trying to decide whether to commit the company to a one-year agreement or a three-year agreement with a vendor. Essentially he is posing the question, “Which agreement should we sign?” If Colleen reviews the contracts and renders an opinion, the company makes an informed, but limited decision. If Colleen focuses on influencing the question rather than influencing the decision, she might request a bit more context from the marketing executive about the vendor and their services. She might learn that the marketing executive has some concerns about using the vendor, but has a project deadline to meet. At one point in the conversation, Colleen might pose a different question to the marketing executive, “How can we use this vendor to meet your deadline without committing ourselves to a long-term contract?” After considering the question, perhaps the marketing executive would offer a new deal to the vendor: The retailer will sign the three-year contract if the vendor successfully helps the marketing department meet the deadline on the current project. A better question leads to a better decision.
When advisors think of their job as influencing the decision, they are limiting the value they can provide because they have implicitly validated the question being asked by the decision maker. When advisors think of their job as influencing the question, they are creating an opening for a breakthrough.