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Tactical questions, a business lesson from Brexit.

We can argue about the merits of the Brexit referendum all day long, indeed some days I do. The divisions that have resulted remain unresolved by time and are embedded in the country. That’s because, at least in part, the way the decision was taken, constrained the decision makers in ways they could not have anticipated.

Asking a question in the wrong way can leave a business equally disrupted, divided and constrained.

Strategic questioning.

In business we often ask questions to help guide our strategy and in particular the implementation of it. Great businesses ask many questions. They take time to consider contexts, and understand the views of a wide variety of people that the business touches. Its employees, customers, shareholders, and others in its markets and beyond. Those diverse views tend to open up insight into alternative ways of implementing strategy.

The Brexit question, focused as it was on one particular outcome set the country on a trajectory which has continued to create significant difficulties ever since. Imagine instead if the government had taken time, after Cameron’s renegotiation, to listen to the country, and create a decent dialog through a series of questions. A national conversation. If they had asked about strategic objectives and then planned the possible courses to follow before asking the final (referendum) question, then I suspect now the country would be united. We may still have voted to leave the EU, but we would have done so strategically rather than tactically, and with consideration of consequence.

Avoiding costly mistakes.

In business we achieve more when we ask searching questions about our markets; pricing; quality; design; and customer service. Sometimes in implementing the strategy that follows there may be conflicts between elements. Having enough flexibility to choose a balanced path is critical.

Closed binary questions about one aspect of our business will eliminate flexibility. For example, if we chose to commit to a (tactical) price point such as £99, rather than a (strategic) ambition such as ‘best possible value’ then we are constraining product design, service levels and more. Strategic questioning is much more about providing a framework to give context to the complex, interdependent elements of the business model. Questions should focus on the generality of the outcome that is sought, rather than the specifics of the detail of achieving it.

In the final analysis any hard binary decision (eg setting a price point) is an ‘experiment’ rather than a solution, something to be tested, not fixed.

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