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The fine line between reinventing and stalling

Seth Godin's always-excellent blog featured a recent post that got me thinking. "None of us are doing enough to challenge the assignment," he writes; the example he gives is of looking at the words and fonts in a draft brochure instead of questioning the need for a brochure at all. "Every day," Godin writes, "I spend at least an hour of my time looking at my work and what I've chosen to do next and wonder, 'is this big enough?'"

His post reminded me of one of the first people I ever personally interviewed and hired, back when I was still in college. You know how, during an interview, most candidates ask you a couple of good questions about your organization or the position they're interviewing for? This person asked wonderful questions. Lots of them. Thoughtful, searching, insightful questions. We were thrilled to hire him.

Unfortunately, as it turned out, asking questions was pretty much all he wanted to do. And when you're on a tight deadline for a single-day turnaround, it's somewhat frustrating to have a staff person who seems to prefer asking questions to just getting the work done.

And of course, a lot of it is an issue of timing: A series of questions can be a game-changer during the planning process, and seem pointless and frustrating the day before a major deadline.

There has to be some point where the two lines cross--somewhere between "I never do any work because I'm so busy questioning the paradigm" and "I never question the paradigm because I'm so busy doing work." How can we, as association professionals, push our personal dials more toward the "question" side of things? And what we do to try to get those questions out there at a time when they'll be most effective?

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Comments

Lisa, your take on this issue strikes me as more mature than Seth Godin's, actually. There is definitely a balance needed here.

Some people just want to get through the day and don't want to raise questions because questions lead to change and change usually means more work.

Other people love to ask questions and challenge every assumption because they think, erroneously, that it makes them seem smart (and it beats working).

I think the right goal is to be neither of those people.

There's also a management issue at play here. A lot of times, game-changing questions get asked by people who are least in the position to change the game. How a manager responds when the question is asked is very important. Is it a valid question that can be revisited at a more appropriate time, or is it a question that will never have the answer your staff person wants to hear? Can you answer your staff's concerns without shutting down their creativity and problem solving skills?

Going a step further, can you get the staff involved earlier in the process, before you decide on a course of action simply because you've always done it that way?

Just because we're putting something into action and out the door shouldn't mean we don't also keep asking the question. Innovation is iterative, and game-changing questions in particular have long shelf life. But too often our questions are narrow, limiting, and uninspiring.

Kevin: I agree--balance is the key, and as an added bonus, it can make your questions and ideas more effective ...

Lindy: Great points. Managerial reaction is key; if someone feels shut down, it can prevent them from ever speaking up again. (That said, I've definitely worked with folks who felt that their every idea should be implemented now. Sometimes you do have to say no to an idea, and it's the idea-generating person's job to take a breath and not let the word "no" stop them from suggesting their next idea or asking their next question.)

I especially appreciate your second point. If a manager only tells his/her team about something when it's already a done deal, and then responds to questions with "Well, it's too late now," that's not helping anyone.

Jeffrey: "Innovation is iterative"--I like that phrase! The person I was thinking of in my post wasn't particularly good at putting something out the door and asking questions at the same time, but there are a lot of people who can do that. Speaking as someone who works on a monthly magazine, I can tell you that there are lots of times when someone on our team has a great idea we can't implement for this issue--but there's another issue coming right up, and we can always use that new idea then!

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