Catalysing Innovation with Questions with Hal Gregersen

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So, Hal. Great to have you on the program. Let me start by asking you why did you choose to write a book about questions particularly when as an academic, I guess, you’re expected to have answers?

Over 20 years ago, 25 years ago actually, I interviewed AG Lafley before he was the CEO and Chairman of Procter and Gamble and I’ll never forget the interview because I was trying to ask him questions in his mid-career point about what it took to drop into a new country and successfully lead an organization where you’re P&L responsible, profit and loss responsible, you don’t know the language, you don’t know the culture, you may not even know the business but you’re still expected to make it run, and I had a whole long list of questions to ask him but, Mark, if I look back at that transcript he asked me more questions than I asked him. 

So, you left scratching your head thinking, ‘What am I going to do with that interview?’

That’s funny because I just started to scratch my head, but exactly, and so he was not unique and whether I’ve been studying global leaders, or transformative change leaders, or innovative leaders, a consistent theme through all of their excellent work is they ask the right questions that other people miss.

Yeah. The first time I came across your work, Hal, was in The Innovator’s DNA which you wrote with Clay Christensen, and the five competencies the world-class innovator has, well, not necessarily at the top of the list but at the top of my list, is the ability to ask questions?

Absolutely. So, Clay, Geoff Dyer, and I, we interviewed 100+ of the best innovative leaders in the world, asked them behaviorally, ‘What are you doing when you get ideas that are disruptive?’ and there were five skills: asking the right questions, asking catalytic questions, observing the world like an anthropologist, like you were, Mark-

Which means observing without judgment essentially, right?

Observing without judgment, observing process, people, product yields, observing things really carefully in order to get insights and surprises, networking or talking to different people to just get new ideas because they’re different than who we are-

Sorry, Hal, I don’t mean to interrupt again, but the networking, when I read that, it’s not just standard networking like going to drinks parties and shaking hands, it’s actually seeking out diversity. Is that a fair analysis? 

Oh absolutely, and that’s the whole point. You know, when we go to dinner and when we make friends, we tend to get attracted to people who are just like us and the whole point of networking for new ideas is we’re seeking out people who are exactly opposite of us and so that’s the point of it, and it’s trying to get new ideas. It’s not trying to get resources or career advancement. It’s all about catalyzing, sparking a new idea that I otherwise wouldn’t have.

Lovely. And that’s the third, and then the other two?

The other two are experimenting which the classic is Jeff Bezos, the most experimental leader on planet Earth including his rockets going into space, but these folks are constantly just trying, iteratively trying over and over different options to make something work, and what we found is that when people ask these very provocative questions and actively try to answer them by observing and/or networking and experimenting, they actually associate or connect ideas together in creative novel ways that lead to solutions nobody else would have guessed. We call it ‘associational thinking.’

Brilliant. And then I guess the point here is that there is a myth of innovation which is the sort of ‘Eureka’, ‘aha’ moment but in actual fact, invariably it is just cobbling together stuff from different disciplines that already exist but reconfiguring it in a different way and making new associations. I mean, that’s at the heart of that competency, I guess?

Absolutely, and so basically what we learned from that research was that these creative skills, we call them discovery skills, they’re not born, maybe a third of it at best is genetic, the other two-thirds is nurture in terms of the world we grow up in, the schools we go to and especially the places we work, and so the point of it is if anyone wants to become better at discovering new ideas that are valuable, they simply have to behave differently in their everyday work by using the skills as they problem solve. 

Wonderful. So, that’s at the heart of your work, or that’s where I first came across you, and those are five very important competencies, but let’s get into questions. What does a good question achieve and where does its power come from?

I call a good question a ‘catalytic question’. It’s a bit of a metaphor from a catalyst, physically, that transforms a bad substance into something good in a very mechanical way or a chemical way, but in my world a catalytic question actually challenges a fundamentally false assumption in our world and actually gives us energy to do something about it once we get challenged, and so these are the kinds of questions that surface things we don’t know we don’t know, and as a result, they are deeply fundamentally challenging some of our beliefs and they don’t devastate us but in fact, at some point, lift us and give us energy to do something about the question.

And have you got an example of that that people can relate to or at least begin to see what that actually means?

There are a couple of ways. Ed Catmull is one of the creative leaders that I interviewed for this research around questions or the answer and essentially, Ed is constantly asking questions of the world. To him, creativity is problem-solving and it started with a question he cared about long ago which was, ‘How can I generate with a team of people a computer-generated animated film of full-length?’ and it took them decades to make that question happen, but then once they did Toy Story there was this question void in Ed Catmull’s world which was, ‘Now that we’ve done that, what’s next?’ And it literally took him a year to wrestle with and figure out, ‘What’s the next question that is so compelling that I’m going to recursively, repetitively ask it of myself and others around me in order to build something better in this world?’ and the question he landed on was, ‘How can I create a sustainably innovative or creative organization?’ Now, that may seem like some managerial babble that any leader could say but to Ed Catmull, it’s not just a question in his head, it’s a question in his heart and he deeply, deeply cares about it sufficiently so that every day he’s trying to figure out a better way to answer that question and arguably, an even better question.

And as you say that it reminds me of when you refer to his work in the book, Tony Robbins’ work where he talks about the concept of the primary question which is the question that an individual carries around in their heart as well as maybe written down in their notebook on a daily basis because that directs their energies, and their focus, and hopefully their problem-solving skills as well? 

No absolutely, and there are primary questions that are life-guiding and there are primary questions that are immediately problem-solving, and so when I interviewed Tony Robbins – imagine him being in one of his venues with thousands of people – he said when somebody raises their hand and says, ‘I have a problem,’ Tony will say, ‘Well, what’s your question?’ because to Tony all a problem is is an unanswered question, and he just takes problems and converts them into what they really are. They’re unanswered questions, and so that’s the viewpoint of, ‘Okay, if we’ve got a challenge either individually, as a team or an organization, we are stuck because we’re asking the wrong question,’ and then so the starting point becomes not trying to initially seek out and immediately get rid of the uncertainty by finding the answer, but in fact, doing the hard homework that’s required to change our question.

And you refer to a couple of people’s views on how hard it is to ask the right question, Peter Drucker and then Elon Musk with this wonderful example, I think, he learned it reading Hitchhiker’s Guide the Galaxy, the perils of asking the wrong question. For those who are aware of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy, are painfully obvious in the book, right?

Oh, they are, and what’s really funny is if you go back before he read that book, he read the Encyclopedia Britannica from front to back when he was in third or fourth grade, and that’s thousands and thousands of words on what was then small fine print, thin pages, thousands of pages, and when he got to the end of the entire Encyclopedia Britannica he was like, ‘Wow. I had no idea all that was out there in the world,’ and then he came to an intriguing conclusion which was, ‘I didn’t know what I didn’t know,’ which here’s this third or fourth grader coming to that kind of conclusion which actually, I think, fuels his ability to get innovative ideas and to consistently push the edge of whatever industries he’s operating in.

Yeah, So, the point here is it is hard to ask these questions, it takes a lot of work but if you can land the right question it fuels either your life’s purpose or indeed, you’ll venture into a new industry, or it helps you solve more immediate problems?

Absolutely, and so take someone like Marc Benioff at Sales Force. If we cycle back in time and start at the beginning, he had parents and grandparents who regularly took him over to the local Radio Shack when he was a young kid to be able to type into the computer and learn programming, and he’s learning how to ask all kinds of questions because his parents care deeply about this. Then he goes off and gets his degree, and then he goes to work and he’s selling large enterprise software for Oracle, I think, for over a decade and he’s highly successful. He’s very customer facing, constantly interacting with people, and when he finishes and burns out a bit, and takes a year’s sabbatical, he’s starting to bump into some information that says, ‘Guess what? Large enterprise software has huge potential for small and medium-sized enterprises, but they can’t afford all the hardware.’ And so, in this interim point of six to twelve months, he’s traveling the world talking to hundreds if not thousands of different people, rich people, poor people, educators, religious leaders, politicians, business, small, medium, large leaders, anyway, just all these folks that he’s gathered, actively seeking out passive data by having these conversations with very diverse people over and over, and he’s wrestling with this issue, ‘How do we do large scale enterprise software for small and medium-sized enterprises?’ and that’s when he pops on the question of, ‘What if we sold large-scale enterprise software like Amazon sells books?’ which today seems obvious but back then was idiotic. But he laid the foundation for that question, that catalytic question to surface by doing some seriously hard work beforehand.

And, I guess, within that, there’s a reframe, right? It forces him to think about the industry in a different way and therefore expose some of the assumptions that he’s able to break down and go after?

Oh, totally, and Jeff Bezos is exactly the same. So, Jeff defines himself as a relentless problem solver. And it’s really fun, if you and I were to type in right now, do you know where that goes, Mark?

I think it goes to, doesn’t it?

It does because Bezos, when he’s a young kid, he grows up going in the summers to his grandparents’ farm. His grandfather, for example, would buy a broken down tractor before Jeff shows up some summer and he’s trying to teach Jeff the principle that, ‘Even though you’re really smart in your brain, Jeff, the tractor can be smarter,’ and I don’t know if you’ve ever fixed cars before, Mark, but really does the first fix work? And Bezos’ grandfather was like, ‘You’re going to have to try twenty-nine different reframings, different angles on this issue in order to get a solution and ask the better question,’ and so from that he goes forward, launches this thing called Amazon, you know the deal. They’re constantly operating at the edge of the possible, going into new industries, learning new skills, trying new things, and they have a writing culture there where essentially more often than not you’re sitting in the meeting for five to ten minutes at the beginning of the meeting reading something collectively together, knowing that at the end of that ten minutes you’re going to go to battle in a good way with other people in the room asking the best questions to get to the better answers.

Yeah. So, Hal, I can imagine by this point there are people, as I said earlier on, in companies not a million miles from me, maybe they’re in the business of reimagining medicine, maybe they’re in the business of trying to feed the world, whatever, and they’re interested and they’re thinking, ‘What do I do now?’ So, let’s imagine a leader with a team. How can a leader create these conditions for these kinds of questions, where these kinds of questions prevail, and can be nurtured, and can be created and also then subsequently addressed? 

Absolutely. So, the starting point for me is a Richard Branson quote about, ‘Care enough about something to do something about it?’ As a leader, I might be in an organization that is the most non-innovative place on planet Earth, but I can still, in my space, in my domain decide I’m going to care enough about some opportunity or problem that we don’t have a solution to and I’m going to do something about it. Now, if I’m a leader, by definition, I’ve got a team with me so we’re going to do something about it. That’s the starting point for me, Mark, is actually identifying something that puts fire into your heart as Brad Smith described it. He’s the CEO of Intuit, like, ‘This lights me up,’ and so at that point it’s like, ‘Okay, we’ve got a challenge, we’ve got an opportunity but guess what? We’re stuck,’ and the starting point to get unstuck often can be a very mechanical exercise that may sound like some management babble but actually works, I call it a ‘question burst’, and essentially given the problem the first thing to do is, ‘Okay, how do we feel about this challenge? Positive, neutral, or negative?’ Then we get a timer, we set it for four minutes, there might be two or three of us in the room and here’s what we do. We brainstorm, but nothing but questions. Generally, when we brainstorm it’s like answers being tossed out there but it’s the opposite logic. Only questions. And when leaders get asked questions their first response is to answer it. The first rule of this question-first process is no answers, not one, not a single one. And then the second rule is no explanations about why we’re answering the question, and the reason both of those rules exist is if we answer the questions and if we explain why we’re asking the question, we are quickly moving people in to our corner where we’re already stuck, we’re limiting their information and guiding them to where we’re stuck. So, those are the rules. No answers, no explanations, four-minute timer, write down verbatim all of the questions you can generate about the issue or opportunity. If you follow the rules, you’ll get about fifteen to twenty questions, and what’s surprising is when people do this and they follow the rules, before they start the question-first process the common feeling is frustration, and after they do this question-first process the common feeling is an elevated energy, excitement, optimism, confidence, hopeful. That matters because 85% percent of the time people are in a more positive emotional state after just generating nothing but questions. We know from research that the more positively we are emotionally instead of that stuck, negative, frustrated feeling we’re more likely to ask a better question, we’re more likely to get a new question. Then the more critical thing is, it’s about the reframing part. 80% of the time people have reframed their challenge by the end of that four minutes and 85% of the time they have at least one idea that could potentially solve it, and so it may seem like a silly exercise but in fact, it has significant value. Where you and I might be stuck, we might feel like we’re not being innovative, it’s a starting point where if this question burst asks nothing but questions, the odds are in our favor to start making progress.

Right, and then you talk about exercising your questioning muscles and if you don’t use them, you lose them. So, let’s assume someone has done that, they’ve identified some new questions or ways of looking at their challenge on an ongoing basis, what can they do to continue exercising these muscles?

Well, you get to the end of that question-first exercise and you choose a question that is so resonating that wherever you are you’re going to be asking that question either in your head or to the world. When Steve Jobs was trying to figure out the original iPod idea decades ago, in the research for this book, I met someone who worked at Pixar who had been a junior animator, a 20-year-old, when Steve Jobs walked into the elevator and started peppering Andrew with all kinds of questions about, ‘What music do you listen to? Why do you listen to it? Where do you store it etc.?’ and Steve Jobs is asking this person a thousand questions because he’s trying to figure out, ‘What’s this new thing I’m calling the iPod?’ So that’s the point. Pick a question that you’re going to explore the world with. The second it becomes, as simple as this may seem, find two or three other groups of people to do that question burst because it tells them you’re vulnerable, you’re open to their input. As you do that with them you get better questions, better refinements, better reframings, new possibilities and energy of other people committed to your opportunity or challenge actually making progress and moving forward. So, the starting point there for me, Mark, is we’re doing that question burst to find a better question that we care enough about to start exploring the world. Then, here’s the next part. That question burst is a fairly fixed mechanical way of doing it. What I learned from these 200+ creative change makers that I interviewed is that they create the same conditions in their everyday leadership life that the question burst creates for people artificially. That question burst forces people more often than not to be a little bit wrong instead of right, a little bit uncomfortable because people are asking tough questions, and reflectively quiet. Not being able to answer, not being able to explain their questions forces them to be quiet, and what I found in interviewing these 200+ people is that they create these same conditions over and over for themselves and other people in their incredibly innovative organizations. They create these conditions of being unexpectedly wrong, and usually uncomfortable, and reflectively quiet which is not the kind of world most of us work in when we’re running pell-mell as fast as we can trying to just deliver things today.

Yeah, because as a leader, I suppose, the traditional model is that you’re expected to have answers on the spot versus what you’re saying which is pausing and being comfortable with the silence and also being willing to say, ‘I’m not quite sure.’

Well, you know Ray Dalio, the author of Principles, founder of Bridgewater Finance said, ‘Great questions are a much better indicator of future success than great answers.’ He gets it, and so the challenge is most of us go through schooling systems that reinforce answers more than questions. I’m not sure what it’s like in Switzerland or the rest of the world but I do know what it’s like in the US. For the last sixty years, the research is consistent. The average school setting, the average child whether they’re 6-years-old or in college or undergraduate degrees, they ask six questions per month total about what they’re learning in class. The average teacher asks fifty to a hundred questions per hour, so students are basically trained early on that answers and fast answers matter more than questions. That translates next into their first jobs when they start their professional careers where they’re often hired to fill a slot to deliver answers. They often get promoted for having the smartest answer in the room but then they hit the c-suite level or the CEO level, in particular, and the problems at that level are not given, they’re discovered, and the uncertainty is profound, and I’ll never forget in Singapore at a Wall Street Journal conference I was talking about this issue, a CEO came up to me afterward and he said, ‘Guess what? I am your classic example. I went through my whole career having the best answers in the room when I became the CEO, it was absolutely the most difficult, devastating moment because I realized I had to move from being an answer-centric leader to a question-centric leader, and I hadn’t built those skills and now I’m in the process of doing it.’ That’s where it matters especially.

And you’re Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center. How do you create those conditions because presumably, even more so, I guess, in the world of academia, people who are working for you are being hired given their ability to provide answers or is that not the case anymore?

Oh no. Well, at MIT, I’ve taught at several universities around the world and amazing places, but this place is the most amazing of amazing, and I was instantly stunned when I realized that the alumni from MIT, if you aggregate their output of the companies they founded, it’s the ninth largest GDP economy in the world and I’m like, ‘How did that happen?’ And then we ended up studying what does it mean to be a ‘leader’ coming out of MIT and we studied alumni, students, faculty and recruiters and so on, and basically, we landed on leaders in MIT are problem-led leaders. In other words, I don’t follow you because you’re you, Mark, I follow you because you’re caring enough about some opportunity, challenge, or problem that’s like, ‘That’s intriguing. Can I join your team?’


So, these MIT leaders generally pick challenges that are bigger than themselves. They don’t have all of the expertise to solve it. That means other people have got to be on a team and then you’ve got all this really bright incredible expertise, and experience, and different skills operating at different points in time. Students step forward, they step backward and the whole point is how can we solve this problem? And what’s amazing is that is how they operate. They are not the best politics but when it comes to problem-solving, the graduates of MIT, they excel at that and what’s really intriguing is that that approach is exactly the same as these 200+ creative change makers that I interviewed for the book. It’s just like that’s how they define themselves. ‘I am a problem solver and to do that I have to ask the different, better question.’

Yeah. So, the question is clearly key and it’s important to be able to listen, so can you say a little bit about the how to exercise the listening muscle and what is listening like in this kind of environment?

I will never forget bumping into Marc Benioff at the World Economic Forum in Davos meeting a few years ago and asking him the question, ‘How do you ask better questions, Marc?’ and his response was one single word as he looked me in the eyes and he said, ‘Listen.’ And then he watched me for about five seconds like, ‘Okay, how does Hal Gregersen listen? How does he do that?’ and so I was all there and then Marc concluded, I think, ‘Hal’s listening, he’s all here.’ We had a twenty-minute conversation about what it means to listen, and the point becomes we have to be fully present. We have to, in the spirit of the former governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, he told me it’s the power of the pause. He said whether it’s business or politics, if you ask a question be willing to just pause for a long period of time because that extra second or two that invites people to tell you something they otherwise wouldn’t, and so most leaders ask questions again in that repetitive ‘just give me the answer mode’ they only take a second to start responding to, but these sorts of leaders ask the better questions and they shut up and they wait three, four, five seconds for someone to respond.

Fascinating, fascinating. So, let’s try this then, a little experiment. So, the concept, Hal, of the ‘keystone question’ which I think is not a million miles away from the question that we talked about, Tony Robbins’ – I can’t remember what the language was now that I used – the question that drives you. What is your keystone question?

I’m going to answer it by what was my keystone question and then lead into what is, how does that sound? So, in 2014 I was getting ready to give a speech in La Jolla, California. I went down and sat on my computer, had some heavy pressure on my chest and I was nervous, went outside, got some fresh air, said a little prayer, went back and gave a 90-minute speech, still felt pressure and a bit of anxiety on my chest, then my neck started to hurt then I felt a bit nauseous and fortunately, 15 minutes later it was a break. I went back to my hotel room, my wife looked at me and said, ‘You don’t look well,’ I said, ‘I don’t feel well.’ When I explained to her what I just explained to you and her response was, ‘Are you having a heart attack?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know but let’s look it up.’ So, I got my computer out and typed in heart attack symptoms and yeah, I’m having a heart attack!’ My wife had just exercised and she was a bit sweaty, and she’s like, ‘Okay, let me take a shower and then we’ll run to the hospital.’ I’m like, ‘No, let’s go to hospital now,’ and so we took off to the hospital and I woke up the next day with three stents and two arteries that were blocked each 90% and the short story on that it is, my father had multiple heart attacks as I grew up. I was deeply committed to never having a heart attack. I learned everything there was, Mark, about how to avoid having a heart attack by eating right. exercising etc. but I never took the time to figure out what are heart attack symptoms because it wasn’t going to happen to me, and so what I didn’t know I didn’t know almost killed me there. And what I then ended up doing was being very quiet, classic male response to this situation, and two weeks later my wife and I were talking with a counselor and this counselor looked me in the eye and said, ‘Hal, if you don’t stop being nice, you’re going to kill yourself,’ and what she meant by that is just saying yes too much, being nice to people to be nice to people, and I realized with clarity at that moment what my keystone question was: ‘How can I make people happy?’ And for me that has a story that goes back to a childhood growing up where my father was emotionally abusive in the center of the world in our home, sometimes physically and I’m not trying to say this, there are far worse situations than I had but it was difficult enough that I grew up just trying to protect myself and the way I thought I could do that was, ‘How can I just be nice here? How can I be nice?’ So, professionally that’s what I was doing as well, Mark, that’s how I was living my life and it almost wore me to the ground and killed me. And I realize it’s the wrong question. It’s not being helpful at all and so the question that I now try to live, and it’s a battle because it’s easy to slide back to the old one, and it may sound the same but it’s, ‘How can I magnify your light, your truth, your good, right here, right now?’ and sometimes that means doing or saying something that might make you angry but in the end it might help the world be a better place because of what just happened. So, it’s slightly different but it’s my way of now moving through the world. It’s not about me, it’s about your light and what might I do that might help you move forward.

Wow. One of the books you mentioned or you referred to, I think, is the Seat of the Soul which talked a little bit about that focus of you around wanting to please and be nice, and I’m trying to get a hold of this book but it’s very hard to get hold of, but it struck me, and if I read your book correctly you pointed to this as being one of the areas to work on?

So, these are not the easy questions for many of us to surface, Mark. Rose Marcario who now is the CEO of Patagonia-

Which has got a great question. They’ve got a great question underpinning that business, haven’t they?

Oh, absolutely they do. The starting question for them, for Yvon Chouinard, was, ‘How can I make a living without losing my soul?’ and for 30+ years the key is just tension. You know, ‘How do we do a business that’s also making a difference and that’s a constant tension and demands the best of their best people?’ and today their question their living is, ‘How do we make it uncomfortable for other companies to follow us?’ which is a very daunting and challenging question and at the same time still be profitable and have a sustainable future ourselves. So, that’s their organizational question but for Rose, she was deeply involved in doing big global deals in finance and she was being driven through New York City doing one of these big deals, hustling to get there, and she notices a woman out of the corner of her eye who was toddling across the street, driver slams on the brakes, stops at a crosswalk where they should have been going. Rose is totally impatient, and she looks in the window and sees her own reflection and realizes that that woman who’s slowing her down is just like her mother who had psychological problems growing up, and Rose is thinking to herself, ‘How did my world become so much more important than that woman crossing the street?’ She asked the driver to let her out, she goes to Central Park in New York, takes a long walk, reflects very carefully and asks the question, ‘What have I become?’ And she doesn’t run from the question, she wrestles with it for five years, she ends up leaving finance and she gets hired as the CFO of Patagonia and she’s living the question that Yvon Chouinard started with which is, ‘How can I make a living without losing my soul?’ and that gives her deep passion and energy for what she’s doing. I’m not saying that people in finance need to leave finance. That’s not the point.

No, but what you’re saying is that there are other resources that you refer to here around man’s search for meaning, Parker Palmer’s example of the Quaker Clearness Committees? I mean, there’s some very, very eclectic resources that you bring into the book which certainly, I think, can help people not only address some of the business challenges but also potentially address some of these life challenges, the life purpose questions that it seems lots of people are wrestling with, certainly people I come across in my day to day activities anyway.

Well, Mark the issue, well-framed, and the issue of whether it’s life or work, the fundamental issue of this book is where are we creating a space for the toughest questions to be asked? And whether it’s a Quaker Clearing Committee which after I read about it from Parker Palmer’s book I actually did with a small group of friends-

Really? Can you just very quickly, I know time’s short, but we can just tell the story because it’s such a wonderful story of this guy going through this committee, right?

So, exactly. So, Parker Palmer is in education, he’s got his doctorate, he’s incredibly bright, he’s successful with what he’s doing, he’s made a difference with all kinds of elements of education and community impact, and he’s being considered to become the president of a university or college, and Parker is wrestling with the decision, ‘Should I or shouldn’t I?’ So, he invites a few of his Quaker friends to do a Clearance Committee which is, they ask him nothing but questions, he answers them, and the only thing they can do is ask more questions. So, they’re asking questions and asking questions, and they finally move down to this moment of, ‘Parker, really, why do you really want to be university president?’ and Parker’s quiet for a moment and then he sheepishly answers, ‘I just want to get my picture in the paper.’ And the committee is supposed to be quiet, but they all laugh at the answer and there’s this long silence, and then the committee responds to Parker’s answer with the perfect question which is, ‘Don’t you think there’s a better way to get your picture in the paper?’

Wonderful. And you went through one of these did you, Hal?

I did and I’ve done it in other forms with people who are really close to me where essentially you create a safe enough space in the spirit of Amy Edmondson’s wonderful work in The Fearless Organization book that just came out, where it’s psychologically safe enough for people to feel wrong, and uncomfortable, and reflectively quiet, not run from that discomfort and when that happens these questions emerge that are catalytic, they change our lives, they change the world. Let me give you a quick example that’s not so much personal but it is personal. At Pixar, and Disney now, at Pixar it’s called a ‘Brain Trust’, at Disney it’s called a ‘Story ‘Trust’, but it started way back with Toy Story and it happened with Incredibles 2 and Ralph Wrecks The Internet at Disney now just coming out. these directors are at the top of their game that’s why they’re being asked to lead and direct one of these films. They have an initial idea. Brad Bird eight years ago had the initial idea for Incredibles 2 and they know at Disney and they know at Pixar that the initial ideas always suck. They’re bad. But they go into this room called The Brain Trust, The Story Trust, it’s filled with other directors and equally competent people. Those people in the room have an obligation, a responsibility to give positive and negative feedback and ask the toughest possible questions they can, not to hurt Brad Bird, but to help Brad Bird make a better movie. Brad’s job is just to listen. Now, it’s really hard because they know that their best movies are often the director’s own stories in one fashion or another. They’re personal stories, and so imagine you’re Brad sitting in a room for three hours getting nothing but feedback, a lot of it negative or critical, and at the core of that movie story for The Incredibles is actually your personal story. It’s hard, it’s crushing at times, it’s devastating. They often go home for the weekend afterward just to recover. They’re never obligated to do anything people tell them, but they’re obligated to listen, and it’s that kind of space where people can ask the tough questions where others can be wrong, and uncomfortable, and quiet, that leads them to the next part of what might make Incredibles 2 great, and they do this over, and over, and over. At Cirque du Soleil, it’s the Lion’s Den. I could go through different organizations. Charles Schwab and what Walt Bettinger does, he’s the CEO of Charles Schwab in the financial world, they each have different places and spaces for their team and their organization to ask the tough questions and to have conversations across isolated bubbles, and borders, and boundaries where something better comes of the conversation.

Lovely, and that’s the cognitive diversity, I guess, that’s in the mix?

Oh, absolutely. So, that’s the whole point. I’m not going to feel wrong, and uncomfortable, and quiet if I’m around people and isolated in my space and living in my bubble. That’s just not going to happen. If that’s the case, I will not ask a different question and if that’s the case, I’m going to live the patterned habits that I’ve been stuck in up to this point.

Lovely. Hal, we could go on, but I know time is tight and maybe we’ll get you back on the show to cover some other topics, but just beginning to wrap up, I sent you three – and I’m nervous about sending you questions – but I sent you three questions. The first one being one that came from Charlie Munger actually, the co-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway. What have you changed your mind about recently?

The impact of AI and super intelligence on the world. Decades ago, I read a book, Player Piano, by – I’m forgetting now the author – Kurt Vonnegut, which was basically a dystopian view of the world where there were the Brains, and the Reeks, and the Wrecks, and everything was falling apart because of technology, and I recently just read Hawking’s Brief Answers to the Big Questions, his final chapter of his final book before he passed away, unfortunately, is about AI and his view was dystopian in the sense that at some point super intelligence is going to take over. I’m afraid I had that predisposition, and a combination of many of the interviews for the book and especially now I’ve had the chance to interact with Melinda Gates team at the Gates Foundation and basically, her optimism has caused me to rethink, reflect, and step back, and then there was a conversation with Jeff Wilke who runs a huge swath of Amazon worldwide, he’s the CEO of consumer worldwide at Amazon, and a conversation with Ed Catmull at Pixar, and a conversation with Matt Beane who used to be a colleague here at MIT, now he’s at UC Santa Barbara, the conversation was the following with these three people: ‘How can I integrate AI machine learning, deep learning into my own ability to formulate and ask better questions?’ And it reframed the issue for me. Instead of running from this super intelligence, run towards it and embrace it, and figure out how can I as a human being ask a better question because of it, because for me that is the only hope for our future and it’s one I’m hopeful in, and that is that this technology-assisted question creation will enable us as humans to always ask the better question, because if we don’t learn how to do that, I’m going to fall over this dystopian edge that AI will win, and I’m optimistic that we can figure out a way to leverage this AI to help us ask the questions we otherwise wouldn’t ask and build a better place.

Wonderful, Well, when you started that I thought that was going to be a negative, a pessimistic answer, but it’s lovely to hear an optimistic one. Super. Second question, where do you go to get fresh perspectives to stay innovative and creative?

It started when I was 15 years old with my first photograph and it continues today when I’m 60, Mark. Whenever I’m stuck, whenever I’m languishing, whenever I’m anxious, whenever I’m trying to figure something out, grab my camera, get out into the world, engage with the world, compose some very intriguing situations, wait for something interesting to happen, and when I do that the concept of flow, like Csikszentmihalyi, I’m fully present behind that camera lens and it regularly opens insights that otherwise, I wouldn’t get.

Lovely, and some of your pictures are in the book actually. I don’t have much of an eye for photography, but I must say that reflecting on some of the compositions and some of the text around the photos I’ve begun to see the pictures and the depth of them and the structure of them in a very different light.

Thank you.

Lovely, lovely. And then the third question, what’s been your most significant failure or low, what did you learn from it and how have you applied that learning?

It’s actually a photography one. I’m in my early twenties, I’m running my own little photography studio, weddings and portraits. I have my two best friends from high school have asked me to take their wedding pictures on their wedding day on the same day. My medium format camera breaks down, I borrow one from a friend that’s a different brand, and I take all the pictures, hundreds of pictures. I pick the images up three days later from the photo developer and none of the images exposed. None of them. Neither of my best friends has pictures from their weddings, and what had happened in a large format camera, you put what they call a dark slide, a piece of metal between where the light comes through the lens and hits the film in the back, so you can change the backs of these cameras for different film types. I was not in the habit of doing that with my camera and I forgot to pull the dark slide out and none of the images were exposed. I will never forget, Mark, dialing with one of those rotary dial black phones their phone numbers and telling them the news. It was devastating. Now, it was so devastating I didn’t know how to deal with it. I was at the last semester of my last class in my college degree and it was a class on leadership and I’m like, ‘This is interesting.’ It was the first class that was intriguing and it was a transition moment where I then started to leave the world of photography and move into the world of leadership, so what was a devastating moment actually created the window into what I’ve done for the last thirty years, and the beauty of it, Mark, is that forty years ago Reid Callanan at Santa Fe Photographic Workshops introduced me to Sam Abell who’s a National Geographic photographer for 30+ years, and for the last four years now at MIT in Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, we do this workshop, Leadership and the Lens, where it’s all come full circle. What was a devastating moment actually led to my leadership and question-driven leadership work and now we try to teach leaders how to ask better questions through photography. It’s powerful. Every time I do it my life changes when I’m working with Sam on that program.

Wow, and then I have to ask the question, your two best friends did you ever talk to them again? Did they forgive you or was it as devastating-

Absolutely! They did forgive me but inside of me still, there’s that subtle ouch in the back of the corner of my heart like, ‘Oh man. Only if. Oh, well.’

Yeah. Hal, this has been great. I really do appreciate your time today as I knew going into this having read the book this would be very valuable for our listeners. I’m reassured by the quality of the conversation and your work, your material. Where can people get in touch with you?

The easiest way frankly is I’ve got a website that provides some background context information and my email is publicly accessible, very simple, my initials, [email protected], so that’s the other option.

Wonderful, and I think you’re also on Twitter and LinkedIn, so with your permission, we’ll include those links in the show notes.


And best of luck with the launch and look forward to seeing you next time you’re in Switzerland.

Mark, thank you very much. You’ve taken us, I think, on a wonderful excursion and tour of innovation and inquiry and I hope to physically cross paths sometime at some point in Switzerland. Thank you.

Absolutely. Many thanks. Bye.



In this episode, we are joined by Hal Gregersen, author of The Innovator’s DNA, to discuss his latest book, Questions are the Answer. Hal is a Senior Lecturer in Leadership and Innovation and the Executive Director of the Leadership Center at MIT, and has previously taught at Dartmouth College, The World Economic Forum, and the London Business School.

What Was Covered

  • Why Hal believes most CEOs have trouble asking questions and how to pivot from answer-centric to question-led leadership.
  • How to be a better leader by asking the ‘different, better question’ and using the ‘power of the pause’.
  • How Hal’s question-first process of re-framing of challenges can help us discover the winning solution.

Key Takeaways and Learnings

  • Associational thinking: how observing, networking, and experimenting helps the world’s top leaders find novel solutions nobody has thought of before.
  • Catalytic questions: why challenging our false assumptions of the world forces us to create new beliefs and act on our questions.
  • Question bursts: why receiving no answers to our questions can help us to innovatively solve problems.

Links and Resources Mentioned in this Episode

Mark Bidwell

Mark Bidwell

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