THE BLOG
05/31/2016 10:50 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2017

Ask Better Questions to Avoid Disruption

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Southwest Airlines faced a potential disruption early in its operation--it was forced to sell one of its four airplanes. The implications are obvious--selling the airplane generates cash for operations and completely disrupts the company's capacity to serve customers and generate future revenue.

The Southwest CEO responded by asking a better question: What can we do to maintain the same number of flights with 25 percent fewer airplanes without a loss in service to our customers or revenue to the company?

The potential solutions were limited. The planes couldn't fly any faster, take off any earlier, or land any later at the airports served. The one thing the company could control was the length of time an airplane was on the ground between flights. That solution--to turn an airplane in 25 minutes or less--plays an important role in Southwest's continued success today.

Much is made of the importance of asking "why." Equally, if not more, important to flourishing in the future is the willingness to ask three very specific "what" questions

Asking these three questions on a regular basis minimizes the risk that you will be disrupted or displaced with the customers you serve. They are: what else, what next, and what if.

Start with What Else.

Asking What Else focuses your attention on the problem or opportunity at hand.
What else can you do to create more value for customers? What else can you do to help your organization stand out in a crowded marketplace? What else can you do to help your team be more effective? What else do you need to learn to succeed in your job?

The assumption behind What Else is that the marketplace requires us to be faster, better, cheaper, and friendlier every day.

Move to What Next.

Not every idea that emerges from your What Else question will be possible or even appropriate. Likewise, simply asking What Next doesn't ensure that your answer will be correct.

Blockbuster, as an example, knew that distributing DVDs by mail was a logical next step in providing a service that their customers valued. It missed, however, on correctly answering the What Next question and didn't move aggressively enough to implement it.

Asking What Next further clarifies your best course of action and focuses your attention, energy, and resources. It also requires you to honestly and accurately evaluate the costs, benefits, and feasibility of your course of action.

If asking What Else opens the door for creativity, asking What Next adds a degree of logic. As Roger von Oech wrote, "Truth is all around you. What matters is where you put your focus."

Don't Forget What If.

Once Southwest Airlines decided that its next best course of action was to reduce the time its airplanes were on the ground, the hard work of figuring out how that could occur began.

Someone asked questions such as "What if we changed the boarding process to get people on the plane quicker?" What if the pilots helped clean the plane? What if we asked passengers to help us clean the plane because they value on time departure?

Asking What If isn't a new idea. This question spurs the uniquely human creativity and innovation necessary to uncover new possibilities.

You are bombarded almost daily with changes and disruptions that transform how you work and live. Winning in this environment requires a combination of focused execution that adds value and improves performance today with creative ideas that offer different possibilities for tomorrow.

To flourish, you and your organization will need to ask better questions. The quality of the answers you receive are in direct proportion to the quality of the questions you ask. Start with What Else. Move to What's Next, and don't forget What If.

Randy Pennington is an award-winning author, speaker, and leading authority on helping organizations achieve positive results in a world of accelerating change. To bring Randy to your organization or event, visit www.penningtongroup.com , email info@penningtongroup.com, or call 972.980.9857.