The Most Important Question That Leaders Ask
And you should too.
“So, why are we doing this? What is our big hairy audacious goal?”
Aditya asked after we finished sharing our consultant-style presentation in the meeting.
All of us (including his team) looked at each other a little taken aback, and to be candid, a little confused. We had all spent a few sleepless nights crafting a detailed approach for their largest program. But we had not really asked this one question. Was there a need to rethink the goal?
Aditya then took a pause and shared his big audacious vision for education transformation with us.
We left the meeting that day with ambition, a long task list, and a seemingly impossible timeline.
The One Question You Need to Ask
I had the opportunity to work with Aditya Nataraj as a part of a long-term advisory assignment. I used to work in a development consulting firm back then.
Have you ever worked with a leader who makes you terrified and awed at the same time? Someone who inspires you just by sharing their own personal vision? Well, that was him.
Aditya used to lead one of the largest education nonprofits in India (Kaivalya Education Foundation) at the time. He is now the CEO of Piramal Foundation - one of the largest family-run Foundations in India. Very well known and respected in the development sector in India and globally. He also serves on several Governing Boards of organizations. A visionary and renowned changemaker - he is known to be an empathetic leader as well as a hard taskmaster.
Needless to say, I was terrified when I was asked to manage an advisory team for one of their largest programs. His stature and reputation had preceded our actual meeting. I was warned that he asks hard questions. I was told he demanded results. I was told he sets ambitious goals. They were right!
What I wasn't told was how much I would learn from him about working in the impact sector.
We often used to work out of their offices that time and his room was on the ground floor. The organization had a very open culture, so we would often find him working at his desk with the door open. Often when we would pass by his room, I would find Aditya reflectively looking out the window and writing in his notebook/blackboard.
Each time before our meeting, he would meticulously read through everything we had shared over email. He would then charge into the room like a whirlwind and change the course of our ship.
To give you an analogy, we used to imagine our inputs as lego blocks then. Sometimes, he would demolish the lego blocks and sometimes build a castle out of them. Either way, each meeting was exceptional. He would make the ideas better just by asking the right questions.
Always think about the 'Why'?
That was the biggest lesson I learnt from observing him.
Designing High Impact Programs
Working in the impact sector especially in a developing nation is hard.
Problem statements are wicked yet interconnected. Solutions are available yet disaggregated. Collaborations are preferred yet complex to implement.
From climate change to education, livelihoods to health, urban development to employment - there are innumerable wicked impact problems around us to solve. Thankfully, we have wonderful nonprofits, think tanks, donors, and catalyst organizations working towards them as well.
Over the years, I have been part of several of these organizations from different sides of the table. And I have observed that the programs that drive the greatest impact are the ones that have asked and answered the 'WHY' questions well.
1. Why do we need to act? [Identify purpose]
Think of it as your ‘product-market fit’ in the development context. The answer to this ‘why’ question should help in establishing the core need for building an impact program. It should help in narrowing down the most critical problem statement and understanding its consequences. Most of all, it should help build a personalized connect to rally people (teams, partners, donors) for taking action.
Let’s look at two Indian nonprofits for whom children are the focus stakeholders (or beneficiaries, though I don’t quite like that word). Despite the focus being on children, both the organizations built their flagship programs with very different purposes.
For Akshaya Patra Foundation, the reason to act is that children are deprived of education due to hunger. So their vision, mission, and program are centered around providing mid-day meals to children in schools. For Pratham’s Teaching at the Right Level program, the reason to act is that in every grade, basic foundational learning levels for children are unacceptably low in India due to which their learning trajectories are flat in higher grades.
It is important to ensure that the purpose is not too vague, too wide, or too abstract. High-performing impact programs are able to identify their purpose at just the right level which is ambitious yet attainable with the right efforts.
2. Why does this challenge exist? [Identify Solution]
You should ask this question as a part of your problem-solving process.
Asking the right ‘why’ questions here can help deconstruct a wicked problem and identify its underlying causes.
Have you observed how toddlers continually keep asking questions? Mom, why can’t I have ice cream today? Mom, why do I have to finish dinner before ice cream? Mom, why is the ice cream shop closed? Mom, why can’t we drive to the other ice cream shop then? (And then you just end up handing them the ice cream before dinner. Well, I digress. But, do I?)
Continually asking the Why question (much like toddlers) in the problem-solving stage help in peeling away the symptoms and identifying the causes underneath. This 5 Why technique from Six Sigma is relevant in designing high-impact programs as well. The solutions can then be designed around these causes.
For instance - Why are there many school dropouts in higher grades? Because they struggle with learning gaps. Why are there learning gaps at higher grades? Because their foundational concepts are not clear. Why are the foundational concepts unclear? Because teaching is not at the right level for each child. So let’s solve it then. (This is the premise of the Pratham TaRL program)
3. Why has this not been solved yet? [Identify Barriers]
This is one of the most critical questions to ask as well.
Understanding why a problem statement hasn’t been solved yet will help you decide if you want to fight that battle. It will help you map your own circle of control. It will help you be prepared for the roadblocks. Most of all, it will give you a reality check and perspective.
Have you noticed how for a single problem statement, organizations tend to solve it from different angles? Some organizations choose to work on the governance angle, while some work on the field directly with partners and some work on capacity building.
Actually, each wicked problem has a number of underlying causes and sometimes the solutions are too complex to implement due to the societal, judiciary, political, financial, or governance barriers.
Understanding these barriers can help you choose your circle of control to influence the problem statement. You can decide your program approach based on your team’s skillsets, networks, expertise, and ambition.
4. Why should stakeholders engage? [Identify Value]
Engaging stakeholders - right from donors, to partners, to government officials - is one of the biggest challenges for impact organizations. It is critical to reflect on why your stakeholders would care for a problem you are trying to solve. Why should the donor give you money? Why should government agencies extend support? Why should volunteers invest time in your program? Why should partner organizers provide you in-kind support?
High-performing impact programs identify value for stakeholders by asking the right questions internally, before reaching out with a call for action. They are able to connect the dots between ‘the reason to act’ and the ‘value for the stakeholder’.
Consider this example. For volunteers, can you create an opportunity to help them clearly build their skills or experiences (relevant for further studies or jobs)? For donors, can you provide access to an underserved area or a previously unattempted solution? For government agencies, can you connect the results of your program with their existing policies?
These are just some examples but there could be many ways to drive value for the stakeholders. The external engagements can be made stronger just by asking the right questions internally first.
I will conclude by saying this. Despite the right intent, asking the right questions can often be the make-or-break for designing high-impact programs. So, many thanks to Aditya Nataraj and other leaders like him, who have pushed me to learn, think, and ask the right questions.
Note: When I reached out to Aditya to check if he was okay with me using our anecdote, he gave some great inputs and also cheekily said 'I did not know what all what people were perceiving of me'. Haha! Thanks again, Aditya.
As we close for today, think about this -
Are you asking the right questions in your work?
That’s all for now. Go shine!
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