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There has been much discussion lately over who is more likely to create industry disruption: big, powerful corporations or small, agile startups. The traditional line of thinking says that being large is inherently detrimental to innovation. Big companies may be able to devise good ideas, but the ideas never reach fruition because of the excessive bureaucracy required to pursue its implementation. The logic is sound—how can a company restricted by levels upon levels of hierarchy compete with organizations where the power is consolidated in the hands of the few and innovation is required simply to keep the doors open? As the adage tells us, necessity is the mother of invention. And yet, this notion is coming increasingly under fire. Accenture released a report, “From Digitally Disrupted to Digital Disrupter,” that challenged the idea that large companies must suffer the inability to innovate due to their unmanageable size. While the report notes that large enterprises are still in the early phases of embracing digital technologies, once they do, their capabilities are nearly limitless. “These industrial powerhouses realize that not only can they control their own markets, but they can actually disrupt and establish footholds in others, often creating new business and market models in the process. These visionary digerati giants have the resources, the scale, and importantly, the will to reinvent their businesses, systems, data, and talent networks.”  

But where does it all begin?

While larger organizations may be learning how to get out of their own way when it comes to innovation, disruptive thinking still has to come from somewhere. And this is where the intersection between nimble startup and unwieldy enterprise lies: asking hard questions. Unfortunately, Question-Askers in companies are often met with smirks of derision for asking time-consuming or seemingly unrelated questions. For example, you organized a short meeting to discuss the detailed product marketing plan for the rollout of your company’s new product, except you are interrupted half way through by a guy who asks about what our competitors are doing to render our product irrelevant before it even hits the market. Idiot, you think. What is he doing, interrupting the meeting to ask such a pointless question? The product exists. Now we need to fine-tune our marketing plan—not discuss what our competitors are doing. And yet, this is where companies large and small go wrong. Where you focused on finding solutions to close-ended questions, your colleague was considering the problem in its larger context. His question appeared naïve because it would require more time and resources than are currently available, which is why it is most logical in the short-term to stick to asking close-ended questions. The danger lies in only ever asking these questions. Asking hard questions is generally a cause for discomfort. When you apply provocative inquiry to all aspects of your organization, it can produce the distinct feeling of an inner threat to the people that work there. And yet, the threat doesn’t exist inside your own walls, but outside, in the form of organizations who are asking hard questions and transforming the status quo as your team finishes up your product marketing meeting. What is your organization doing to facilitate innovation? What are some examples of questions that foster disruptive thinking?

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