I spoke with a successful entrepreneur last week. Her start-up has grown rapidly, and she’s feeling the pressure that success puts on her and her young team. Although each new opportunity is hard-earned and exhilarating, it also comes with things to learn and novel challenges to overcome in R&D, marketing, distribution, and supply chain.

I was impressed by her insight and her mindset. She’s eager to learn and willing to accept help. But as she’s now realizing, not everyone is as comfortable with the humility, vulnerability, and curiosity formula necessary to grow at the pace required.

As a leader, have you come across people who:

  • Rely on what they already know or have already done instead of adapting?
  • Feel disrespected when you push for more novel answers to problems?
  • Bristle at your recommendation that they seek help from outside?
  • Become defensive when you put tension on their plans?

If you’re struggling with team members who might not be able to keep up with the growth of your business, you’re not alone. Here’s what I suggested to the start-up CEO. Would it work for your business?

Create a Learning Culture

My best advice if your organization is growing rapidly is to become obsessed with creating a learning culture. And the quickest way I can think of to do that is by centering everyone on the most critical questions they need to answer.

Frame the Situation

To kick off this approach, you might introduce the idea by saying…

“Our business is growing at 50%. Our challenge is to each grow 50% this year as leaders to stay ahead.”

The Central Questions

Once you’ve got the team-oriented to the growth mindset you’re trying to instill, you can share the three questions that will become your focus.

What was Yesterday’s Answer?

It’s tempting to start with the first question being “What’s today’s question” but that would be a mistake. When you’re racing to keep up, it’s too easy to rush past successes and fail to celebrate what you’ve accomplished.

Instead, start by asking about Yesterday’s Answer. (Yesterday doesn’t literally mean the day before today… it just means recently.) What did they crack? What insight did they have? What milestone did they reach?

And in that, there’s room for meta-learning. What did it take to solve that? What could help us solve similar problems more efficiently in the future? Now that it’s solved, could you delegate it?

What’s Today’s Question?

The second question is about the most important thing they need to learn or solve or breakthrough on now. Now might be a week, a month, or a quarter, whatever time horizon makes sense. The key is to focus their energy and attention on the single most important thing you’re counting on them to solve as a leader.

Where possible, you want your leaders to generate their own questions. You simply provide the prompt, “What’s your most important question?” If they miss something you think is more critical, draw their attention to it, “What about distribution; what’s the big question there?” If the question feels too big or abstract, help them narrow it down, “That sounds like it’s got a few sub-questions. Where would you start,” or “If you took that up a level, what would be the over-arching question?”

Person looking at a laptop and thinkingHere are some examples:

  • (Sales) How do we land Acme as our biggest customer yet?
  • (Product) Which of our legacy products are we going to stop offering?
  • (People) Who from the acquired company will take on management roles?
  • (Marketing) How do we increase the percentage of people who go from landing on our website to purchasing a service?

Once the question is clear, you can coach the person in thinking through how to get good answers. For example, what new knowledge do we need? Who has had experiences similar to what we’re going through? What relationships do we have that could get us access to required information or influence? What paradigm or outdated perspective do we need to let go of if we’re going to solve this one?

What are Tomorrow’s Questions?

The third question, “What’s the Next Big Question,” is designed to encourage people to anticipate what’s coming. It’s not something they need to be actively thinking about every day, but it is helpful to have time to mull it over and watch how things in the internal and external environment evolve. These examples show the same functions as above, but now with longer-term questions.

  • (Sales) How do we stop fishing with a hook and start fishing with a net (acquire multiple customers at once)?
  • (Product) How would moving to mass distribution require different products and packaging?
  • (People) Who won’t want to be part of our company in one or two years, and how do we make it a positive and effective transition?
  • (Marketing) Where is the market that we want to go after?

Forums for Learning

Once you adopt the 3 Questions framework, you can use it everywhere. These are a few obvious spots.

Management by Walking Around

As you’re interacting with your leaders (or any employees if you’ve cascaded the 3 Questions to all team members), throw in one of the three questions. You can have a routine to this, such as asking for the successes of Yesterday’s Answer on Fridays or at the end of a month or asking the Next Big Question at the start of manager and employee talkingeach quarter. Alternatively, you can go with your instinct in any given conversation.

Another important habit is to share your questions. Sharing your questions has a few positive effects:

  1. It shows that you’re committed to learning and growth.
  2. It orients people’s attention toward essential things that might otherwise be beyond their prevue.
  3. It gives you a chance to collect suggestions and insights from the team.

Weekly Huddle

A weekly huddle is a great place to celebrate Yesterday’s Answers and to align on Today’s Questions. For one person to solve their question, it might be necessary to shift someone else’s question. A quick huddle at the start of the week (or even each morning) can help you get everyone focused on the highest-priority questions.

Regular One-on-Ones

One-on-one coaching conversations are the perfect place to talk about Today’s Question and to ask some of those follow-on questions about how the person is working toward an answer.

Development Conversations

Reserving time to talk only about the Next Big Question means you get out of the mindset of immediate performance and delivery and create the time to think about the future. A development conversation is a great time to talk about development opportunities (new experiences, new relationships, new learning) that the person will need to be able to answer the Next Big Question.

Quarterly Future Forums

At least once per quarter, it’s great to hold a half or full day to get your leaders thinking about your long-term goals, the evolving external environment, and the next set of capabilities the organization will need. This is the place to expose your leaders to one another’s Next Big Questions.

Too often, leaders want to boast about what they’ve accomplished without acknowledging how much is still to be solved. If your leaders are going to grow as fast as required, you need to shift their attention and their energy onto today’s challenges and create thinking time and space for tomorrow’s.

Additional Resources

You Aren’t Strategic Enough

How to add value as a leader–Part 2

From Inc. Magazine 5 Tips to Successfully Lead a Rapid Growth Company, by David Finkel