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Also, the dangers of introverted companies, how to turn around a broken department, a test of how open and helpful you are – and more

When presented with a problem, we automatically begin to look for solutions, brainstorming possibilities. But rushing toward a solution misses a vital step: Brainstorming the questions we should be asking as we address the problem.

Levi Brooks, chief executive officer of the All Five design studio, says that when presented with a problem, the smartest approach is to step back and break it down – search for the "negative space," the gaps of understanding and anomalies surrounding the issue.

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On the Behance website, he says some ways to do that are to challenge the underlying assumptions of the problem (including your own); understand the audience's needs in more detail; consider the big picture and how to distill the wider impact of the problem; understand fully how different people around you perceive the problem; know what, if anything, has already been tried with regard to the problem; and question the questions that are being asked.

After dealing with those questions, you're still not ready to move to solutions. You need to drive for even more questions. "Generating questions, rather than solutions, can allow us to think more freely and creatively, since we're not required to come up with a perfect solution yet," he writes.

He recommends the Question Formulation Technique developed by The Right Question Institute, using these steps:

– Appoint a session leader, who will set an area of focus for questioning.

– The team then spends 10 minutes producing as many questions as possible. Helpful tip: Questions can start with "what is blocking … ," "what is stopping ... , " or "why … ."

– The team then spends another 10 minutes pairing up to share and improve their questions.

– Pairs then spend the final five minutes prioritizing their questions and presenting them to the group.

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– The group decides on three favourites to explore.

He suggests your team should easily be able to develop 50 questions that can be narrowed down to the final three thought-provoking questions that will hopefully stimulate further reading, research, discussion and experimentation on your journey to a solution.

2. Is your company introverted?

We have met people who are introverted. But can a corporation be introverted? A team from Boston Consulting Group argues that a surprising number are – and it's dangerous, because introverted organizations are not truly in touch with their customers. They are focused inward and miss important signals of change.

A recent study they conducted of more than 90 companies found that less than half the business decisions – 47 per cent – reflected customer insights. "Surprisingly, for more-strategic decisions in areas such as strategic planning, portfolio strategy, capital investments, and mergers and acquisitions, that figure dropped to one-third (35 per cent)," Christine Barton, Martin Reeves, Frederik Lang and Rachel Bergman write on the firm's site.

And just spending more money won't solve it. When they studied customer centricity – measured as the percentage of business decisions influenced by customer spending – against spending on customer insights as a percentage of sales, there was no correlation. They learned what matters more than overall spending is having mechanisms and capabilities to interpret a changing environment and translate insights into actions.

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"In other words, many companies are effectively 'introverted,' underutilizing external information and signals from customers," they stress.

To change, you must get the right information so you can capture external signals of change, you must extract novel insights, use these to drive key processes like innovation and resource allocation, and commit to an external orientation with structure, systems, culture and leadership. Amazon is a model, with customers a top priority throughout the organization.

"We see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts," extroverted chief executive officer Jeff Bezos has said. "It's our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better."

3. Steps to turning around a broken department

When you're appointed to a new leadership position, rarely will it be a glorious Disneyland, consultant Tim Sackett says. Usually the department is broken, and you are charged with fixing it. Here are the seven steps he recommended to a friend taking over a new leadership position in HR that would apply as well to other departments.

– Don't start by thinking you're going to change the culture immediately. "The culture is bigger than you. The only way you could truly change the culture is to go in day one, fire every single person, and implant your own new team. Culture will always win," he warns on his blog

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– Look for low-hanging fruit and pain points – little things that can actually give you big wins by acting, buying time for more substantive action.

– Fire bad people fast. Again, the organization will thank you, even if it causes difficulties initially. "If you're truly broken, being broken a little longer won't matter, and now you'll have an excuse," he says.

– Hire people who are loyal to you first and the organization second. Broken departments eat up new leaders quickly – indeed, before taking the job, ask how many people have held the post in recent years – so you need people who will "die" by your side.

– Develop a plan and gain executive buy-in early. Update those bosses regularly.

– Build extensive relationships with your peer group in other functions as quickly as possible. "To fix 'awful,' you need friends," he says.

– Stop saying your department is "broken," or "bad," or you're "fixing it." The company needs to change its language and view of the department. Talk about building best practices and hiring top talent.

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4. Quick hits

– If you view yourself as an open and helpful person, consultant Wally Bock suggests studying how you behave when you're interrupted. What signals do you send then?

The five essential traits of leadership, according to legendary GE CEO Jack Welch and his wife Suzy Welch are: positive energy (an upbeat attitude, through good and bad times); the ability to energize others; edge, or the ability to make tough calls; the talent to get things done; and passion – leaders care deeply.

– Something innovative leaders do differently, according to management consultant Ryan Estis: They schedule creative time.

– If you have website menus with a long list of selections, techie Nathan Kontny suggests using the LUFO principle – Last Used First Out, so that the most recent selections are remembered. That way, when someone revisits a page with that same long menu, their choice will be copied to the top of the list for their convenience. There are also simple design variations that reduce the time it takes for an individual to move the cursor to a selection lower on the consideration list.

– Executive adviser Hyrum Smith says that to remain productive when you don't have a deadline on an assignment, you should impose one on yourself – and preferably soon. Give yourself a week, say, and deliver it then.

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– And in closing, cleric-writer Charles Caleb Colton said "when we fail, our pride supports us; when we succeed, it betrays us."

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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