“Strategic direction is more important today. It's about providing a framework for managers to navigate through the fog of complex chokes. No company can avoid this."

– C.K. Prahalad –

PoS Jun 2013 | Personality of Inquisitive Organizations

Last month I had written about how leadership behaviour inculcates the spirit of learning. Surely learning orientation and leadership behaviour stem from corporate culture? What are the key cultural aspects of inquisitive organisations? My research (see box, below) on Indian companies shows that companies that have a strong ethos of inquiry display very unique traits.

The research ‘Inquisitive Organisation’ was conducted among 1839 respondents from 32 Indian companies in 2012. The purpose was to find out what kinds of leadership behaviour, firm culture, and performance appraisal practices coexisted with a high degree of experimentation, and enquiry oriented work among middle managers.

What Leaders Do – Leaders in inquisitive companies play the defining role. They make themselves readily available for discussion of business issues. They listen attentively to other people’s opinions. They convey the firm’s expectation that managers should collaboratively develop insights based on data, and share learning with larger audiences within the firm. Their conduct encourages inquiry orientation. My research clearly shows that inquisitive firms display some remarkable cultural traits as well.

Learning organisations are naturally inquisitive. They encourage and enable managers to regularly conduct ‘finding out’ exercises, or ‘projects’. Projects help managers build and test hypotheses, gain insight, support intuitive judgements with data, and facilitate objective decision-making.

Disagree With The Boss – In these organisations, business issues are discussed freely and frankly without fear of disagreement with bosses. Contradicting a senior officer of the company does not lead to censure. This creates an environment where pitfalls of key decisions are brought out in the open. Judgements are questioned, and contrarian viewstabled. This is no mean feat.

Research on decision-making has consistently shown that managers tend to be overconfident of their collective abilities, and frequently underestimate risks. Many dramatic instances of decision failures, especially in mergers and acquisitions, bear witness to the effect of biases. Free and frank discussion helps avoid missteps.

Pointed Questions – Middle managers in organisations that encourage scepticism say their bosses ask a lot of questions and expect answers. Senior managers value opinions and insights but expect them to be supported by data. In this age of the ubiquitous PowerPoint, they’re not easily impressed by slick presentations.

They subtly demonstrate preference of content over form.

Does your organisation have an inquisitive culture?

It is not enough to say that the organization values your opinion. Sometimes one has to instigate and stimulate thinking to elicit an honest view.

Asking pointed questions encourages application of mind. It says rigorous thinking is the norm here. Demanding that impressions be supported by data requires managers to collaboratively engage in ‘finding out’ exercises. Such ‘projects’ build insight, and sharing them embeds new knowledge in the organisation.

Organisations that truly value data establish rules that ensure slick presentations do not bias judgement. A leading Indian IT company specifies DOs and DON’Ts for internal presentations: black text on white background, no images or graphics, and no animation.

Culture And Decision Making

How do these cultural traits influence decisions?

Objectivity is the bedrock of inquisitive organisations. Senior managers know key decisions have to be often made intuitively amid uncertainty with insufficient data. Inquisitive firms implicitly recognise the risks of bias in such situations. To counteract its pernicious effect they encourage discussion, debate, and challenge. Opinions can be freely expressed so long as they are based on evidence, without fear of reprisal from senior managers.

Inquisitive firms believe the idea is more important than the person espousing it.They make decisions after thoughtful consideration of upsides as well as dangers. They tend to balance intuition with rationality. Being better aware of external and internal changes they are more adaptive. That is why they make fewer errors, and are more resilient and competitive.

What are you doing to make your company or team inquisitive?

V.N. Bhattacharya
Business Strategy Consultant

Download a copy of the REVISED summary research report.