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Thanks to everyone who has downloaded or ordered a copy of my book, I really appreciate your support. If you enjoyed it please take a few minutes to leave a review on Amazon.

If you haven’t had a chance to get your own copy I’ve included one of my favourite passages from the book below. It looks at the importance of asking questions as one of the most important tools that can help you succeed in business.    

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Excerpt from ‘In The Groove: Applying the Principles of Jazz to Business’

 There’s a really wrong idea in the culture about how business innovation works. Watch movies like The Social Network and you get the idea that innovators come up with a great insight out of nowhere, run off to a party, and then rake in the dough. That is wrong on many levels: successful startup founders barely have time to sleep let alone party! But the fundamental mistake is to think of innovation as consisting of some magic idea that pops into a person’s head.

Business innovation involves starting with a solid foundation of knowledge and preparation and then building on that foundation. It’s not about creation ex nihilo, but about standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before. There’s no substitute for planning and experience, either what you glean from your own endeavors or what you learn from other people’s challenges and triumphs. Learning provides the reservoir of knowledge that you’ll need to rely on in order to successfully improvise, and preparation will give you the tools to execute on that learning.

So what is it you have to learn to start or grow your business, and how do you go about learning it? Basically, you need to learn about the past and about your customers—and your key tool is questions.

Your Most Powerful Learning Tool: Questions

I think the typical image of a business leader is of a guy (always a guy), cigar in mouth, legs up on his desk, barking out orders to underlings. The truth is that the best leaders ask the best questions—and they ask questions a lot.

Learning is about harnessing the power of inquiry. When you ask questions, you give yourself access to a vastly greater sea of data than you would otherwise have. But sometimes people end up asking the wrong questions. When you ask the right questions, you put yourself in a position to identify routes of improvisation that you simply wouldn’t be able to conjure up otherwise.

Justine Musk, the first wife of SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk, was asked once, “Will I become a billionaire if I am determined to be one and put in the necessary work required?” She answered:

“No. One of the many qualities that separate self-made billionaires from the rest of us is their ability to ask the right questions. This is not the right question. . . .

Shift your focus away from what you want (a billion dollars) and get deeply, intensely curious about what the world wants and needs. Ask yourself what you have the potential to offer that is so unique and compelling and helpful that no computer could replace you, no one could outsource you, no one could steal your product and make it better and then club you into oblivion (not literally). Then develop that potential.”

You have to ask questions, and you have to learn to ask the right questions. In a sense, this is obvious. But as with so many things, the most obvious stuff is often the stuff that we neglect to do. I think there’s a human tendency to take things for granted and assume that what we’re doing makes sense. There’s also an irrational fear that asking questions will make you seem like you’re the only one who doesn’t understand something. But the truth is that the smartest person in the room is usually the one who has the courage to say “I don’t know.”

Have you ever been in a meeting where there has been furious debate over some issue, until someone says something like, “Let’s take a step back: what are we trying to achieve?” It quickly becomes clear that the team has no idea, and by answering that question, they are able to get things back on track. That is the power of asking the right questions.

One of my favorite examples of this comes from Intel. During the 1980s, Intel’s core business was producing memory chips. But it started getting crushed by Japanese competitors who were undercutting it on price. So one day Andy Grove asked then-CEO Gordon Moore, “If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?” Moore replied without hesitation, “He would get us out of memories.” After a long moment, Grove said, “Why shouldn’t you and I walk out the door, come back and do it ourselves?”With that one question, and a fateful decision to abandon the memory chip business, Intel flourished as the leading microprocessor producer.

In most cases, the right question is something you have to discover. But there are some standard questions that are always good to ask: why, what if, and how.

  • Why are these people using my product or service?
  • What if X scenario happened?
  • How would I combat that or take advantage of it?

Elon Musk built success by asking different questions than anyone else: different than the big banks when he helped build PayPal, different than big auto when he started Tesla, different than NASA when he launched Space X. According to the authorized Elon Musk biography by Ashlee Vance, many of his early success was achieved by questioning the status quo. Why did rockets have to have over engineered parts at exorbitant cost when it was much cheaper and quicker to source parts already available? With every car manufacturer chasing hybrid technology, why can’t cars of tomorrow dispense with internal combustion engines completely and rely solely on electric motors? Why do you have to bring a car to a service center to tune, when it can be done remotely overnight using the internet while the car sits in its owner’s garage?

Here’s my checklist of questions that I use on a daily basis. Usually, whatever the situation that one runs across, at least one or two of these questions will help clarify it:

  • Are you betting on a market that doesn’t yet exist?
  • Are you relying on a plan, when a map would be much better?
  • Does the opportunity match your skill and ambition?
  • How do you measure that?
  • What don’t you know?
  • What are the improbables?
  • Do I have a measurable value proposition?
  • Can I attract and retain the right talent?
  • Is success going to be based on a statistical fluke?
  • Other than hard work, what else is going to generate a great outcome?
  • Can I guarantee good decision making at speed?
  • How am I going to build a culture of high performance and accountability?
  • What’s the relationship between growth and profitability?
  • What’s the relationship between speed, simplicity, focus and execution?
  • Can I build a market around a differentiated value proposition
  • Can I innovate constantly or is the innovation at launch all I have?
  • Are the team able to improvise?
  • How controllable are the costs?

Asking questions doesn’t come naturally to everyone. One way to build your question-asking muscle is to practice. The more you do it, the better your questions will become. The other thing you can do is surround yourself with team members who are inveterate question-askers and model them.

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If you enjoyed this short excerpt and would like to learn more you can download or order the book from Amazon.