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Asking questions will drive change

1 June 2012

At The Work Foundation’s Annual Debate last night, key speakers debated whether our economy needs a new type of business.

Not surprisingly, there were different views as businesswoman Deborah Meaden clashed with new thinker Umair Haque, who pushed IEA director Mark Littlewood, who sparked with boardroom commentator Lucy Marcus who supported The Work Foundation’s Ian Brinkley.

It was interesting stuff. But having considered it overnight, I think that underpinning all the talk of the shareholder spring and the need for an innovation culture, is the importance of everyone asking questions.

Here are five ways that I think we could drive a change in business:

  • We need to move boardrooms to the front room and increase direct dialogue between top decision makers and everyday users of their products and services. As our traditional public services are increasingly run by the private sector the need for transparency becomes more important. It is critical that every consumer recognises that they have a stake in the business and feels free question how it is being managed
  • The childlike question ‘is that fair?’ remains a strong and just prompt for whether a business is doing the right thing.  We need to ask it more often and more openly, and decision makers need to be able to answer it clearly if they want to be trusted.
  • Are board directors asking the right questions as they sit down to consider the future of the business they are leading?  Have they got the courage to tackle the tricky issues when so many of their colleagues are also friends?  Perhaps it should be compulsory for every board member to start the meeting with three pre-prepared questions that they want to ask.
  • If strong employee welfare is linked to innovation, and innovation is linked to economic growth, then why aren’t we asking more questions about employee welfare or measuring business performance through human capital indicators?
  • Rather than asking what a business has achieved, we should ask what difference it has made. The nuance in language pushes the focus from pounds to people; it is not profit in itself that is bad, it is the exclusive focus on profit that can push reason – and fairness – to one side.

Keep asking questions. It will create a new type of business.