We need to make it difficult again within our organisations. Doing so will ensure better ideas and better organisations. How many times have you been asked how to reduce costs by 10%? Will responding to this question make you a better organisation? No! The time has come to pose impossible questions. This will make it better and more fun.
Impossible questions and great organizations
For a number of years, I and several people have been on the lookout for organisations that stand out, companies that do things differently, great organizations. Organisations that are doing exceedingly well. And when you start telling something about such organisations over drinks, everyone immediately wants to hear more ("Wow, what a wonderful story. Please continue!"). The striking aspect of many of these brilliant business models is that they pose highly complex questions. Indeed, impossible questions are asked. Let me give you a few examples:
- Dr. V., the founder of Aravind Eye Hospital in India, established a small eye hospital with 11 beds during the 1980s. But he wanted to restore the sight of one million people by 2015, to have the highest level of quality, to be independent of sponsors and donors (i.e. turn a profit) and to ensure patients were treated for free if they could not afford to pay. How do you do that? The result is a highly unique organisation with unconventional solutions, which has operated on over 2.5 million people and enjoys a 40% profit margin. Furthermore, 50% of its patients pay nothing and people from all over the world come to see how it works. The result of a truly difficult question.
- Davide Oldani, chef at Ristorante D'O, thought it unfair that only wealthier people could afford top-quality food, while most Michelin-starred restaurants run at a loss. He wanted to create a restaurant with at least one Michelin star, aimed at 'the ordinary man', offering complete lunches and complete dinners for $25 and $45 respectively. The starred restaurant also had to be profitable. His restaurant is booked 1.5 years in advance, the ordinary man dines there, Davide makes a profit and has created an entirely new culinary movement called Cucina POP.
The positive energy of impossible questions
Now you could say: "Such things are only reserved for a select group of brilliant entrepreneurs." But nothing could be further from the truth. I decided to see for myself and conducted an experiment. Whenever I had to deliver a workshop or speech, I started with one of the questions above. I outlined the situation of Dr. V. or Davide Oldani and presented the audience with impossible demands by asking them: “How would you tackle that?” It was amazing to witness what happened each time. There was an energetic, almost mischievous ambience in the room. The buzz increased and twenty or thirty ideas were soon proposed. Special, creative and enterprising ideas from enthusiastic people. It was very different when I asked the following question: "You have a Michelin-starred restaurant and are making a loss of around 10%. How are you going to resolve that? How will you reduce costs by 10%?" The answers to that question were just as boring and obligatory as the energy within the room. And the list of ideas was significantly shorter.
More than fifty years ago, Peter Drucker, the grand old man of management, already wrote: “The important and difficult job is never to find the right answer; it is to find the right question.” Asking difficult questions yields new ideas. In short, let us make it authentic and difficult again, as well as more fun. It relates to something again. I know for sure that more people will lend their support.
Jeroen Geelhoed is a partner at &samhoud, comprising a consultancy firm and a 2 Michelin starred restaurant that also develops top-quality dishes accessible to the general public. He has written various books, including Creating Lasting Value.