B-School Reading List: The Power of Questions

One of the most powerful business tools is not a spreadsheet. It’s neither Big Data nor innovation, despite all the business books and management gurus touting the disruptive potential of each.  It’s the simple question, right there on the tip of your tongue. Two recent books demonstrate just how far an inquisitive mind can take you. For three b-school professors, the desire to learn the secrets of successful small businesses took them on journeys along the back roads of the U.S. In the case of a journalist, it started by wondering just how some people come up with the “Big Idea” that makes them fabulously successful. Both books are worth adding to the business school canon—no question.

ROADSIDE MBA: Backroad Lessons for Entrepreneurs, Executives and Small Business Owners (Business Plus)
Authors: Mike Mazzeo, Associate Professor of Management and Strategy at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management; Paul Oyer, Professor of Economics at the Stanford Graduate School of Business; and Scott Schaefer, Professor of Finance at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business.

What can a corporate leader learn from Mike Bodart, the sporting goods king of Columbus, Ind.? Plenty about customer service, since he’s beating the sweat pants off such large chain competitors as Sports Authority. Bodart is plugged into the local community, so when the two high school football teams face off for their annual game, his is the only place in town that locals can get apparel with each school’s colors.

The authors of Roadside MBA found Mike during their small-business inspired journey around the country. Shocking as it may seem, it’s not that common for academics to venture from the ivory tower to meet real people—let alone those who run small businesses in the hinterlands of America. This is what makes Roadside MBA refreshingly different from your typical high-toned business books.

You can almost imagine the three economist buddies, who met years ago while teaching at Kellogg School of Management, shouting “Road Trip!” as the idea hit them. The epiphany came during a side excursion to Maine—they were in Boston for a conference—when, on a chance visit to a shoe store, the pushy sales staff thought they were undercover secret shoppers. That encounter led to a long discussion with the owner and the staff about incentives, inventory, and pricing strategies—and the notion that there could be a lot for big business to learn from main street operators.

The trio spent four summers visiting some 120 small businesses from Alabama to Idaho. The book, which mostly focuses on strategy, offers plenty of common sense insights on everything from pricing to brand management to team building. These should stand as timeless lessons for every executive, entrepreneur, and business student.

Take wheelchair maker TiLite in Pasco, Wash. The owner figured out how to grow when the market for titanium tubing it supplied to nuclear power plants went south. Turns out, the company’s real expertise lay in applying titanium to making wheelchairs. Most large corporations faced with declining sales typically think of growth in terms of expanding existing product lines or entering new geographical markets. Rarely do they consider their true skills—and how they might apply them to new businesses.

The book unpacks back road business strategy in the words of small business owners and managers whose common sense wisdom makes you wonder why that quality seems to have disappeared from corporate America.

A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas (Bloomsbury Worldwide)
Author: Warren Berger, journalist

Change usually starts with a question. Inquiry has toppled monarchs and empires throughout history. It’s the basis of one of the earliest forms of education—the Socratic Method—used to train young minds in the rigors of critical thinking. Yet, it’s a mostly ignored business tool overlooked by executives trained in the MBA arts that “tend to place more value on answers, pronouncements, and promises,” according to author Warren Berger.

Questions also overturn business empires. Nagging, unanswered thoughts that start with words like “why” or “what if” often ignite processes that will eventually disrupt well-worn business models, rejigger the balance of power within an industry, and create new markets for products no one had thought of making. If you could map the DNA of successful entrepreneurs, it might reveal a double helix of question marks.

Berger, a journalist and innovation expert who has written for Wired and this publication, points out that as children, we start out questioning everything. (What parent hasn’t been exasperated by the constant “why” from their kids?) Somewhere in our maturation we lose that innate skill and become more conformist and—to the detriment of business and society—less creative.

A More Beautiful Question reminds us that questions drive so many successful innovations and startup companies. The cell phone, the Internet, digital music players, online streaming of movies, and so on—all these technological and business model breakthroughs, from Polaroid to Apple, Netflix, and Airbnb, began when someone asked simple questions: “why, what if, or how?” The author explains that the art of inquiry also helps employees work collaboratively at companies such as Google and IDEO, which both employ the “How Might We” method of group questioning to build better products and more cohesive cultures.

There is one question Berger poses that gets at the heart of how companies might embrace his message: What if companies had mission questions rather than mission statements? Imagine the possibilities in this simple question.

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