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How to Challenge Senior Executives' Assumptions

It's important to ask questions of even the most senior decision maker; make sure they're the right ones however

Captains of large commercial airliners have to make life and death decisions on a daily basis, which means they deserve a little respect. However, there was once a time when those decisions in the cockpit went unquestioned. As one aviation expert writes: “The captain of the aircraft was once considered ‘God’ and his decisions were always the ‘right’ ones … It was also considered somewhat disrespectful to question the decisions of a superior.”

The result, as a 1994 report from the US National Transportation Safety Board (pdf) found, was nearly half of airline disasters between 1978 and 1990 happened because co-pilots didn’t “properly monitor and challenge a captain’s decision.” By the 1990s, author and aviator William Langewiesche says that that empowerment of first officers had become the global standard; they “were expected to express their opinions and question their captains if they saw mistakes being made.”

Corporate strategists at the world’s companies are thankfully not facing these types of life and death decisions, but they too need to be able to push back against senior leaders to avoid catastrophe. After all, CEB’s classic “Stall Points” research showed that strategic factors accounted for 70% of all significant downturns in corporate revenue growth.

To start, strategists need to know exactly what assumptions are embedded in the plan. They need to take a systematic approach in their pushback. And given the often delicate nature of challenging leadership, strategists should consider both indirect and direct methods.

The Indirect Route

The strategy team at a European bank in CEB’s networks relied on executives to challenge each other’s assumptions. Strategists first used an interview guide to uncover and document executive assumptions, which was designed to be:

  1. Consistent: The same guide is used for each department.
  2. Clear: Definitions are included.
  3. Comprehensive: The guide includes questions designed to uncover blind spots.
  4. Comparable: A standard format and common evaluation scale help compare and compile the responses.

During the gathering phase, the strategy team was discouraged from direct challenges, but was encouraged to ask questions that would clarify any conflicting assumptions. Next, Strategy took the individual results into a “refinement session” where executives saw what their peers said and could challenge each other’s assumptions. Strategy also used any lingering disagreements as a proxy for uncertainty.

A pharma company’s strategy team used an even less direct approach. Strategy broadcast aggregate assumptions it had gathered about the future to the entire organization (“the purchasing power of India’s middle class would reach x level,” for example), and called on employees to spot contradictory developments, effectively crowdsourcing the pushback.

The Direct Route

The strategy team at a technology company developed a questionnaire to uncover leadership beliefs about the future. Some of the questions were:

  1. Assume we enter 2020 well positioned. What were the three most important external developments and actions we took that led to it? What would be the three if we entered 2020 poorly positioned?
  2. Assume you are able to ask a fortune teller three questions about decisions for 2020. What information would you seek?
  3. What are three things you know for certain and do not need to ask the fortune teller?
  4. Who is the most dangerous future competitor? If you were the CEO of that company and you left tomorrow, how would you attack the business you’ve just left?

Additionally, the strategy team asked straight-out which assumptions need pressure-testing:

  1. What opinions or mind-sets does the leadership team currently hold that need to be challenged in order to guide us to success in 2020?
  2. What opinions or mind-sets do YOU currently hold that need to be challenged in order to guide us to success in 2020?

With the responses in hand, Strategy could articulate the assumptions, check them against data, and begin to challenge them using four tests (see chart 1). If an assumption failed a test, strategists could challenge it, knowing that they were supported by a rigorous and systematic approach.

However, sometimes, it’s not always clear when a strategist should push back against an assumption; the decision tree in chart 2 can help.

Chart 1: Tests to vet likely truths and critical uncertainties  Source: CEB anlaysis

Click chart to expand


Chart 2: Decision tree for challenging executive assumptions  Source: CEB analysis

The Very Direct Route

The most direct type of challenge comes from the strategy team at a global food and beverage firm. The company instituted a “shadow cabinet” at its executive strategy committee whose job was to mirror meeting participants and to raise questions about any assumptions without fear of retribution.

The shadow cabinet included representatives from functions throughout the organization and sat in an outer ring surrounding the executives at the center table during the meeting.

Be warned though –it takes a certain kind of organizational culture to pull off this more confrontational approach.


More On…

  • Don't Let Your Colleagues Hold Back Growth

    Download this white paper to learn how strategy teams can influence their business partners (many of whom are senior to them) to see problems differently and then motivate them to act.

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