Five key questions for when you’re innovating in the dark Premium

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Many leaders retain control of complex decision making so they can act quickly, and because they think their teams should concentrate first and foremost on executing tasks. But this can lead to burnout, errors of judgment and disengaged employees. When making decisions in the "gray", it is often best to mobilize collective intelligence.

Based on Managing in the Gray: Five Timeless Questions for Resolving Your Toughest Problems at Work by Joseph Badaracco (Harvard Business School Press, September 2016). 



Asking your teams to contribute their ideas and to actively participate in finding a solution involves reconsidering your leadership style. 

  • Know your limitsthe myth of the omniscient leader no longer holdsFaced with the vast amount of information that needs to be processed before making a decisionbeing a manager nowadays means knowing how to harness everyone’s ideas and expertise so you can make an informed choice. 
  • Do not be afraid to ask for help: asking your colleagues for help in this context is not an admission of weakness but a sign of humility. It is also a crucial lever for generating commitment and helps create support for decisions taken collectively. 
  • Accept different opinions: promote ideas that are out of the box even if they run counter to your own beliefs and even if implementing them results in failure. 



Asking questions, when done properlyis a powerful tool for gathering information that will make collective problem-solving easier. 

  • Ask questions to aid your understanding rather than to manipulate: ask genuine questions to which you do not already know the answersAvoid questions that do not reflect a real interest in the opinion of others (“Don’t you agree with me?” or “Everyone thinks thatyou what do you think?”). This type of questioning puts your employees on the defensive and breaks any communication. 
  • Adopt an approach based on honest questioning: ask questions that serve the interests of the people who are answering them. The aim is to help them formalize their ideas without inducing preconceived replies. 
  • Practice the technique of “explicitation”: explicitation can be used to access the areas of experience that are not immediately available in the consciousness (the expert’s “knack” of doing something, for instance). The challenge is to encourage your employees to extend their explorations so they can investigate those shadow zones they do not spontaneously think about. 



You can issue a challenge to your teams as a way of gathering ideas for making gray-area decisions. Once problem has been clearly identified: 

  • Lay the foundations for the challenge: to trigger the quest for creative solutions, you must phrase the challenge so that it attracts everyone’s interest (use the “we” form, talk about collective results, etc.). The people you are calling on must also have a real power to influence the final decision and the implementation of the solution. 


Excerpt from Business Digest N°309, September 2020

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Five key questions for when you’re innovating in the dark

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