Tom was the research and development director in an international pharmaceutical company.  He had a team of highly qualified researchers (mostly PhDs) working on a variety of long-term research projects and drug trials.  Time spans for these activities often stretched ten or more years into the future and the company invested large sums of money speculating that at least some of the projects would come to fruition.

Tom’s office was on the top floor of a new building that contained a number of state-of-the-art laboratories.  The atmosphere throughout was similar to a red-brick university (apart from the high security fence that surrounded the ‘campus’ to deter animal rights protesters).  On the ground floor, to the left of reception, was a well-stocked reference library with all the latest scientific journals.  Each floor of the building contained spacious meeting places where people could linger over a slice of carrot cake and a glass of water from the cooler.  There was a gymnasium full of treadmills and exercise bikes.  The gardens featured many benches either side of landscaped brick paths winding through beds of shrubs and lily ponds. 

Tom himself was an academic with an international reputation.  He had published many learned papers and often read them (literally!) to delegates at conferences in remote parts of the world.  Tom’s office commanded fine views across rolling countryside and Tom would often stand gazing out of the window, deep in thought about some obscure chemical formula.  

Tom’s style was entirely in keeping with these enlightened surroundings.  He was gentle and reflective, never aggressive or forceful.  He was happy to mull over ideas, indefinitely if left to his own devices, to see what might, just might, emerge.  He often reminded people that all ideas had to pass through a stage where they could easily be criticised.  He treated ideas in rather the same way that a nurseryman would nurture tender shoots – with much loving care.  On his wall was a framed version (in superb calligraphy with many flourishes) of the well-known prayer ‘Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference’.  It is fair to say that Tom was more at peace with the things he couldn’t change than with the things he could.

Tom was also a great believer in the power of questions.  He saw them as a conduit for ideas and totally subscribed to the view, first voiced, he acknowledged, by the American economist Thorstein Bunde Veblen in 1919, that the outcome of any serious research was to make two questions grow where only one grew before. 

Such was Tom’s dedication to the asking of questions that he used various techniques for generating them.  For example, in meetings if there was an imbalance between statements and questions (the usual state of affairs), the ‘Three questions rule’ would be artificially imposed on the proceedings.  This required each participant to pose three questions before being allowed to utter one statement.  A ratio of three questions to one statement worked wonders!   Other methods included being confined to asking open-ended questions, posing problems as questions – ‘In how many ways can we …?’ –  and playing ‘what if?’ games with countless scenarios.

Unhappily, Tom’s prowess at asking, and eliciting, insightful questions was not matched by his ability to produce answers.  He was fond of saying (a touch defensively), ‘Questions that can be answered aren’t worth asking’.  As a scientist, no doubt his addiction to intriguing, open-ended questions stood him in good stead, but as a manager (some would say leader) his inability to produce answers caused endless frustration.  Tom would even dither if you asked him simple questions such as whether he’d prefer tea or coffee, or whether he’d like the window open or closed.  When it came to decisions about whether to hire or fire someone, or whether to reallocate funds from one budget to another, or whether to update the job grading system, he would simply dither.

One day, in a management meeting with his team where Tom had evaded and equivocated over every question put to him, an incredulous newcomer asked Tom whether he welcomed questions.  Tom thought for a moment and answered, ‘Of course I do.  If you don’t ask questions, you’ll never learn’.

The irony of endless questions with no answers was, apparently, completely lost on him.

Add your voice

Current day month ye@r *

Enjoyed this article? Want to hear more? Book me as a speaker at your next event.