What would it take to turn an elephant pink?
You might think it’s a silly question, but I bet it’s got your brain going. You might find yourself mulling over ways to paint a pachyderm while you’re making a cup of coffee, or considering how you’d dip-dye Dumbo while in an afternoon meeting.
That’s the power of questions — they stick with you in a way that statements just don’t. Questions flip a switch in us that craves answers, no matter how ridiculous — or impossible — they might seem. Thats why, when it comes to building my business, I don’t believe in mission statements; I structure my company around a core question instead.
On paper, there may not seem to be much difference between a mission statement and a question, but our brains recognize a stark contrast. When we’re asked a question, our brains release serotonin and trigger something called “instinctive elaboration” — basically we can’t help but put our problem-solving hats on and volunteer solutions. As the CEO of a company that’s aiming to change how we grow food for the world, I find mission statements to be stagnant, abstract, and even dictatorial. Questions on the other hand are alive. They spark curiosity, inspire continuous engagement from your team, and they can even transform your corporate identity.
But not every question is created equal. To get the most out of the power of inquiry, it’s crucial to ask them in a way that will elicit answers that really move the needle on your strategic goals. Here are a few things I’ve learned about harnessing the power of human curiosity to uncover hidden potential, possibility, and even profits.
Ask what’s possible, not what isn’t
Whether it’s how to 10x your revenues or solve climate change, a great core question assumes an answer is out there — you just have to find it. As Tony Robbins points out extensively in his work, framing questions in the positive is pivotal to how we see the world, both in business and in life. Asking “How can we … ” instead of “Why can’t I…” not only engages our brains and gives us permission to think outside the box, it directs us away from our negativity bias so we can focus on finding solutions.
This approach was core to getting my business off the ground. In the beginning our question was: “How can we make natural pest control profitable?” That phrasing was key. Asking “how can we…” not “why isn’t…” was inherently optimistic and had a “mission” baked right in. By posing it as a question, rather than a statement, I wanted to invite my team to participate in a daily and ongoing act of discovery; to open the door for creative exploration that yields concrete, effective and, yes, profitable answers. Once we had those, we took our inquiry — and our company — to the next level … which brings me to my next point:
Let your questions evolve (and your company follow)
Questions don’t occur in isolation. Answering one simply opens the door to asking another. Following this line of inquiry can utterly transform your business.
Once we successfully launched a line of plant-based pest controls and fertilizers, we started asking what else was possible for us to do with the technology we’d developed. It quickly became clear that we wanted to apply what we’d learned to create affordable, sustainable food systems across the world.
Asking how we could do that led us to a pivotal realization: our identity as a company had evolved. We may have started out in the natural products sector, but our scope and capabilities broadened significantly along the way. We’re now an AgTech firm harnessing data, machine learning and AI to improve global crop yields without the use of synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Continually interrogating what we stood for helped us take stock of our capabilities and enter a whole new market. And who knows, down the road we could completely transform again.
Get laser-focused with your language
Today, every decision we make is inspired by asking this: “How can we use technology to unlock
the intelligence in nature to ensure an earth that thrives and provides for everyone?”
The specificity and the wording of this question matters. Similar to when you’re setting SMART goals, language that is specific, measurable, achievable, and relevant brings structure to your question and focuses your momentum on the important things.
For example, many sustainable technology companies ignore issues like affordability (I’m looking at you, Tesla), so it was important for us to factor that in to our core question. That’s why we chose to say “an earth that thrives and provides for everyone” since clean technologies and organic foods are still a luxury item for many. Meanwhile introducing the word “technology” was crucial in solidifying the new direction of our company internally.
It takes time and brainpower to lock in your language to cover all aspects of your strategic goals, but getting nit-picky is well worth it. The more nuanced your question, the better your answers, so keep refining as you go.
Use answers as your KPIs
Questions aren’t just for high-level inspiration; they can be practically applied at every level of the org chart. Each of our departments has its own core question to guide its day-to-day operations. For instance, our R&D team asks “What am I going to do today to harness the power of nature?” Measuring progress against this question creates a very clear set of KPIs that everyone can understand.
Importantly, we review these periodically to make sure each department is pursuing a path of inquiry that contributes to our overall goals. The process helps us ensure we’re aligned, and occasionally uncovers areas of disconnect. Case in point: our sales team was asking how they could sell more of our plant-based pest control systems each day, and they were crushing that goal. But we realized their question didn’t advance our long-term aims to help farmers convert to more natural farming practices, so we updated it to include an element of education as well.
At the end of the day, what I love most about questions is that they don’t dictate: they invite inquiry and unlock people’s creative potential. A mission is about what’s required. A question is about what’s possible. Ask that, and you’ll be amazed by the answers you find.
A version of this article was originally published on Quartz.