This morning, as I came home from the pool a mother and toddler walked up my street. As I folded my bike and fumbled with my keys the pair stopped outside my gate and I overheard the mother ask, “What would you like for your birthday, if you could have anything?”
Her little boy didn’t have to think, and I didn’t have to “overhear” the answer; the whole street is in on the secret.
I’ll come back to his answer in a minute, but for now, this question reminds me of the “King for a Day” question, variations of which often pop up in strategy offsites, particularly for early stage projects.
I was introduced to this idea by a grey haired old managing partner type facilitating a meeting with our team when we couldn’t agree anything about our new product initiative. Coming back from a break, he changed the tack of the meeting by asking each of these questions in turn, making us write down our answers privately before a group discussion at the end.
What would you change?
- Imagine you’re about to meet a clairvoyant who can actually see the future. You have one question – what do you ask?
- It is now five years in the future. The project has been fantastically successful. You’re about to be interviewed by a journalist about what you did to make the success. What three things will you tell the journalist made the most difference?
- Same scenario except the project went badly. Now what do you say?
- What are the first three actions you will take out of this session?
- And finally the King for a Day question. You have the power to make any change to the “system” (usually political, market, sociological or technological) that you like. What would you change to make the project more successful?
The whole session — private writing and open discussion — ran a couple of hours, but by the end we’d moved forward, driven issues on to the table, and had a half decent action plan for what to do next.
The King for a Day question itself can seem a bit facile. “If I were King for a day I’d make a law that every customer in our target market has to buy our product,” for example, isn’t very helpful. Or is it? Answers like this may point to a member of the team who isn’t convinced about the product or marketing (which is a big deal in a small team), or they could be highlighting a weakness in the regulatory framework that effectively excludes start-ups so there’s a risk the new product won’t have a fair chance with tenders in its chosen market (which is a very big deal in any team), or something else entirely. Who knows until you bring it into the open?
I’ve used versions of the questions many times since, and king-for-a-day often provides the liveliest and most productive debate. Time spent exposing issues and deciding actions is always good time in my book.
I’m sure the mother on my street wasn’t interested in the strategic concerns of a nebulous product team, but her question served the same “exposing and deciding” purpose as king-for-a-day; cutting to the chase, what’s next?
The prince in my street hollered his answer, “I WANT A GREAT BIG SPANNER.”
Four years old maybe, but this little fella has things to do, and he knows what he needs to get it done.
What about you?
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