Hal Gregersen is a regular contributor to Forbes, Fortune, and Harvard Business Review, exploring how asking the right questions builds leadership, innovation and ultimately can change our world.

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Better Brainstorming

Why Questions Matter More Than Answers

About 20 years ago I was leading a brainstorming session in one of my MBA classes, and it was like wading through oatmeal. We were talking about something that many organizations struggle with: how to build a culture of equality in a male-dominated environment. Though it was an issue the students cared about, they clearly felt uninspired by the ideas they were generating. After a lot of discussion, the energy level in the room was approaching nil. Glancing at the clock, I resolved to at least give us a starting point for the next session.

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How asking tough questions could save your career

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Had Kodak’s leaders ratcheted up their discomfort level by asking more challenging questions from others, it may well have sustained its legacy as a key industry player.

At age four, we’re fueled with curiosity, asking thousands of questions to better grasp what’s going on around us. Already we are aware, at a very fundamental level, that questioning helps us feel our way around a situation and develop entirely new ways of engaging with the world.

It isn’t long, however, before we enter an educational system that rewards answers more than questions. Consider that the average child between six- to 18-years old asks only one question per one-hour class per month. Contrast that with the average teacher, who peppers kids with 300 to 600 questions a day and waits an average of one second for each reply, and you have a recipe for what I call the “Global Questioning Crisis.”

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The surprising way to come up with your next business idea

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By simply observing others, Intuit founder and CEO Scott Cook built one of America’s biggest companies.

Scott Cook, founder and CEO of Intuit, didn’t come up with his concept for the popular Quicken money management software sitting behind the desk or spit-balling ideas in a brainstorming session. He first conceived of it while watching his wife grow increasingly frustrated preparing the family’s finances. From a single observation, combined with Cook’s understanding of computers, one of the world’s most successful financial software companies was born.

Consider all of the times you’ve asked yourself: “Why didn’t I think of that?” Indeed, the world’s next pioneering innovation could be sitting in plain view for anyone to discover. But what is it that inspires some people to take the next step on something overlooked by others?

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Here’s why networking isn’t just about landing your dream job

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Most people network to find their next big gig, but here’s how to network to find your next big business idea.

At a dinner party a few years ago, Salesforce Founder Marc Benioff and Dropbox co-founder Drew Houston got to talking. Their conversation led to a new idea, and that idea led to Salesforce’s Chatter, an enterprise social network, Benioff recalled during an interview I had with him two years ago (for an upcoming book about what causes senior leaders, especially CEOs, to ask the right questions before someone else does it for them).

Their conversation led to a new idea, and that idea led to Salesforce’s Chatter, an enterprise social network. Chatter was not just a result of a chance encounter. At the age of 50, Benioff regularly invites 20- and 30-something year-old entrepreneurs to his house for dinner. It’s in this pursuit of perspectives different than his own that he is able to constantly bring new services and ideas to market. Benioff, who is known to buy smaller firms for people (not products), once told me, “I don’t have all the ideas. That isn’t my job. My job is to build a culture of innovation.”

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The one skill that made Amazon’s CEO wildly successful

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Jeff Bezos’ start-up story offers one of the strongest cases for how to build a new business through experimentation.

As a child, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos spent his summers fixing windmills and repairing equipment on his grandparents’ ranch in Texas. Though these experiences might have seemed insignificant at the time, today Bezos credits his summers tinkering with ranch equipment for his penchant for experimentation. And it’s his drive to push the boundaries of what’s possible that have helped Amazon gain — and maintain — its reign as the largest and most successful Internet retail company in the world.

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How dolphins and Legos could spark your next business idea

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Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff knew how to step back and relax, having perfected the idea for his company while swimming with dolphins.

It’s impossible to imagine a world without Google’s search engine, Apple’s iPhone or Disney World. These products are integral to life as most of us know it, but they might never have existed if Larry Page, Steve Jobs and Walt Disney didn’t excel at a critical discovery skill: associational thinking. These leaders saw opportunity in – and created works of genius from – things others didn’t believe belonged together.

Innovators think differently. For years, my colleagues and I studied high-impact leaders and innovators – getting inside their heads to reveal the behaviors separating them from the rest of us. Associating, or connecting the seemingly unconnected, is a cognitive skill at the core of the innovator’s DNA. Yet, in business, it’s one of the most undervalued skills.

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What VW can learn from Gen. Stanley McChrystal about imperfect leaders

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Often times, the best leaders aren’t afraid to show their imperfections.

The title of Chief Executive Officer commonly conjures up images of a sharply dressed, smooth-talking individual who paints an inspiring, mesmerizing picture of their company in images and words. But it is underneath this veiled exterior that an organization’s real story lives.

When the Volkswagen scandal broke, my first thought went to the leaders of the company. Of course, there is the obvious question: Did former CEO Martin Winterkorn and Volkswagen America CEO Michael Horn know about the cheating (both have denied this)? But for me, a leadership scholar, the fiasco raises much more interesting questions about Winterkorn and Horn’s leadership styles: Did the CEO image or illusion they projected blind them from the realities of their own business? Did they perpetuate a culture where employees were fearful of sharing problems with those at the top? Though we may never know how much knowledge these leaders had prior to the public exposé, it is a compelling case of what can happen when leaders become too focused on an image of perfection. Rather than trying to conform to a pre-cast mold, I believe leaders should abandon their bogus two-dimensional views of leadership.

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Decoding Tesla’s Secret Formula

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Forbes
This story appears in the September 7, 2015 issue of Forbes.

By Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Nathan Furr

The first thing you notice when you step onto Tesla Motors TSLA -1.96% production floor are the robots. Eight-foot-tall bright-red bots that look like Transformers, huddling over each Model S sedan as it makes its way through the factory in Fremont, Calif., on the eastern, shaggier side of Silicon Valley. Up to eight robots at a time work on a single Model S in a choreographed routine, each performing up to five tasks: welding, riveting, gripping and moving materials, bending metal, and installing components. Henry Ford and the generations of auto industry experts who have followed would dismiss this setup as inefficient–each robot should do one task only before moving the car on to the next Transformer.

It’s a $3 billion criticism, to be specific. That was the amount shaved off the company’s market value in early August after Tesla cut its sales forecasts for the year by 10% to 50,000 vehicles, citing delays in teaching the robots to make both the Model S and the new crossover SUV Model X. “The Model X is a particularly challenging car to build. Maybe the hardest car to build in the world. I’m not sure what would be harder,” admitted Elon Musk, Tesla’s billionaire founder and visionary CEO, who also serves in those same roles at SpaceX.

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Apple CEO Tim Cook now has 17 direct reports — and that’s probably too many

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Tim Cook assumed leadership of Apple in 2011, and since then his team of direct reports has grown significantly.

At the beginning of his career as CEO, Cook managed nine people. Today, at least 17 people report directly to Cook, according to their bios on Apple’s executive profile page. (Apple declined to confirm the number.)

Managing 17 people seems like a lot. Is Cook overextending himself? And what is the maximum number of people an executive can reasonably supervise?

We reached out to management experts and looked into the research to find out.

Hal Gregersen, Ph.D., the executive director of the MIT Leadership Center, told Business Insider the optimal number of direct reports is somewhere between six and 12, whether you’re the CEO or a lower-level manager.

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How Richard Branson turned his passion into a tangible business

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The Virgin Galactic founder was first inspired by Neil Armstrong’s trip to the moon, and his passion to travel in space is something many entrepreneurs can learn from.

Organizations are dealing with higher levels of uncertainty and deeper complexity than we’ve ever seen before. Not surprisingly, this changeable landscape is causing employees to act cautiously in order to keep their jobs. (After all, who wants to “rock the boat” or be blamed for a failed project?) While this reactive behavior makes logical sense, it’s also creating a major roadblock on the journey to innovation.

Innovation begins with either a passion or a problem. Passion means you’re motivated to innovate because you care deeply about something.

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Make It OK for Employees to Challenge Your Ideas

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Kodak. Sears. Borders. The mere mention of any of these companies brings to mind the struggle to stay relevant amid today’s technology and boundless alternatives. But behind each of them lies a deeper story of at least one leader who is or was “sheltered” from the reality of their business.

This dangerous “white space” where leaders don’t know what they don’t know is a critical one. But often, leaders — especially senior ones — fail to seek information that makes them uncomfortable or fail to engage with individuals who challenge them. As a result, they miss the opportunity to transform insights at the edge of a company into valuable actions at the core.

Nandan Nilekani, an Indian entrepreneur, bureaucrat, and politician who co-founded Infosys and was appointed by the Indian prime minister to serve as Chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), believes it’s vital to keep this channel of communication open in any leadership position.

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