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How many green cars are there on the road?

Imagine you are sitting in a plane next to a member of your company's Board of Directors en route to visiting another country. You are flying at 30,000 feet enjoying the business class hospitality when the Board member turns to you and asks, "How many green cars are there on the streets in Singapore?"

How will you answer this question?

As it turns out, this is an interview question posed to candidates for the role of Director of Strategy for an energy company. It was recounted by the HR Head of that company to a class of high-potentials. Then she asked each of them for their response to the question (they had just completed a two-day programme on strategic thinking).

So, before we go any further, why don't you try to answer the same question, "How many green cars are there in Singapore?"

Here were some of the participants' response:

  • "Anecdotally, 10% of the cars in Singapore are green. Estimating about 150,000 cars on the road, I would say about 15,000."

  • "Based on a sample of cars that passed through the MCE in front of me this morning, I can recall about 4 of them were green out of about 20 cars. So that is about 20%."

  • "Let me Google it for you now..."

  • "I have no idea."

  • Based on an picture of the traffic (see above), there are very few green cars on the road.

What is YOUR response? Did you try to Google it?

Well, seeing that the setting was 30,000 feet, and we are assuming here that Wi-Fi is not available (and even if it were, don't you think that if the Board member really wanted to know the answer, he would simply have Googled it himself?), how should one answer this question?

In fact, when all the participants had responsed, the HR Head turned to me and asked, "So, Ian, what is YOUR answer to this question?"

I was happy she asked me.

I said, "I would have said to the Board Member,

'If you like, I could give you a rough estimate

of the number of green cars based on a

certain algorithm. However, allow me to first

ask you a question,

"What would you ultimately like to know by asking me this question?"

The HR Head smiled and nodded. That was indeed the response she was hoping to receive. And I quipped, "So, do I get the job of Director of Strategy?" (Of course, I didn't!)

Answering a question with a question

There was nothing technically wrong with the answers that the participants gave, but strategically, they were not correct. This is because they didn't really know the reason for being asked the question. If we don't know why we are saying something, doing something, or deciding on something, then how can we possibly provide the right answer or make the right decision? In strategic situations, it pays to answer a question with a question. This obviously flies in the face of what we were taught; yet, that is the only way you can discern intent.

So, the #1 key to being strategic is knowing the underlying intent. Here are a couple of ways you can approach that:

1. The Five Why's

Many people may have heard of the Five Why's but seldom put them into practice. It normally starts with a question, and we ask "Why" several times to give into the main intent.

For example,