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Mark Chamberlain is expert in asking the right questions


John Chisholm on June 29, 2011 in Advice for Business Owners

Mark Chamberlain was the speaker at our most recent Executive Know-How series and received an enthusiastic response from our clients who assembled to hear him speak. Mark is President and a founding partner of Trivaris Ltd., a commercialization company focused on transforming ideas from concept to sustainable companies and social enterprises. He has extraordinary business credentials but is probably best known for his time at Wescam, a worldwide leader in visual information systems.

Mark is very generous with the wisdom he shares with his audience and he knows how to ask the right questions. In fact, that was the thrust of his speech — Asking the Right Questions. He noted that the majority of us are trained to solve problems, not to ask questions, though he strongly disagrees with this philosophy. He suggests we look at our children for guidance.

“Children get it,” he explained. They keep asking ‘why’ until they get the right answer because questions are essential for children to learn. “Like children, our brains love questions and it’s natural to ask questions.” Adults become afraid to ask the wrong questions and thereby miss opportunities. Mark believes we would be better off to follow the lead of children in asking questions, and continue asking questions throughout life. This will enable us to move forward more easily and to reach our full potential.

As motivational speaker Tony Robbins put it: “Successful people ask better questions and get better answers.” Mark asked provocatively, “How do you employ these questions to inspire people to think in different ways? Do we empower employees by telling them what to do or by asking what they think?” Clearly, people in the trenches detect most of the problems, but do their bosses ask for their input or opinion? Mark believes that asking questions leads to creative problem solving since our brains start working as soon as we question. Also, he says it’s an effective technique to ask ‘why’ until you get to the core problem. Similarly with customers, he says we should ask truly probing questions to clearly determine their needs.

Big, disruptive questions

Mark chose to focus on the major, disruptive kind of questions. He said that Richard Branson conjured the essence of disruptive thinking when he said: “One has to passionately believe that it’s possible to change the industry, to turn it on its head to make sure that it will never be the same again.” That context is most appropriate for the types of businesses Mark deals with, particularly technology; though it may be applied to any kind of business considering they all face similar challenges. If a company is looking for investors, Mark first asks a major question: “What is your unfair advantage?” In other words, how are you different from or better than all others that you provide an unfair advantage? He suggests asking three questions before proceeding further with a new idea: Can a computer do it faster? Is what you are offering in demand in an age of over-abundance? Can someone overseas do it more cheaply? “When you start asking these kinds of questions you start to frame the challenges you actually face,” Mark concluded.

Mark shared situations where people either asked or should ask the big questions. Case in point, “Millions saw the apple fall but Newton was the only one who asked why.” He pointed to poverty as being a healthcare issue and its elimination being a healthcare cost issue. &ldquoldquo;The real question is how do we stop people getting ill and using the healthcare system? If we want to reduce illness costs we must ask different questions.”

When online movie provider Netflix appeared on the scene it asked the right question, says Mark. It asked, “how do we create a service for movies without late fees?” Blockbuster did not ask the right questions and have since succumbed to failure. After the great blackout of 2003, GeoDigital, a Trivaris company, asked how it could provide a low-cost solution without using costly electrical linemen? GeoDigital ultimately provided the imaging technology the engineers needed to monitor the lines on screen. VitaSound, another Trivaris company, created an algorithm for better hearing, and Mark said he asked the inventor for his unfair advantage, how he planned to sell the product and how he would position it in the market. “His technology alone wouldn’t fly, even though it was the best,” Mark admitted. The trick would be how he would position the product to build trust relationships. What VitaSound eventually created was an affordable, total hearing fitness company that did not exist elsewhere. The product was distributed throughout North America through pharmacies and the company grew exponentially. VitaSound successfully managed to break into an industry whose major players had not changed in decades. 

“How do we position organizations?” asked Mark. A notable philanthropist over many years, he says that at Trivaris there is no disparity between for-profit and social enterprises. “How do we make a profit and cause no harm, but do good?” he asked. “How do we become more competitive as organizations and position ourselves uniquely? One great differentiator is to solve the problems that need to be solved.” And that is an area in which Mark Chamberlain truly shines.