The power of inquiry

“An answer is always the part of the road that is behind you. Only questions point to the future.”  Jostein Gaarder

The theory…

Good questions are catalytic and generative. They stimulate thought, curiosity, learning and are able to open up possibilities.

Identifying meaningful questions is an art that can be cultivated and learnt. The right questions can lead to the proverbial ‘paradigm shift’ and bring about transformative change.

Rather than write a long blog about the power of inquiry, I thought I’d just give some examples of what, in my view, are generative questions.

“How do questions shape our reality?

“What is lost when we just take majority decisions and don’t hear minority voices?”

“How do we create meetings (conversations) modelled on how people naturally communicate?”

“Why are we re-creating ways of talking (conferences, meetings, forums, committees, etc) that limit our creativity?”

“Why are we not bringing in the collective intelligence of hundreds of people but rather choosing over and over again to just listen to a few expert voices?”

On second thought, perhaps it is more about developing an attitude of curiosity rather than the questions themselves but I think a combination of the two is essential for anyone wanting to facilitating change.

I always try to ask questions at meetings but this is countercultural. More value seems to be placed on the person with a lot to say and who seemingly has all the answers and solutions.

Rather than listening to respond, I make myself listen in order to ask questions that open up alternatives or possibilities.

The practice…

In my experience many people (those who’s opinions are seldom sought) appreciate the collaboration that such an approach engenders but some (usually those who’s voices are legitimised by status) may not!

I used a variation of one of these questions at a meeting where an influential member of staff wanted to implement an initiative that he had heard about. He talked about running “vision casting” conferences, and bringing in experts on the subject to speak at these conferences, etc.

At an appropriate time, I asked what we would potentially lose if we only asked the ‘good and the great’ for their input and not use the significant talent, knowledge and experience of our own people? This question caught the imagination of others at the meeting and the intervention changed the trajectory of the conversation.

I thought it was a significant moment that illustrated the power of inquiry.

However, the person with the idea told me afterwards that he wanted his ideas to be simply accepted and implemented and that my intervention made the situation overly complicated and changed the essence of his suggestion.

This was in stark contrast to feedback I received from others who felt that the intervention helped generate support for the idea because it (a) addressed the issue of contextual appropriateness and, (b) generated ownership for the idea by invoking the collective wisdom of the group.

The Blame Game

I never liked watching “The Apprentice” but my family loves it. So I thought I’d give it another try, but had to stop watching after 10 minutes, when Sir Alan Sugar said to a group, who lost a particular challenge… “Go away and find out who’s to blame”.

That is a cameo of traditional macho management that takes its values from the playground and the marketplace.

The following is a description of the show from the Personnel Today blog:

“Sugar revels in his role of business demigod and wields his stubby finger with relish each week, and the audience figures suggest that this celebration of blame his gripped the nation.”

The blogger goes on to share his opinion that like ‘greed’, ‘blame’ is good… and that we (HR) should do more it!

Hang on. Let’s hit the pause button. Or better still the ‘reflect’ button in our minds.

What kind of society do we create by this kind of thinking?

  • Identify who is to blame.
  • Get rid. Replace. Tell them off. Give them what for.
  • Discuss the problem and find the solution.
  • Get in a consultant/expert in to solve the problem.

My sense is that this leads to (and maintains) a macho management, negativity, dog eat dog, survival of the fittest, blame environment.

It’s not jut conceptual. This ‘worldview’ encourages certain types of behaviour. In a blame culture, people behave in blaming ways. These behaviours are self-sustaining and self-perpetuating. It breeds a suspicion, politicking, backbiting, draconian organisational practice and non-risk taking. In these cultures, feedback such as “you should do better next time”, and even training and development events are seen as threats.

I am now going to make a bold claim!

We can change our social world by changing our organising grammar to:

  • Let’s discuss a helpful process for creating change.
  • How can we inquire into and build on the best of what is?
  • What can we help people to learn?
  • How can we value everyone’s contribution?
  • Who else, amongst us, do we need to involve?
  • What processes do we need to put in place to help us improve continuously?
  • How can we develop, coach and mentor people through a project?

In the words of one of my favourite song, its ‘more than words’. It’s about an attitude and a particular perspective on life and how we want our human communities to be (including our work communities).

In the workplace, this counter-cultural way of thinking can potentially help our organisations become more life-giving and supportive places to be. This in turn leads to productively, innovation and creativity… through a sense of collaborative endeavour.

In my humble opinion, this approach is more likely to lead to the achievement of organisational goals than a culture based on shame and blame. Who would you rather work for… Pixar or Amstrad – take your pick.

In a Christian setting, we could and should go further by asking ourselves… “How might we create a ’forgiveness’ rather than a ‘blame’ culture”? What can we do to enable and help our people behave in constructive, encouraging and forgiving ways?