Asking Questions for Organizational Transformation

Who questions much, shall learn much, and retain much.
Francis Bacon (1561-1626) British statesman and philosopher.

The HBR Blog post, The Art of Asking Questions, by Ron Ashkenas surfaced the value of asking questions as an effective management practice. Asking questions, or “intentional inquiry,” is not only important in setting the conditions for an open and ongoing information exchange, but is an essential component to creating patterns of system-wide engagement that fuels innovation, adaptive solutions and transformation.

One of the tenets of Human Systems Dynamics is to ask questions rather than focus on answers, creating an environment that embraces emergent information and individual actions which influence wider organization change. The Adaptive Action model, an HSD tool,  is an iterative cycle of questions — “What?”, “So What?”, “Now What?” that help create the conditions for not only asking questions but using the process to inform the system with a continuous flow of information, experiences and insights.

The Adaptive Action process can also be an effective guide for managers as they seek to both understand and influence existing conditions and new opportunities. Not only does the opportunity to co-create solutions present itself, but the process of learning becomes part of the solution — taking action in the moment and over time.

Let’s first look at the example in the article and then reframe the exchange within the Adaptive Action process.

“Not long ago I sat in on a meeting where a project team was reviewing its progress with a senior executive sponsor. During the presentation it was clear from his body language that the executive was uncomfortable with the direction that the team was taking. As a result, without any real questioning of the team, he deferred approval of the next steps until he could have a further discussion with the team leader. When he met with the team leader later, he ripped into him for allowing the team to go off-course. Eventually the team leader was able to explain the thinking behind the plan, convinced the executive that they would indeed achieve their objectives, and was given the go-ahead to proceed. But in the meantime the team had lost its momentum (and a week of productivity), and began to focus more on pleasing the sponsor rather than doing the project in the best way.”

If the presentation was “framed” within the three Adaptive Action questions, both the team and the executive would have been able to engage in a dynamic exchange that not only provided an understanding of the current status, but offered new options for actions that emerged throughout the meeting. The project team could present the status of the project in relation to “What is happening now?”  offering a way to review both the project status and a more detailed overview of the project relative to the current environment. The next phase explores implications — “So What does this mean to the original project plan, to the allocation of resources, to how we move forward etc.” Finally the discussion provides a way to explore how to adjust or add actions to the plan –“Now What will happen to address the implications of challenges and opportunities related to the progress of the project?”

Most importantly, this process is continuous and iterative — meaning that the cycle occurs repeatedly throughout a discussion. The executive could have asked, “What is happening in your team that may impact the completion of this project?” The responses may uncover a number of So What‘s that were not immediately obvious and consequently could now be addressed collaboratively, offering options for new insight and creative adjustments as they together consider, “Now What do we do to keep the project within budget, on time etc.”

The engagement of all the participants in the Adaptive Action process reinforces the value and continued contribution of each person to the overall success of the project. The team and the executive provide their critical perspectives and expectations while collaboratively finding the best course of action for the organization.

As Ashkenas states, “The challenge with questioning projects is to do so in a way that not only advances the work, but that also builds relationships and helps the people involved to learn and develop. This doesn’t mean that your questions can’t be tough and direct, but the probing needs to be in the spirit of accelerating progress, illuminating unconscious assumptions and solving problems.”

For more information on Adaptive Action and Human Systems Dynamics – http://www.hsdinstitute.org/index.html

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