Saturday, March 27, 2010

Importance of Questions in the Concept Age


Powerful questions are viral. 

A powerful question also has the capacity to “travel well”—to spread beyond the place where it began into larger networks of conversation throughout an organization or a community. Questions that travel well are often the key to large-scale change.
I was reading the white paper “The Art of Powerful Questions: Catalyzing Insight, Innovation and Action by Eric E Vogt, Juanita Brown, and David Isaac. I came across this paper via the World Cafe site: Conversation as a Co-evolutionary Force. I have quoted liberally from the paper below to substantiate my analysis of why this age demands that we develop the art of asking questions. 

The irony and the truth is that we are so busy coming up with what we fondly believe are the right answers that we forget to ask the right questions.If asking good questions is so critical, why don’t most of us spend more of our time and energy on discovering and framing them? 

One reason may be that throughout our educational life, the focus on having the “right answer” rather than discovering the “right question” has been emphasized. “Talking” in class was discouraged; discussing was not the norm; individual excellence was stressed; there was always one right answer. Questions were uni-directional—from the teacher to the student, from a source of power to the subjugated. Questions came to be seen as a means of wielding authority or, in rare cases of order reversal, as a sign of rebellion or disrespect. 

Thus, right from our school days, we are “trained” to provide the right answers else our grades suffered, entry to sought-after colleges/institutions were blocked.After that, once you enter the “jobosphere” of the corporate world and start your work life, the likelihood is that you will come across managers and bosses, 99% of whom:

  1. Hate to be approached with problems

  2. Are extremely wary of questions and deem that as a threat to authority (ask too many questions and the chances are you will be thought of as a rebel, maybe even a negative influence)

  3. Expect you to approach them with questions as well as the answers (solutions)
How often have you heard a manager say: “Don't come to me with a problem (most managers hate to use the word problem thinking that existence of a problem is a slur on their management skills instead of embracing each problem as an opportunity to probe and explore and make better); come with the solution as well.” Unfortunately, that has become one of the tenets of traditional, authoritative style of management. 

OTOH, how often have you heard a manager say: “Hmmm...that seems to be a “problem with possibilities”. Let's thrash it out, frame all the critical questions we can ask to get to the root of all the possibilities; then we'll try to see what can be the solution(s).” 

The aversion in our culture to asking creative questions is also linked to an emphasis on finding quick fixes and an attachment to black/white, either/or thinking. This approach worked well enough in the Industrial Age and the process-driven work culture (where there was a clear relationship between cause and effect) set in place by Frederick W Taylor with his Efficiency Movement and, subsequently, in the Information Age dominated by lawyers, programmers, MBAs, MTechs, and CAs. 

However, it no longer answers the needs of this age of right brain driven, conceptual, creative thinkers. It is no longer a viable option in a culture that requires innovation, conversation and collaboration to move ahead, to make sense of the chaos, to see the emerging patterns in the change. 

The black and white approach worked when work processes were simple, linear, could be standardized, and yesterday’s best practices still worked just as fine today. Today, according to Dan Pink, Automation, Asia, Abundance have forced creative thinking out in the open. The ability to ask the right question has become more important than the ability to come up with quick fix, short-term solutions.

Asking questions indicates a desire to listen, to probe and understand, to share and converse. All of these are pre-requisites for success in the Concept Age, where organization have moved from simple to complex and approaching the chaotic, where yesterday’s rules cannot solve today’s problems.  

Refer to the Cynefin Framework developed by David Snowden for an understanding of the increasing complexity of today’s environment. The following two posts by Shawn Callahan are an excellent introductions to the dynamics that drive today’s work culture.

  1. A simple explanation of the Cynefin Framework
  2. When should we collaborate?

Thus, the importance of conversations cannot be over-emphasized in this age of high concept and high touch, where effective “knowledge work” consists of asking profound questions and hosting wide-ranging strategic conversations on issues of substance. 
Conversations start with the right question, which brings me back to the topic of my post.  
Suggested readings to understand today’s world…
2.      A Whole New Mind
3.      Informal Learning
4.      Drive
5.      Switch      

The most fascinating find in the white paper was the following bit of information: 

Are there organizations that do place a high value on questions? Consider this: In Germany, the job title Direktor Grundsatzfragen translates as “Director of Fundamental Questions.”As a German colleague aid: “Yes, there’s a job title of Direktor Grundsatzfragen. Some of the larger German companies have an entire department of Grundsatzfragen. These are the people who are always thinking about what the next questions will be. Of course, these people are only in the German companies headquartered in Germany, such as Daimler, Bayer, Siemens, or SAP. If the German company is acquired by a U.S. company, they usually eliminate the Grundsatzfragen positions.”
It is small wonder given the culture that gave birth to some of the most profound philosophers and poets of our time like, Nietzsche, Kant, Goethe, Rilke…

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