I was working with a couple of clients recently who were trying to design powerful questions for invitations to their strategic conversations. Both organizations are dealing with complex situations and specifically with complex changes that were overtaking their ability to respond. Here are some of the questions that cam up:
- How can we be more effective in accomplishing our purpose?
- How can we create more engagement to address our outcomes?
- What can we do to innovate regardless of our structure?
- Help us create new ideas for executive alignment around our plan to address the change we are now seeing?
Can you see what is wrong with these questions, especially as they relate to addressing complexity?
The answer is that each of these questions contains a proposed solution to the problem, buried as assumptions in the question itself. In these questions the answers to addressing complexity are assumed to be: sticking to purpose, creating more engagement, innovating except structurally, aligning executives around our plan. In other contexts these may well be powerful questions: they are questions which invite execution once strategic decisions have been taken. But in addressing complex questions, they narrow the focus too much and embed assumptions that some may actually think are the cause of their problems in the first place
The problem is that my clients were stuck arguing over the questions themselves because they couldn’t agree on solutions. As a result they found themselves going around and around in circles.
The right question for all four of these situations is something like “What is going on?” or “How can we address the changes that are happening to us?”
You need to back up to ask that question first, before arriving at any preferred solutions. It is very important in discerning and making sense of your context that you are able to let go of your natural inclination to want to DO something, in favour of first understanding what we have in front of us. Seeing the situation correctly goes a long way to be able to make good strategic choices about what to do next. From there, planning, aligning, purpose and structure might be useful responses, but you don’t know that until you’ve made sense of where you are.