questions and ideas converging together

Using Questions to Spur Organizational Change

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In this article I propose that asking question is an essential tool in your organizational leadership toolkit. Why? Because asking questions as part of organizational change opens the door to possibility like no other strategy I know.

If you’ve ever been seated next to a 5-year old on an airplane, you know how kids’ brains work when it comes to questions: “What’s that sound, Mom?” “What is that guy doing?” “Why do I have to wear a seat belt?” Why are my ears popping?” These seemingly endless questions are an out-loud representation of a child’s brain making connections, developing the synapses and learnings that they will carry with them through life.

As we grow, the frequency of posing questions becomes less and less. This might be because our brain has already developed so many connections and understandings that it can call on, it does not need to develop as many new ones. It may also be because question-posing is not as encouraged in school or in social or work settings.

As working adults, question posing is often no longer a “way of being.” I would argue that this lack of questions in our life is a key reason for why we get “stuck” personally or professionally. It is also why organizations often struggle to evolve with the times or innovate when innovation is necessary.

Where’s the power in asking questions?

Warren Berger explores the phenomenon of question-posing eloquently in his book A More Beautiful Question (2014) in which he explores why we stop questioning (partly biology, partly socialization) and how we could spark inquiry once again in our lives. Why? Because, as Berger expresses, questions can trigger divergent thinking, and have a “mind-opening” effect.  

James Zull’s book The Art of Changing the Brain also sheds light on why question-posing can be a powerful tool for professional growth. Experiential learning theory has always posited that reflecting on experience is the key to making meaning of that experience. Zull takes that idea one step further and points out that reflection actually forces our brain to seek out new connections. Reflection, it turns out, is key to building and re-building synaptic connections in our brain and maybe even rewiring how we see the world.

If we are looking to bring about positive organizational change, seeing things in new ways and forcing ourselves out of our regular ways of operating are essential. Asking questions (divergent thinking), rather than posing solutions (convergent thinking), can open doors to new ideas.

"what if" is a powerful question for organizations

What makes for a good organizational question?

Not all questions are equal when it comes to organizational development and change. After all, asking questions around organizational change that place blame, focus too much on naming problems, or have pre-assumed answers are not going to invite creative thinking.

To truly invite meaningful change, questions should be open-ended and possibility-focused.

For example, instead of asking, “Why can’t we be more organized?” you could ask, “Where can we find opportunities for ‘quick wins and long-term improvements in our processes and systems?”  The first question invites blame (“because no one cares” “because our supervisor is disorganized”, etc.) where as the second presumes that solutions are the focus of the question and that there may in fact be many solutions available.

Likewise, instead of asking, “Why do we keep losing employees?” you could ask, “What are some best practices in employee retention that would work at this organization?” To be even more open-ended, you could ask, “What would make employees at our organization happier to come to work?” This question leads to more productive solutions and practically screams for gathering employee input rather than sitting in a closed room trying to solve a problem.

Good organizational questions open doors, rather than closing them. They are not easy questions with obvious solutions; rather, they are brave questions because it is going to take some work to answer them. Good organizational questions are a great place to begin a strategic plan, because they will lead to deep, strategic thinking.

Here’s a hint – try starting with “What if…” or “How…” rather than what, when, or why. The power of those opening words can be exponentially stronger.

A case study in organizational questions

I was recently asked to do an organizational analysis for a small LLC and its affiliated nonprofit. The leader of both organizations felt like there must be something he could do to make things run more smoothly and efficiently. He wanted folks to feel good about their work, and he wasn’t sure how long he could keep burning the candle at both ends trying to hold everything together.

So when he asked the question, “How can we run more efficiently?”, in true Socratic style, I asked him a question back: “What would it look like for this organization to be thriving?” His description of a thriving version of his team and business gave us something to work with, but we needed more perspectives and more ideas. We needed to use questions to trigger divergent thinking among his team.

A series of interviews ensued in which I asked his team members questions like:

  • What is it like to work for this organization?
  • When do you feel most productive and like you are really accomplishing something?
  • When do you feel like you are at your best, in your element at work?
  • What little tweaks in how the team functions could make things work even better?
  • What would it look like for you for this organization to be thriving?
  • What do you see as awesome possibilities for the future?

Sometimes their answers seemed easy and obvious, but other times the question was met with a moment of pause. A moment in which you could almost feel their mind opening just a bit, new connections forming, and new ideas emerging.

The result was a set of recommendations that were truly derived from the team, and not just from an outside “expert” suggesting artificial changes. And for this organization, that is the only way that change could truly be achieved. Creative in its pursuit, and passionate about its work, ideas needed to come from within in order for them to be valued and embraced. The changes that we identified (and I use we purposefully instead of I) will work better for them as a result.

That is the power of asking questions as an organizational change strategy. The mere act of asking can cause a person to open their mind to new ideas (ones that THEY come up with!).  Question-posing can create new connections between things that they hadn’t thought of before. It can bring about organizational shifts that will help the group to function better, and that they are more likely to buy into.

Putting question-posing into action at your organization

Whether you are embarking on an organizational analysis, laying the groundwork for a strategic plan, or just managing the day-to-day operations of your organization, question-posing can be a powerful tool in your toolbox. As a leader, you can pose questions to your team that evoke thoughtful responses. As a team member, you can pose possibility-based questions at staff gatherings or when evaluating a particular program.

If you feel stuck, brining in an outside question-asker can also be valuable tool. The role that I played in the case study shared here is one that could be valuable for any organization. But you must focus on possibility and opportunity, and be open to divergent ideas. A consultant cannot bring about change if organizational leaders aren’t open to hearing ideas.

As a starting point, try choosing one moment in which you can pose an open-ended, thought-provoking “what if” kind of question over the course of the next week at your organization.

Pay careful attention to the results, evaluate whether your question invited enough flexibility, and try again the next week. Eventually, you just may find you’ve created a new climate where questions are not only tolerated, but appreciated. Then, you can being to incorporate asking questions into your organizational change strategies with much greater success.

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