Curiosity creates better questions

We ask questions to find answers. So, when we ask questions within an important conversation, it’s essential that we are really curious to find out what another person thinks. I’d like to explore the topic of curiosity as one element of asking better questions.

But first, what do we mean by a ‘better question’?

Warren Berger, a questionologist (a person who studies questions), defines a beautiful question as “An ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceived or think about something – and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.”

Fran Peavey, another question studier, talks about strategic questioning as “focused on what could be, and upon the creation of active participation in present and future transactions”.

Fran suggests the questions that are useful in a conversation include those that don’t force anyone to defend a position; questions that move the conversation forward and open it up to new thinking, that help create new options.  Perhaps a genuinely curious question “How often do you fill your bins for recycling and green waste?”  is more likely to generate ideas about waste management than: “Why don’t you sort your household waste properly?”  She suggests that better questions are often the unaskable questions which give them great power, asked simply in a single sentence.  In the Emperor’s new clothes story, it was the child who asked, quite simply, “Why doesn’t the Emperor have any clothes on?” because he was genuinely curious about so obvious an issue.

So, how does our curiosity help us create better questions?

Being curious, and having a personal desire to learn from others, gives us courage to ask what might sometimes feel like dumb questions.  I once sat on a Board of a financial institution and initially felt I didn’t have enough knowledge of the industry to ask what other Board members might think was a dumb question that just exposed how little I knew. I was encouraged by another Board Member from the steel industry who used to preface his question with the words “Well I’m just a simple production man, but this issue doesn’t make too much sense to me. Can someone please explain why this is so?” I was often curious about things I didn't understand, and found this way of asking a question useful for me and also allowed me to be useful to the group by introducing ideas from a female perspective and from outside the finance industry.

Curiosity keeps us asking questions even after getting an answer, so we explore the situation more deeply. An answer to the waste question “I have lots of stuff to recycle but not much green waste”, could lead to a broader conversation about recycling as part of waste management and generate new thinking. Perhaps continuing the curious questioning might eventually generate a better question and new ideas about our society’s use of plastic.

Curiosity helps us to learn from failure and move from a loss to a personal gain.  I have always found that I learned more from my failures and disappointments than from my successes, because I am curious to know not only why I didn’t get the results I anticipated, but also why my reasoning was faulty. Curiosity pushed me to ask more and different questions about why I failed and what I might change.  Failing is fine in my book, even necessary, because there is so much to learn if we are curious about, rather than defeated by, failure.

Finally, curiosity helps us to overcome fear, to listen without judgement to whatever answer comes from our better questions; to be interested in and willing to explore any small piece of an answer that takes us both forward.

I suggest being constantly curious and unafraid to ask, helps us to formulate better questions over time particularly if we listen carefully to every answer.


Ducks in a row ...

What does a picture of ducks in a row conjure up for you?  Is it a mother duck leading her brood to or on the pond? Or a group of birds flying in formation? Or even a row of moving targets at a fairground attraction?

Whatever the mental picture, getting your ducks in a row in a work situation usually means planning a project carefully so you stay in control of all the elements before you risk moving forward. This careful planning is something that many of us understand as an essential pre-requisite to action when we are working with others. We believe it’s important to make sure everyone in our team is “on the same page” or “singing from the same songsheet” before we move into action.

How useful is this message to us when we’re working in complexity? When we need to harness the talents and ideas from our team to find a solution that none of us could come up with on our own?  I suggest that it’s more of a risk to our project than a benefit.

Complexity by its very nature means that the future is unknown, even unknowable. It is not predictable from the present or from the events and actions of the past. Even the problem to be tackled probably looks different from different perspectives and the solutions will come from trying new things, learning from doing and often feeling uncertain about the possible messiness around us. The antithesis of leading from the front in our duck images.

The idea of ‘getting our ducks in a row’ is likely to reduce diversity rather than expand it. But when facing complexity, when tackling complex dilemmas and challenging situations, we need diverse perspectives and diverse ideas. We need to encourage our team to bring all of themselves and their ideas to the mix rather than expecting them to conform to one set of ideas and one way of working. We need to seek diversity rather than uniformity as we address today’s complex dilemmas, or ‘wicked problems’.

Being in control, being certain, and being in the state of knowing, is very comfortable, but not helpful when we need to take the road less travelled; when we need to experiment, listen and learn from others who know things we don’t; when we need to explore all the possible solutions (even those many would say are impossible) and learn together from what we find.

Perhaps we should stop trying to get our ducks in a row and recognise instead that just getting them splashing around in one pond can be enough to start with.


Are you planning to act or acting to learn?

Most of us would be familiar with the management aphorism: “If you fail to plan you are planning to fail”, and there is a lot of truth to it. But there is a darker side to this saying as well, one which many of my clients struggle with. Clients like Bob.

Bob is a project manager, smart, competent and successful. He works in a large water company, but there are many like him in all sorts of companies around the world. Bob has a track record of managing a range of difficult projects from planning through to delivery. Most recently he took on the exciting task of working with a diversity of stakeholders to improve water quality and amenity across a large urban water catchment. Bob knows his organisation can’t deliver outcomes on its own, and he is committed to collaborating with others to create lasting solutions together.

But a few months in, progress wasn’t as fast or as easy as he had expected. In fact, he was very worried that the collaboration would fall apart. People seemed unsure, unhappy, frustrated at the complexity and messiness of the task. Bob felt it too. But, being an experienced project manager, Bob gritted his teeth and applied himself to the problem of how to ensure this collaborative group delivered outcomes.

Going back to first principles, Bob decided he needed a plan of action, setting out the steps he and his collaborators would to take in order to get outcomes in a timely fashion. So he sat down with some smart colleagues to create the document.

But there was a problem. He actually didn’t know what the next steps should be. He wasn’t sure what the problem was – is it lack of commitment or lack of clarity or lack of resources…? He wasn’t sure who should be a part of the problem-solving process or who wanted to be a part of it.

What did Bob do? Being a good project manager, he decided to gather more data so that he could answer some of these questions in order to write the plan. But hang on, what data did he need? Where should he get it? What will that data mean..? He needs a plan for this…

Poor Bob was stuck in the space of not knowing; paralysed by the need to get the answers in order to proceed. His powerful urge to line up the ducks on this project was clashing with its unknowability.

The lesson is that planning can only take you so far when collaborating in complex situations. Rather than plan in order to act, Bob found more success when he began to act in order to learn. In practice, that meant Bob and his collaborators confronting and acknowledging the inevitable uncertainty of the situations they faced, but not getting paralysed by it. Instead, they tried things, developing small experiments to run. And together they learned from those activities. Some things didn’t work so well. Other things were more effective. All have been useful to help shed further light on how to tackle this catchment management problem. Only by taking action has the group learned what it takes to make a difference to their waterway.

Taking action when we don’t have all the answers can be scary, but Bob has now been working this way for many months as part of our Collaboration Builder program, and together he and his collaborators have created actions that no plan could have covered. They have learned not to plan in order to act, but to act in order to learn.


If only we had a new meeting structure.....

In my past life at a major manufacturing company, I was frustrated in a job I had supporting the leadership team in one part of the business.

The team met regularly and always struggled to have effective meetings. They were getting bogged down in detail, meetings ran over and out of time, and generally were ineffective.

The boss's response was always about the structural elements we needed......and the wait for that certain something that would "fix" things":

  • if only we can get a new meeting structure.....
  • if only we could follow the agenda......
  • if only people would come better prepared....
  • if only we were all really clear on our roles in the team....

The pattern seemed to be a desire to get the structure sorted, then everything would be OK and we would be functional!

Unfortunately nothing we tried made any real difference!

In looking back, I've realised that I was seeing a common pitfall when tackling complexity- seeking a simple solution when faced with uncertainty, which instead delivers delay, frustration and avoidance.

I call it lining the ducks up. 

Unfortunately, in complex situations there is not likely to be a simple answer or answers, and it’s a fallacy that you can get all the ducks lined up- or that you even know what all the ducks are!

In this case it seemed that there were a few other ducks that we were avoiding- the less pleasant ones around poor relationships, lack of trust and competition.

In such circumstances, a more useful approach is to accept we may not understand the problem, resist the temptation to 'nail' the answer, and live with a little uncertainty while trying something.

An emergent approach is more appropriate as it recognises that one cannot order or design the pathway forward in such situations.

With hindsight we may have been better to step back from the boss's single-minded focus on the "right" approach (in this case the meeting structure and logistics), and given space to learn a bit more about what else might be happening (poor relationships, etc).

We might then have tried some different actions like listening a bit more, checking assumptions etc, and perhaps been more functional as a team!

Perhaps if we had set the ducks free....


Ever heard of a micro dilemma?

At Twyfords we’ve used the word ‘dilemma’ to describe the kind of problem that is sufficiently complex, messy, intractable or tricky, to require a collaborative response.

This month I’ve been working with local government and non-government groups in major cities and in regional centres. I’ve taken questions on whether dilemmas that require collaboration are always huge, such as our national mega-issues of how to address ‘climate change’, ‘obesity’ or ‘social disadvantage’? Or can they be more tactical like internal controversies about priorities for our current budget? Or can they be operational, such as how can our project team become more innovative? Or can they even be at a micro level, about the next small step in working together?

How do you tackle something big, intractable and messy without becoming overwhelmed? I think we can learn from the old saying that we need to do it slowly and carefully, one bite at a time.

Does size matter?  Yes, I think it does, but probably in reverse to what most people are thinking.  Dilemmas come in all sizes; they can be strategic, tactical and operational, sometimes all at once.  But the response that really matters is at the micro level.

In our experience each big dilemma will contain bite-sized micro dilemmas about “what do we do now?” .... or  “what can we do next?”.  The important action for leaders is sharing these micro dilemmas even when we think we know the answer. We are often tempted to ‘lead from the front’, see an issue or a problem ahead and offer our solution to the team without sharing it or asking for help. This can impact on our team’s experience of us as collaborative leaders, reducing their trust in the process because our behaviour doesn’t feel very collaborative to them!

A leader becomes a collaborative leader when he or she is prepared to say, whenever it is relevant, “I’m not sure what to do here, what do you think?”  When we are prepared to be a little vulnerable, not to be the ‘one who knows’; when we really want to encourage others to offer their expertise in the form of new ideas; that’s when collaboration starts to happen.

Think about the last time you stepped back deliberately from being the expert, didn’t offer ‘the solution’ and invited others into your dilemma thus opening up the conversation for everyone to share.  You were building your team’s appetite for collaboration, one bite at a time.


Strategy shining new light on collaboration

I was preparing for a short session on collaboration for a client this week, assisted by the local PA. She was setting up the data projector, but we were a bit low to the screen. "No problem" she said, whipping out an inch-thick book to sit under the projector. "At least one use for the strategic plan", and she went on to wonder why the only people who seemed to look at it were the planners......

It struck a chord, and reminded me of a similar experience a few years back, when I was at a Council, and the planner brought out at least 4 versions of a Parks’ Strategy prepared over a number of years. She lamented the lack of ownership of each, and how the planners had been singularly unsuccessful in getting any of the recommendations implemented

Given this gap between planning and implementation seems to be a bit endemic, how might we tackle it?

People are more likely to own the result if they have been part of the process of designing it, so the challenge might be to get the implementer's fingerprints on the plan in some way. This may be tricky given there is often a gap between planning and delivery, both geographically and with timeframes. However, it might provide a potential pathway for greater ownership and implementability.

So perhaps a good question at the start of planning is "who eventually needs to implement this, and how can they can get their fingerprints on the planning process?" i.e. making the co-design more explicit, and inviting others to see it as 'our plan' rather than 'their plan'.

You have at least a couple of choices:

  • You continue with your current approach and develop the plan as you normally would, especially as you tend to engage with those implementers anyway as part of your planning consultation.......
  • Or you sit down and consider how you might think and act as if all the implementers were with you throughout the planning process...  If they were sitting here, what would they need to say, see or hear that would have them all over this plan...?

Thinking in this new way will likely raise practical questions of involvement, resourcing, interest, and so on, but perhaps the real issue is less about the extent of the implementers involvement, and more about the mindset of the planners:

i.e. how do I think about this so it is more likely that those implementing this will see it as their plan too and have the energy to make it happen?

This will prompt different behaviours from the planners more consistent with "our plan", and generate a plan better illuminated in delivery.

Damn, now where is that book to support my next presentation........?


Opening the gate between planners and deliverers

Collaborative processes work best when a collaborative group works and learns together to tackle and resolve a complex problem.  However, sometimes we experience a disconnect between planners who co-create strategy and policy, and those people who deliver those solutions on the ground which can be frustrating and counter-productive.

I recently worked with a group of stakeholders who were working together to design ways to improve community access to a creek.  After sharing ideas, information and activities, they recommended to one of their stakeholder councils that a gate should be installed in a fence to allow access to an attractive part of the waterway. An order was generated in council and passed on to outdoor staff. A gate was duly designed and installed to Council’s internal specifications.

The problem was that the final product didn’t meet the needs of the community who were to use it. It was high and difficult to open, awkward for cyclists, pram pushers and dog walkers. How did this go so wrong, when it seems so simple to get it right? Definitely a case where the implementers were disconnected from the planners.

Almost a decade ago when we wrote our book about collaboration and introduced a framework we call the Power of Co, we included an important fifth step, Co-delivery of solutions that had been generated to resolve complex dilemmas. In Chapter 8, we suggest that co-delivering actions moves us “into the new space of implementation” to “the end we had in mind from the beginning.” We warned that Co-delivery requires action, effort, energy, knowledge and trust, which we were confident would be built up during the first four steps of Commitment to collaboration, Co-Define Dilemmas, Co-Design Process and Co-Create Solutions.

But what happens if the creators of the plan are not the people who deliver it? In our experience this happens a lot.  Sometimes years can elapse until funding can be found, or barriers can come down, to enable delivery. Can the planners genuinely think beyond the strategy document and focus on both generating and delivering the strategy?  What could they do differently as they plan?

Our experience working with clients indicates a number of things they could try. They could:

  • think about the ‘light on the hill’, the aspiration against which the success of the strategy can be measured. Are these likely to be shared by the deliverers?
  • consider who is likely to deliver the strategy and over what period of time.
  • seek data about any potential issues or roadblocks during delivery.
  • recognise that the final plan needs to be owned and understood by those who will implement it and those who will benefit from its implementation.

The experiences we’ve had over the past decade would suggest there is more to be done by the planners as they collaborate, not just after the event, but in the way think and act as they work.

New thinking by the creek planners about co-delivery might have saved the time and money replacing the gate, and built new and positive relationships between planners, council staff and users of the creek.


Experimenting with my migraines

I get migraine headaches regularly, and while I take a specific drug to manage them, I'm constantly frustrated by my inability to find a lasting solution.

I had fallen into a pattern of dealing with my migraines as though I knew the problem, that being overtired or stressed were the causes.  I would try everything to fix the causes, while using the drugs as necessary.

The problem was that no matter how much I slept more, rested my neck, using relaxation and meditation techniques, it made no difference overall to the frequency of headaches.

My toolkit was exhausted. I didn't know what to do.

So when I recently saw an on-line Migraine Summit advertised, I thought why not see if it can help me with some new ideas.

As I watched a series of webcasts from doctors around the world, something clicked for me. Migraines are really really complex, and my 'cause and effect' thinking, and single solution focus was not helping.  I realised that perhaps I needed to let go of my belief that I was in control of what was going on, and that I needed to think and do differently.

So rather than having an answer, I'm taking a different approach.  Rather than apply my 'solution' I have set a goal - fewer migraines and fewer drugs - and just try things to see if they get me closer to that goal.

My experiments so far have included tackling mild sleep apnoea, looking at pillow height, diet and hydration, the sequence and type of daily activities, computer usage at night, and sleeping comfort.

And a key in helping me check progress is not a plan forward, but a daily journal of activity, results and learnings from the experiments I am undertaking.

I'm more accepting now that I can't know the answer, and I don't even fully understand the problem, but I'm more confident than before that I'm making real progress towards my goal.

So key realisations for me have been:

  • recognising the complexity of my situation
  • accepting there is a lot I can't know about this, and I will probably never know the “answer”
  • acknowledging that I need to try different things,
  • finding ways to keep track of what helps and what doesn’t
  • and keep trying….

and I feel a lot better about my slightly less sore head!


The Hard Truth at the Heart of Collaboration

I’ve spent a lot of time over the holidays thinking about the connection between the ability to collaborate effectively and the ability to be vulnerable, and I'm beginning to see a hard truth.

Stuart in his blog last week, used Ken Henry, until recently Chairman of the Board of the National Australia Bank, and his performance at the banking Royal Commission, as a typical example of our desire to minimise our vulnerability when challenged. Stuart pointed out that, by “hiding his humanity, by denying to us any sense of shame or remorse or sorrow” when being grilled by Counsel Assisting, Ken Henry broke the bonds of respect and trust.

I have some sympathy for Mr Henry.  I personally feel particularly vulnerable in situations when people either have high expectations of me and my performance or are looking to me for answers to challenging questions in my field of expertise. When I dig down, I think my vulnerability comes from underlying imposter anxiety when in front of people who will judge me: “I’m not good enough to do this well; people will see me for what I really am; I’m only posing as an expert! I don’t have anything original to say!” I feel this particularly when I have to make an argument from behind a podium.

The problem with this very uncomfortable feeling of vulnerability is that it shows. The more discomfort I feel, the greater the effect on my performance.  If I continue to show myself as an expert who must behave ‘expertly’ to meet expectations, I hide who I really am. I’m no longer the person who is curious, empathetic and who enjoys engaging with others; who uses conversations as a vehicle for sharing ideas and co-creating a future together.

Brene Brown, the researcher, speaker and author who has had much to say about vulnerability, believes firstly that being able to show vulnerability is a strength and not a weakness, and secondly that our fear of being unworthy or of being flawed is the secret killer of innovation. This fear stops us speaking up, sharing ideas, thinking differently, exposing ourselves warts and all. We are afraid we’ll be seen as wrong or misguided and therefore we’ll be open to being judged, belittled or laughed at, or at worst we’ll be criticised, demoted, demonised or passed over in our careers. It takes strength to overcome those fears.

And that ability to sit with vulnerability is the hard truth at the heart of collaboration.

If we behave as experts and focus only on what we know, we won’t learn from others, and others won’t share their innermost thoughts easily with us. Collaboration needs us to learn about the problem from all perspectives and learn about complexity itself. Collaboration is listening and acknowledging the strengths and contributions of all collaborators. Collaboration is being comfortable to say, “I don’t know, I need your help”.  Collaboration is experimenting without knowing the answer.

So, what can we learn from this?

The key is accepting that vulnerability is a strength and not trying so hard to avoid it.

In our coaching we encourage clients to be curious about those underlying feelings that make them feel uncomfortable.  We help them to recognise that defeat, failure and disappointment happen to everyone at some time and do not equate to unworthiness or being less than.  We reassure them when they fail, are disappointed or miss out, that they can learn from their experiences. We support them as they grow and move on and become wiser and better equipped in their work with others.

Are you ready to face collaboration's hard truth and build your capability to be vulnerable when you work with others?


Manual focus on collaborative capability

I read an article last year by Dominik Vanyi about slow photography - how he found his brain effectively "rewired" by changing a long established practice- in this case from using auto focus and moving to manual focus for his commercial photography.

It struck me that it has a lot of similarities with my experience in building capability around collaboration- the less you intervene and the slower you go, the more learning happens and the minds seem to rewire more quickly.

In the article, Dominic relates that the significant learning for him was how manually focusing his camera made him slow down- to compose pictures more thoughtfully and putting more thought into how he approached each photographic opportunity.

This parallels our experience with working together- the act of stopping and reflecting- slowing the "campaign rush" - can be more useful and more valuable than all the quick interventions in the world.
A client recently related to me how they now take a more thoughtful and intentional approach to each team meeting- rather than jumping straight into content they first slow the group and ask some reflection questions before diving into the topics. She noted that it created space to be more collaborative.

Dominic's other insight was that focusing by hand had rewired his photographic brain- and how it was not easy but required ongoing practice.
Similarly we see that changing habits of a lifetime around working with others takes time and practice to become automatic and authentic. Another client related that they can no longer tolerate the business as usual behaviours of some colleagues as their rewired brain sees better practice, so they now intervene to support new ways of working that get more effective outcomes.

So how can you get your manual lens?