Framing the Right Questions

I recently attended a workshop headed by Peter Jones of reDESIGNreSEARCH whose company focuses on better design through in depth research. He also manages a website Designing with Dialogue which promotes a Toronto-based ‘dialogue community of practice’ which advocates better methods for communication.

Leadership Choices
Leadership Choices

This particular night the workshop spent three hours on the topic of ‘Shared Leadership and Framing Big Questions’. Basically what this amounts to is asking the big questions that invite user participation. Accordingly, users then feel empowered because they have some personal skin in the game and this generates an open community for shared contribution.

I am sure everyone can remember a time in their office environment where change was coming down from the top and this change seemed somewhat disconnected from the realities of the job at hand. With a good facilitator, this doesn’t have to be the case. For those who run their own businesses I am sure you remember every situation in which your clients basically got to the point of “How much?” and “How long?” far too quickly in your conversation. When this happens there is a feeling of loss of control and/or project ambivalence or unimportance. These how questions sometimes derail a project from the get-go because the task at hand hasn’t necessarily been framed in the best way to allow for innovative thought and therefore the project is stifled or even worse purposeless on arrival. The following ‘how’ questions are common enough but when used at the beginning of the conversation, inhibit a project:

  • How do you do it?
  • How long will it take?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How do we get people to change?
  • How do we measure the success?
  • How has this been successful elsewhere?

If the client asks these ‘how’ questions it is important to try and modify the conversation parameters. The main goal is ask open ended questions that make noticeable differences that invite participation to produce the best framework for a project. The following questions have been suggested by Peter Block:

  • What is my crossroads in life/work?
  • What is my contribution to this problem?
  • What is my commitment to the solution?
  • What refusal have I been postponing?
  • What is the price I am willing to pay?
  • What do we want to create together?

These are obviously somewhat obtuse to the previous set of ‘how’ questions but they do in fact invite participation and lead to better dialogue about the framework of a project. Each question is intentionally open and personal and each question leads to reflection with no immediate solution. Instead these questions initiate useful discussions about a project that open barriers and lead to group participation that increases mind share. As a result the company will get a more cohesive vision that ultimately serves them better and is much more than the result of an order being followed.

Of course there are other questions that can be asked which will tend to open the dialogue. Pictured at left is our groups contribution.

I found this exercise to be encouraging. As designed, people were opening up, the participants networked well and the ideas were taken seriously. I can honestly say that if this type of approach had been taken in previous projects that I or others had lead, the time would have been well spent and the project results would have been better.