Marilee Adams wrote the book Change Your Questions, Change Your Life: 12 Powerful Tools for Leadership, Coaching and Life. In it she shows how the type of questions we ask shape our thinking and behavior. We tend to formulate our questions out of fear and other negative emotions, which leads to conversations and results based in constraint. Such conversations eventually turn into expectations, policies, and routines. They give rise to culture. Marilee writes that by changing how we ask questions, we can change our lives and reconstruct and possibly transform our troubled organizations into learning, inquiring, and positive organizations. The last sentence is a big claim.
Marilee and I were having lunch. I peppered her with questions. She told me of a recent experience in which she took a top executive team through a process she calls “Q- Storming.” It is in her book. As she explained it to me, the process of storming for questions is very different than brainstorming, where the focus is on storming for ideas and answers. She said, “You can’t get the right answers if you are asking the wrong questions. I created Q-Storming as a process for discovering ‘right questions.’ Then if people want to do traditional brainstorming afterwards, they’re much more likely to get positive results.”
The experience she described unfolded in a big company that was in the middle of a change process. Not much was going right. Marilee took the top team through the disciplined process of Q-Storming. She first required the group to agree on their highest goal. One would assume that such agreement already existed. It seldom does.
Eventually they came to agreement on one goal. She then asked the group to list all the assumptions they were making. Marilee said that that she had to keep encouraging them to discover assumptions, since people often overlook this discipline. Then she asked for a listing of facts, she wanted a list of things they all knew to be true. They identified 11 crucial facts.
At that point she began the process of Q-Storming. Each person was encouraged to come up with as many new questions as they could. The questions had to start with “I” or “we.” The objective was to move from the mode of knowing to the mode of inquiring, learning and co-creating. Marilee commented that Q-Storming is the opposite of “group think.”
Examples of new questions might include: How can we behave so our goal is owned by all? How can I keep open communication channels between me and my direct reports? What can we do to keep asking the right kind of learning questions? What can we do to keep from being judgmental? How can we identify and capitalize on the strengths of each team member?
For the team Marilee was working with, the list of questions became many times longer. In fact, they came up with over 60 questions, which really surprised them. The group then did a review, particularly looking for questions that could lead to breakthrough thinking. As they did, they were encouraged to add more new questions. As the process unfolded, it became clear why the change process had been stuck; people could not learn together because they had been trapped in knowing.
With the new questions, everyone became more objective, engaged, and focused on the common good. People added questions about how they could make better contributions. Hope began to increase as the group began to see new possibilities, that is, a new vision was emerging. It was a vision of what I call social excellence or extraordinary collaboration.
At the end of the experience, the CEO told Marilee that he was thrilled. He recognized that the group had transformed. They now held a new perspective and a process for thinking beyond their usual silos. They had had a collective experience of moving from a knowing orientation to a learning orientation. Genuine change was possible. The CEO wanted to know how the learning orientation could be extended throughout the company.
- Do the groups I lead or participate in operate more from a knowing orientation or a learning orientation? What possibilities could we create by operating more in a learning orientation?
- How could the identification of new questions alter the knowing orientation?
- What does the learning orientation have to do with the creation of social excellence?
- How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?