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8 April 2011

Asking different questions

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

In my last post, I made the distinction between a technical change a leader might want to make in herself or her team, and an adaptive change. Technical changes are the ones where new information or tools will sort the case: someone who doesn’t use a spreadsheet because he doesn’t have the computer program or the knowledge of the tool can be easily turned into someone who does use a spreadsheet by giving him the program or a quick course.

An adaptive change is required when you want someone else (or yourself) to actually change the way they behave, when you want them to act or be different. The first step (which I wrote about last time) is simply to know the difference. The second step is to know what to do if the change you want—as the change nearly all my clients want—is adaptive and not technical.

For example, I have a client who wishes she were more strategic. Ari has it as her goal to lead her team meetings to be at the strategic level, but then when a particular issue comes up which interests her, she dives into the weeds. And, perhaps just as bad, when one of her team members dives into the weeds she allows that to happen if she’s interested in the details of this particular issue, and she calls it as inappropriate if she’s not interested. So she knows that in addition to not being as strategic as she’d like, she’s also not as consistent as she’d like about helping others to reach for a more strategic place.

She tried to solve this issue by taking her whole team to a well-regarded strategic leadership retreat, and the feedback from the retreat was really positive. The problem was that as soon as they got back to their meetings, they were back in their same old patterns. They had more skills for being strategic; they just weren’t using them.

An adaptive change requires that you replace old ways of thinking and acting—and your old worldview—with a new one. Now this isn’t like trading in your Dell for a new MacAir. This is not about replacing anything, because to replace your worldview would be to get a personality transplant. Rather, it’s about enlarging your worldview, making room for slightly different outcomes, slightly different possibilities. It’s about seeing the world a slightly different way and practicing some habits which keep that worldview fluid and not stagnant.

Keith and I have found that here are three habits of mind which, more than any others, might help you grow your worldview and make the changes you desire. The first one is asking different questions. What many people do not understand is that the questions we automatically ask—the questions that our brain forms without much effort from us—are questions that keep us on the same path, questions whose answers are unlikely to surprise us. I have found in my practice what neuroscientists find in the brain: when we are the most surprised, we are the least likely to ask good questions. Rather, when we’re unsure we tend to ask questions that will move us back into familiar ground. When the time is most ripe for our learning, our reflexes push us away from learning and into something that feels more comfortable. Having the courage and the ability to ask different questions, and being open to a wider range of possibilities is key to equipping us to manage complex issues. To be able to ask different questions, questions that will keep us learning, is a habit of mind that stretches the brain, makes possible new discoveries and new connections, and creates a distinctive learning system.

How do you move into this habit? Ari wanted to be more strategic, but she found that her questions pointed her to the detail. She and her team brainstormed a list of strategic questions (What is the impact of this on the long term? How will this one issue effect other areas of the business? How will this move us toward our biggest goals as an organization?). In meetings, when she sensed that she was moving into a less strategic place, she simply looked at her “strategic cheat sheet” and asked a question from it. (Ok, admittedly at first she only remembered the list of questions towards the end of a meeting that spent most of its time in the weeds.) When she remembered to ask them, the conversations which ensued were so much more helpful for the team than the previous ones that they all started to use those questions—more and more automatically. And as she did so, her worldview began to expand. Instead of caring the most about the detail, she actually came to care more about the bigger picture. She never lost her interest in core pieces of the details, but she found that she could move back and forth between them more easily. Asking different questions changed not only what she said, but what she thought, and how she saw the world.

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