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What’s Up

September 15, 2009

Listening to the questions people ask can tell you a lot about the creative health of an organization.  Healthy organizations value questioning and questions themselves apart from the answers they produce.  These organizations and their leaders know the kinds of questions people ask often reveal otherwise hidden preferences and perspectives.

In troubled organizations, people spend a lot of time asking, “What now?”  This question often reveals a deep-seated sense of frustration with the status quo often borne of repeated failure.  It’s akin to asking, “Why can’t we get things right?”  People who focus on this question are usually deeply dissatisfied and often feel disconnected from the organization and its mission.  This does not, however, mean they don’t care or that they’ve given up, just that they don’t believe continuing to what they’ve done before will get them where they want to go.

Organizations and individuals comfortable with the status quo and happy with their performance often ask, “What next?”  This question reflects confidence that the values and norms guiding the organization in the past have equipped it to deal effectively with the future, at least in the short-term.  This can lead to happy complacency, however.  The dominance of this question may suggest that people take their situation for granted and have stopped looking for opportunities to improve performance.  On the up side, it suggests people are looking for new opportunities to test their skills.

Really progressive organizations that value creativity spend their time asking, “What if?”  This question suggests a sense of restlessness and dissatisfaction.  Organizations and individuals that ask this question may not be unhappy with the status quo, but they often ask themselves whether it’s a fluke or something short of what they could have achieved had they only worked smarter or harder.  Excessive focus on this question can suggest excessive or even misplaced idealism.  It can also reflect deep-seated cynicism.  Either way, these questions force leaders to put extra effort into asking their own clarifying questions and emphasizing appreciative inquiry as a key to long-term success.

None of these questions on its own reflects dangerous or dysfunctional behavior.  Indeed, each question has its time and place in a well-functioning organization.  Mistakes and failure play an important part in learning.  Recognizing accomplishments and celebrating past performance play important roles in motivating people to seek new challenges.  And looking beyond experience and biases to explore new possibilities presents opportunities for achieving excellence.

Effective leaders encourage and acknowledge the inherent value of questions.  So, what’s up with your organization or team?

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