Who Gets to Pose the Question?

Last week, my friend and colleague Michael Reidy shared a powerful insight with me. I had just completed an overview of the Unstuck Minds Method at an Interaction Associates gathering. During the overview I showed a slide contrasting questions asked by leaders before applying the Unstuck Minds method (left-hand column in the table below) and the corresponding reframed questions developed during various workshops over the last couple of years (right-hand column in the table below).

The left hand column lists questions the leaders started with, questions about situations where the leaders felt stuck. The premise behind the Unstuck Minds Method is that leaders, teams and organizations can get stuck simply by pursuing a flawed question. We refer to such questions as “Quicksand Questions.” By contrast, the questions in the right-hand column help us move forward in ways we haven’t considered. We call questions that allow for novel options, “Unstuck Minds Questions.”

Before I share with you what Michael saw, what do you notice about the difference between the Quicksand Questions and the Unstuck Minds Questions?

Michael pointed out that the questions on the left are asked from a position of power and authority. The people asking the questions on the left see progress as possible only when others are persuaded to change. By contrast, the questions on the right support the needs of those who lack formal authority, but without whom we can’t make sustainable progress.

Michael’s insight got me thinking about the role of power and control when it comes to posing questions. You need only watch a congressional hearing to see how status differences play out between the questioners and the questioned. It’s not just formal or political inquiry that introduces a power dynamic. Even the most innocent and sincere questioner can intentionally or unintentionally direct an interaction’s focus. Consider for example, the insatiable curiosity of young children.

Four-year-olds (and occasional precocious three-year-olds) ask a lot of questions. We talk about the power of the “beginner’s mind” or the curiosity of children who often pose the most interesting questions because they haven’t learned to limit their thinking by what makes sense (Have a look at the clip, “How Does Life Live?”).

We assume that the questions of children are motivated by pure curiosity. I’ve begun to wonder whether something else might also be going on. Imagine how empowering it must feel to suddenly be controlling interactions with adults. The four-year-olds who have been in the role of responders even before they had language suddenly have adults following their lead. The child poses a barrage of questions and the adults comply with responses.

The questions people ask about the situations they want to change reveal a lot about what they are thinking and feeling. Asking better questions may not simply improve the quality of our thinking. Asking better questions may reveal and diminish the hidden power dynamics keeping us stuck.

Four Superpowers you need to Avoid Misdirection

Here’s the situation…

For nearly 50 years, Interaction Associates has been delivering workshops, facilitating meetings and consulting to individuals, teams and organizations to improve the way people lead, plan and collaborate to get work done. Until recently we conducted our work in various rooms around the world where people had gathered to learn, connect and solve problems. In the last few years, many of our clients have told us that they no longer intend to bring people together for learning experiences. Instead, they want to bring the learning to their employees through web-enabled collaboration platforms like WebEx® Zoom® and Adobe Connect®.

How do we re-design our programs so they can be delivered virtually?

If you’re among the nearly dozen subscribers to the UnstuckMinds Blog, you should know that simply answering the question above is like diving headfirst into quicksand. First, the question ignores the adaptive challenge faced by our veteran consultants being asked to facilitate virtually. I have previously written about the emotional impact of meeting our client’s requests to conduct virtual training. Secondly, the question contains two of the question traps I’ve written about: The question includes a veiled solution and is framed too narrowly.

I used the example of re-designing for virtual learning at a recent workshop to illustrate how the way we frame our questions can misdirect us. The purpose of the workshop was to teach leaders how to ask better questions using the Unstuck Minds Method. When I applied the method to transform the challenge into a better question, I developed an insight into an aspect of the situation we have not been paying attention to – more on that in a moment.

The Unstuck Minds Method synthesizes four well-researched thinking systems: strategic thinking, systems thinking, social network analysis and design thinking; it’s like the Justice League of thinking systems. Each dimension of the method applies a corresponding thinking system in pursuit of new information, new insights and new options. Each thinking system brings its corresponding “superpower” to rescue us when we get stuck.

The dimensions are represented as compass points to reinforce the idea that when we’re unsuccessfully dealing with a challenge, it’s often our orientation to our problem that is preventing us from getting unstuck.


Dimension Thinking System Superpower
Contextual Inquiry Strategic Thinking Reduce the risk of missing something important
Critical Inquiry Systems Thinking Avoid solving the wrong problem
Collaborative Inquiry      Social Network Analysis      Make it easier for people to take concerted action  
Creative Inquiry Design Thinking Increase the novelty of our options

Using the Unstuck Minds Method on the example of virtual training that I brought to the workshop led me to a useful insight. Face-to-face leadership development workshops meet two distinct kinds of needs, a “connection” need and a “development” need. Technology opens up options for meeting the development need, but often at the expense of the connection need. Bringing people together for traditional classroom learning experiences is not just about the transfer of knowledge, skills and tools. Organizations benefit from the cross-boundary exchange of ideas and the strengthening of social networks when diverse groups share an experience together.

With respect to the development need, technology overcomes one of the most persistent disadvantages of traditional classroom learning experiences. Those of us who facilitate development workshops can never be certain that what people learn in the classroom will translate into behavior change on the job. Technology makes it possible to equip leaders with the tools and skills they need without taking them “offline” to learn them. For example, before I conduct an important and potentially contentious meeting, I’d love to access a checklist and a video on my smart device and maybe schedule quick FaceTime interaction with a coach rather than find the relevant tools in the participant manual gathering dust on my bookshelf.

When you tease apart the connection need from the development need, you end up with two different questions. Instead of asking, “How do we re-design our programs so they can be delivered virtually?” We could be asking:

  1. How might we help out clients create transformative experiences that enhance and sustain cross-boundary collaboration?
  2. How might we help leaders access tools and expertise when they need it most?

Organizational Quicksand, Part 2: Getting Unstuck

Last week’s blog post introduced differences in the way organizations turn thinking into action. I organized the distinctions by contrasting two attributes of an organization’s culture: The organization’s tolerance for ambiguity and the organization’s preferred influence style. In this post, I want to flesh out the distinctions a bit more and then consider how becoming attentive to your preferred mode of turning thinking into action can help you get unstuck.

The mode of turning thinking into action characterized by a low tolerance for ambiguity and a preference for influence by persuasion, I call “operate” mode. Operate mode moves to action quickly and discussions often feel like competitive sales pitches. Operate mode eschews process and structure. Rule following is seen as time consuming. Operate mode has a bias for trusting the judgment of a passionate, forceful leader who will bend the future to his or her will. Operate mode sees little value in taking the time to build consensus through processes that tap into the organization’s collective wisdom. When in operate mode, introducing nuanced distinctions among options will be judged as unproductive “navel gazing.”

Operate mode serves an organization well when it produces something customer’s value. As long as there is a market for an operate mode organization’s products and services, moving fast and selling hard works. When the value proposition changes because customers’ needs have evolved, operate mode can get an organization stuck.

The mode of turning thinking into action characterized by a low tolerance for ambiguity and a preference for influence by alignment, I call “regulate” mode. Regulate mode is methodical and consistent. Discussions in regulate mode feel formal and predictable. Regulate mode places a high premium on years of experience in the company. If a process or methodology doesn’t dictate how best to handle a situation, the organization will follow a leader who has dealt with the situation in the past. In regulate mode, people want information before they act. In regulate mode, influence takes the form of presentations with a lot of detail about what is happening and how it will happen. New ideas don’t get surfaced casually when in regulate mode. One needs to prepare carefully before suggesting something new, provide evidence that the idea is workable and a business case that demonstrates the idea is worthwhile.

Regulate mode serves an organization well when the customer value proposition includes risk mitigation. As long as a regulate mode business is seen as a trustworthy option, customers will pay a premium for its products and services. When innovations provide customers with faster or cheaper yet equally good alternatives, regulate mode can get an organization stuck.

The mode of turning thinking into action characterized by a high tolerance for ambiguity and a preference for influence by persuasion, I call “debate” mode. In debate mode, skill, expertise and intellect are highly valued. Discussions in debate mode feel stimulating to those who want a rigorous exploration of a topic. Taking action in debate mode feels less important than considering every angle. Authority in debate mode is correlated with expertise. Debate mode embraces ambiguity because it allows every situation to be analyzed and litigated anew.

Debate mode serves an organization well when the customer value proposition is based on superior product quality or service excellence. As long as minor adjustments or extensions to existing products and services continue to be seen as valuable, there will be customers for debate mode businesses. When new market needs require agile responses, debate mode can get an organization stuck.

The mode of turning thinking into action characterized by high tolerance for ambiguity and a preference for influence by alignment, I call “relate” mode. In relate mode, collaboration is highly valued. Discussions are characterized by a desire for shared understanding; leaders seek alternative points of view and include people with diverse backgrounds and beliefs. Opportunities to act emerge when something looks interesting. In relate mode, people put their trust in their colleagues’ ability to marshal resources to get the job done. Because relate mode requires empathy and curiosity, relate mode organizations have long standing affiliations with customers, clients and other strategic partners along their supply chain.

Relate mode serves an organization well when customer loyalty is paramount. As long as customers and business partners value their relationship with the organization, the relate mode business will be presented with new opportunities. When customers and business partners retire, change jobs or otherwise reorient their priorities, relate mode can get an organization stuck.

When your thinking to action mode becomes a trap

Like many overused skills, your organization’s default thinking to action mode can turn counterproductive when you fail to notice that the usual response to challenging situations fails to make things better. For example, if you prefer to work in operate mode and your customers have become disenchanted with your offer, thinking up new ways to persuade your customer to make a purchase signifies being caught in a thinking to action trap.

The Unstuck Minds Compass™ is comprised of four strategies for changing the way you think with others about persistent problem or daunting opportunities. The strategies introduce questions about your situation that you may neglect to ask if you have been trapped by your preferred mode.

  1. Contextual inquiry helps a stuck team zoom out by introducing questions about what is changing in the environment.
  2. Critical inquiry helps a stuck team zoom in by introducing questions about interrelationships within an organizational system.
  3. Collaborative inquiry helps a stuck team by directing their attention to informal social networks and the thoughts and feelings of diverse stakeholders.
  4. Creative inquiry helps a stuck team by questioning assumptions and focusing attention on insights about unmet needs.

Each strategy provides a helping hand when you notice that the usual mode of turning thinking into action has started to feel like being mired in quicksand.

For organizations stuck in operate mode, collaborative inquiry comes to the rescue by providing missing perspectives. To get unstuck, operate mode leaders will have to learn how to be influenced by what they hear when talking with stakeholders and they will need to develop the capacity to remain open to additional input even if it means postponing action.

For organizations stuck in regulate mode, creative inquiry comes to the rescue by providing novel options. To get unstuck, regulate mode leaders will have to get comfortable letting go of the need to see a business case for every idea someone wants to raise. Regulate mode teams will need to spend time openly questioning the assumptions behind existing routines and methods.

For organizations stuck in debate mode, contextual inquiry comes to the rescue by providing a way to prioritize the big picture over getting all the details right. To get unstuck, debate mode stakeholders will have to learn how to question whether settling a point of contention or getting additional input will make a meaningful difference in terms of choosing a course of action.

For organizations stuck in relate mode, critical inquiry comes to the rescue by providing a way to set standards for objectively evaluating opportunities. To get unstuck, relate mode teams will have to learn how to say, “no” even when something looks interesting. To get unstuck, relate mode leaders need to analyze options to determine what makes the most sense for the future and then invest in executing on the strategy better than anyone else.