Answers are Truly no Better than Questions

22 Nov 2014 in Consulting, Design, Design Principles, Education

Or stated more clearly -- the answers you have are limited to the quality of the questions you asked.

This is a way bigger deal than we think.

You see… Our culture, our institutions, and our educational system all teach us that it’s very important to have the right answers. The people with the right answers are the powerful ones.

Well, there’s a big hitch in that equation. Having the right answers to stupid questions is the same as having stupid answers.

On the whole, it seems to me that our bar is set pretty low on the quality of questions. You certainly shouldn’t question authority, or tradition, or science, or the establishment, or your elders, or your superiors, etc., etc…

Some of us have problems constraining our thinking to boxes of any size or shape no matter whose boxes they are. We have learned that asking unexpected questions is generally unwelcomed behavior. There are things that it is okay to question. And leaders are prepared with hefty and powerful-sounding answers to those questions.

But there are other kinds of questions that shake up people's sense of reality. Questions that challenge deep and underlying assumptions we take for granted. Those kinds of questions tend to be awkward and uncomfortable because we don’t like hanging out in the unknown for very long. We rush back to the known and predictable like the folds of a mother’s skirt - safe, soft, warm and comforting.

Interestingly, although I have certainly done my share of offending people with what I've had the audacity to question, it turns out, that this kind of questioning has largely been at the source of the how I’ve made my living for the last 25 years.  It has also been one of the skills hardest to replace in my organizations and hardest to train others to be really good at.

As a consultant, the core value I provide is be able to step into a setting and ask the right questions to see the nature of an organization’s limitations, problems or dysfunctions and discover not only where they’re planning or hoping to get to, but what kind of solution or plan they could actually fulfill on.

It seems to me like consultants that come in with prefabricated diagnoses and turnkey solutions are really just salespeople selling a product. For me, there is something really sacred about seeing the unique personality and configuration of an organization to perceive what they most need and a realistic path for them to navigate toward changes they can sustain. And better yet, a course that will establish a trajectory that will take them places beyond their current imaginings without ongoing assistance from me or other consultants.

In fact, the salespeople masquerading as consultants are EXACTLY like our mainstream educational system, which operates like this: “We want to get every child to a particular set of capacities upon graduation. Some will be more successful than others at reaching that bar, and there are some that may need some special education attention and won’t quite make it. But surely that’s because they just aren’t equipped, aren’t bright enough, and that’s just a fact of life we have to accept.”

Don’t question if those “less successful” kids might have some completely different expression that they could be outrageously successful at. Certainly don’t question whether every child might have radically different goals they want to reach and should be supported in reaching. And don’t you dare question whether the prescribed capacity set expired about a century ago, or was really just a thin, false veneer on an agenda to have people become “sheeple” so they can be easily manipulated and live the rest of their lives being told what to do.

Don’t question who should be in charge of a child’s education. Clearly we should never think the child might be the best one for that job!

I'm not saying that teachers don't mean well -- I'm sure most consultants with prefabricated product do too, but it just feels to me like there's so much more possible in asking better and better questions, than on settling on some old set of answers to somebody else's questions. I've experienced the freedom of being able to ask my own, and I wish for all who want it to have it too.

[... but back to unimaginably powerful trajectories...]

You know that old Lao Tzu quote? "A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves."  

I believe this is pointing to exactly the kind of leader (or consultant as the case may be) who can help clarify where people want to go, help eliminate the impediments to getting there, help establish a dynamic and momentum that will get them there, and then disappear. Because it make all the difference in the world for people to get themselves where they want to go. The sense of accomplishment, fulfillment and empowerment to do it again rests on this factor. It can't be about needing to find the right consultant when they want to do it again.

A really good consultant upgrades the fundamental capacities of a group, and ideally, gives that group the ability to pass along that upgrade to others. Isn't that what we're really shooting for? Surely, we're not just looking for job security for consultants by keeping people fragile, weak and disempowered.

I, for one, am not concerned about that kind of job security. I know that even if we upgraded everyone's capacities to fulfill their intentions, there would still be the next level of unimaginably powerful trajectories to uncover and set ourselves upon.

And that sounds like a game worth playing.