Patterns and Possibilities

The Power of Inquiry

I use the power of inquiry when I’m coaching my clients or when I need to help myself get unstuck. When you hold yourself longer in inquiry, something amazing happens-new connections appear, clarity becomes tractable.

I often do it in a one-on-one setting. And although, not as frequently with a sizeable crowd, I had the privilege of holding space in Agile Open Northwest 2020 in Seattle (before the pandemic hit our shores.) Received overwhelmingly positive feedback from seasoned practitioners and coaches.

One of my dear friends, Enrico Teotti, used his graphic recording superpowers to make a visual depiction of the event. I’ll use those below to walk you through the steps.

Just to set the stage, the practice and theory comes from Human Systems Dynamics. We believe that in a complex system answers have a short shelf-life but good questions can serve you forever. Questions that invite yes/no answers are ok. Powerful questions are better. And questions that are complexity-aware are best! An example of a complexity-aware question would be what are the differences you see in a particular issue? what is a normative truth in this sticky issue?

So, how would you go about trying this out with a friend or a colleague?

Think of a sticky issue – an issue that’s on your mind, something that keeps coming back, something that seems to be intractable.

Write three sentences describing, possibly unique, aspects of that issue. This part is self-reflection.

Now for the fun part. Present the three sentences to the listener (your friend or colleague, if you’re trying it out for the first time.) The listener won’t interrupt and will hold the questions for later.

When you’re done presenting the questions, you’ll go into listening-only mode. For the next 3-5 minutes (or longer), your friend will ask you as many questions to fill the time. It’s important that you don’t respond to any question, including clarifying questions. If it’s hard to stay silent, scribble notes on a paper. Finally, if you like, debrief on the experience. And if you’re learning together, swap roles and start over with your friend’s sticky issue.

It’s amazing what this simple structure can unlock. It’s as much of an art as it’s a science to ask the right questions. And you’ll get there with deliberate practice and tacit knowledge. Once you deepen this practice, you’ll come to appreciate what it offers and how it serves you in a rapidly changing world with adaptive actions. Inquiry is the answer!

Now what is one thing that you want to try from this practice? What sticky issue deserves your attention for a better future? What would you be your focus, yourself? Your family? Your work? Society at large?

I’d love to hear from you.

Patterns and Possibilities

Pattern Spotting Super Powers

A restless world requires a unique skill set than what we might be used to. One of those skills is the ability to spot patterns in a complex system. And yes, you can develop and hone that skill, like any other skill, with deliberate practice.

And this is an important distinction from the old way of consulting where the organization has to live up to someone else’s standards or checklists. Coaches who thrive in this world have a stronger sense of discovery. In interviews and workshops, I’m looking for patterns and how that presents the system. Standing in inquiry longer helps with better decisions on next wise actions.

One of my favorite stories to illustrate this example comes from Dr. Glenda Eoyang of HSD Institute. And it goes like this:

An agricultural institution had hired her to work with this team of general-purpose managers who were not getting along with each other. Their current jobs were not aligned with their schooling. And their unhealthy interactions were impeding work.

In a workshop setting, she asked them to list all the differences in the room. They talked about cars they drove, the sports team they like, married or single, etc. Folks found it lighthearted and were having a good time. Then one of them said, “We went to different campuses.” And the noise in the room dropped. Glenda realized that this was an important difference, so she asked about it. Most of the people in the room had gone to the state’s university. Some had gone to the Agricultural Business campus. While others had gone to the Agricultural Tech campus where they did farming and husbandry.

So, she invited them to split into groups in the room. Everyone who went to one campus on one side of the room, and the ones who went to the other campus on the other side of the room. Then she asked to share what they thought the other group said about them. The business folks said that they probably say that we are just fancy all-talk with no purpose or value. And more nasty things they knew the other side said about them. The farmhands said that the other group probably thinks of them as unwashed and uncultured. And unloaded more thoughts. In the middle of the naming of names, one of them said, “But if they didn’t do what they do, we couldn’t do what we do.” And that was the point at which they could settle into figuring out how to build on the contributions of both sides of the room and began to work like a team.

I love this story for many reasons, mainly because it resonates with my own experiences in coaching day-in and day-out. And that this is exactly how I influence and nurture positive change. And I believe that when we turn our judgement into curiosity, we can fresh ways to get unstuck and keep thriving.