Principle 3: Questions before answers

shutterstock_142135432I like the Radio 4 series, The Public Philosopher.

Each episode takes a controversial issue (e.g. welfare, rape crime, morality and the state) and features Michael Sandel, a Harvard academic, in an auditorium. What makes the programme so enjoyable is the story-like unfolding of the plot as he asks members of the large audience questions on the topic.

He makes comments and injects his knowledge into the arena but the programme centres on the answers that audience members give to his questions and the discussion and debate that this then sparks. The to and fro of the questions and answers reveal new and valuable dimensions to the issues under scrutiny. It’s an illuminating podcast to listen to.

Most strategic organisational issues benefit from a similar approach.  These issues are many sided, complex and with undesirable trade-offs or dilemmas and little immediate clarity as to the best answers. Yes – new data is important for choosing the best way forward. But before any of this the key is to find the right questions to answer.

The power of questions

Good questions have an unerring ability to spark engagement, reflection and discussion. They provoke thought and can change minds in a matter of minutes as they excite emotion in the anticipation of discovery.

No wonder that they are at the heart of good education – with many Law and Business Schools using the Socratic method of questioning as the basis for lectures and case analyses.

They are also at the heart of the third principle for leading wholehearted change: to lead with questions rather than answers. Leaders use questions as a key tool for wholehearted change. Indeed they are often the tool that helps people perceive the gap (see last post).

Too often, our image of the effective leader is the macho all-knowing Hollywood hero – the invulnerable character with fantastic judgment and bold moves. A guy with all the answers. I guess, if they existed, these characters would be marvellous but they don’t! Reality is real people who have to deal with other real people, bringing their limited knowledge, talents and emotional issues into a complex situation with other multidimensional people, challenges and lots of baggage.

Yet too often we want to lead with answers.

In reality, to generate change the most effective leaders provide people with the best questions not the best answers. They lead with the questions that challenge people to produce answers. Relevant to the ‘why’. Self-evidently important. A challenge to the status quo.

Their questions engage – emotionally and intellectually. These ‘pull’ people to really look at the most important issues and start to work at them. Rarely is a crisis so visible that the questions are obvious to all upfront. A leader with the right questions helps people to see the crisis and positively engage with it and with urgency. Only then do people begin to themselves see the need for change and only then do answers become important.

Leaders use questions

Leaders therefore should:

1 Identify the agenda on which the organisation needs to work

Good questions set an agenda. As Einstein is reputed to have said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solution.” The key is for leaders to adopt a questioning approach and uncover which questions need answers.

How do we penetrate this target market?

Why have we had no significant new product in the last 5 years?

What would a digitally enabled organisation look like?

How can we halve our environmental footprint whilst doubling our business?

Why is inter-function co-operation so poor?

Questions set the territory for exploration and express the challenge. Leaders’ need to keep ahead of their teams in understanding the key questions. The right questions are the right ones even when there are not obvious answers. Too often leaders can be like the proverbial drunk looking for their lost keys under a lamppost because there is light there rather than because it is the right place to look.

Leaders focus on identifying the most important areas and work out the key questions here.

2 Work up questions that unlock and engage people on the key issues

For wholehearted change it is vital to engage people emotionally. Questions are a great way to do this, especially when they are asked  with the full expectation of getting an answer. If done well, the question and the expectation empower and engage.

Questions help to uncover the kind of gap discussed in the last post – they help to flesh it out, and by engaging people and building the communication around it they start to build a common language and understanding of it. Where leaders can keep a measured focus on the gap through posing questions they can build the right level of energy and tension to promote innovation and change.

An interesting recent book, A More Beautiful Question, by Warren Berger illustrates the power and significance of questions in doing this and highlights how this is only increasing in importance as information floods our environment. As this happens it becomes too difficult for one person to carry all the answers. Good questions becomes even more important.

3 Use questions to press people to take on their own responsibility

Questions also help to avoid the sloping shoulders that challenges can bring, pressing people to pick up their responsibilities. They help to pass the ‘gap’ around with the expectation that each must play their part in closing it.

Too often leaders, especially community leaders, act as ‘rescuers’ to sort out the issues and problems for their teams. This deprives people of fulfilling their responsibility, contributing their understanding and ideas and undermines their commitment. It ‘robs them of their development opportunity’ as a friend of mine expresses it. Leading with questions works against this risk.

Well formed questions hold people to account in a positive way – by expressing your confidence in their expertise, ability and desire to come up with ways forward … and expecting them to work out the answers! It coaches them to solve their own problems.

How might this look?

How you might work on this…

  • Examine how much and how well you currently use questions in discussions with your team. Good questions sometimes need working at. Consider an area of concern and think specifically about what initial questions need answers
  • When talking with people, ask them what questions they have and are working on in their areas of responsibility
  • In meetings, openly consider what are the key questions and share potential answers without offering these as ‘the way we will go’ but challenging others to come up with better answers
  •  In 1:1’s with your team specifically emphasise questions and challenge for answers
  • Strategy development is very effectively question driven and it can be used as a cascading tool to develop a robust and engaging strategy. Start the leadership team off by challenging them to consider what are the most important questions facing the organisation


Asking good questions is hard and not just in the thinking of them.  It needs a shift in our mindset and a degree of confidence in the power of questions so that we let go of the need to control outcomes directly; to prove how smart we are (to ourself often) because we have the answer;  to under-leverage the insight and expertise of those around us and to deny them their opportunity to develop further.

Leaders seeking wholehearted change make maximum use of questions to raise tension and engage people before they start to share any answers that they might have.

Principle 1 provides forward momentum – the wind in the sails that is needed to change – and a direction to press towards.

Principle 2 sparks the need and the urgency. It acts to pull people forward into change. If people are clear and committed to a purpose then the gap acts as a moral imperative. It performs just like a vacuum in nature. People seek to resolve the tension.

This principle is a way of connecting people with these effectively.



Principle 2: Find the gap (or dissatisfaction)

shutterstock_61395928I run –  not long distances but quite regularly, typically twice a week. My standard run is precisely 5k (as measured by and combines road running with a loop through a park. I do have an extended version which adds another 2k to this if I feel like it – then I disappear more completely into the countryside.

Do I think my running is going well?

Is it a good thing or a bad thing? (my wife tells me that running is not good for your knees)

Do I need to change what I am doing?

It depends.

It depends crucially on why I run. (This is why the first principle is such an important starting point in change.) Only if you understand why I run do you stand a chance of understanding if it is really fulfilling its purpose and hence if I need to change. This then is the second principle for wholehearted change – find the gap or, as I have heard it described, ‘the dissatisfaction’ with where you are. Identifying and expressing this dissatisfaction is vital in helping people to see the need to move.

The gap

The gap is what lies between what is the best fulfilment of our purposes and where we are.

You might think that identifying this gap depends on clear visioning. This helps but, as Robert Fritz (a co-conspirator of Peter Senge) highlights in his book, ‘The Path of Least Resistance’, the bigger difficulty is often to see our present reality. The size and nature of the gap that change needs to close can be difficult to spot.

We fool ourselves about where we are. We like reasons and excuses. We prefer to alter our perceptions rather than change an uncomfortable reality. We readily deceive ourselves, even as organisations, about how well we are doing.

A key task in creating wholehearted change is to help people to see this gap clearly. This needs creativity and challenge.

After all without a problem no-one has a need for a solution.

The leaders’ role

The leaders’ role is critical if the gap is to be understood well and in a timely fashion. Leaders need to mine for the gap and help map its shape and express it powerfully.

The gap needs to be painted in full colour. I like mono-causal explanations and answers, they make for good headlines and easy thinking. Unfortunately they are most often wrong. A gap has to be examined from different angles and calibrated if it is to be really understood. Only then can the nature of change be well understood and be assuredly beneficial.

It might be to do with poor execution, a lack of focus or energy, weak outcomes, misunderstood needs, or downright failure.

The gap can be positive (there is an opportunity for us to grow significantly if we move quickly…) or negative (our margins will be halved unless we address this challenge…) .In practice, it helps for it to be both, because different people take to different messages and each group needs it expressed in ways that are relevant to them.

This encourages an approach that:

1. Reexamines the strategy

This may be captured in writing or simply in the priorities and action of the leadership team. Either way gaining clarity on the strategy that the organisation is following and the results that it is producing – especially in relation to its external environment (competitors, customers, stakeholders etc) is a great place to start to compare reality with purpose and desire. Where are the gaps? What have we agreed that is important are we not making progress with? Where is reality pinching?

2. Draws on multiple sources

There are many powerful sources that can help challenge perceptions. Leaders should use multiple sources of input – internal, external, quantitative, qualitative, financial, illustrative and statistical. The variety is important to unlock perceptions and stimulate the creativity to set new goals. I have seen a face-to-face discussion with a key customer executive expose the enormous gaps in the perceptions of how well this customer was being served. In another instance a new graphic of market share (aka a ‘killer chart’) opened people’s eyes to the need to change market strategy. It can be difficult to anticipate exactly what will open people’s eyes which is why variety is valuable.

Other powerful inputs include ‘voice of the customer’ exercises, staff surveys, key stakeholder interviews, discussions of values, financial and market analyses, and scenario based workshops (to name but a few).

Sometimes the most surprising data point unlocks sight for the blind.

3. Involve people in finding the gap

There can be a tendency to do gap finding behind closed doors. After all, it’s strategic and sensitive. The truth can be painful. Yet finding gaps is a process of learning and for people to move forward wholeheartedly they need to learn. We all learn more easily when we are involved and engaged. Leaders seek ways to involve people in the process.

How might this look?

There are many ways to advance this kind of agenda…

  • Identify different topics with allied questions – by function or stakeholder group – and ask small groups of staff to examine them and come back with the data and issues that these raise
  • Work with people on ‘why are we here?’  to generate a ‘best version’ to aim for and then ask people to identify where they see shortfalls in what’s happening at the moment
  • Organise an ideas ‘jam’ that captures everyone’s input on areas to develop, issues to resolve, ideas or priorities
  • Benchmark with other organisations and use multi-function teams to do the reviews
  • Conduct detailed diagnostics in specific areas and then review the data and hypotheses with involved staff
  • Share your organisation’s ‘best version’ and invite ‘post it’ comments and ideas (in communal meeting places or online) inviting new goals and challenges
  • Use successive leadership meetings to identify and discuss the biggest challenges facing the organisation and to develop challenges that can be parcelled out to teams for solution development

The creative gap

As for my gap?

People run for many reasons. In my case I run for my health – both physical and psychological. I want to keep alert and relatively fit. I do not like gyms. I prefer exercise outside. I do not want to run marathons or go a lot faster. However, I need to be more consistent. For maximum psychological impact I need to run at particular times of the day rather than simply when I can fit it in. Similarly I need to run more consistently – at 2-day intervals.

These are my big gaps….and the music on my iPod needs changing. That is a small gap. Oh and I need new shoes (This blog has just cost me £72.26).


Principle 1 provides forward momentum – the wind in the sails that is needed to change – and a direction to press towards.

Principle 2 sparks the need and the urgency. It acts to pull people forward into change. If people are clear and committed to a purpose then the gap acts as a moral imperative. It performs just like a vacuum in nature. People seek to resolve the tension.


McKinsey highlights value of digital technology in helping change

Nice short article on this month which highlights the value that digital approaches can add to the responsiveness of organisations and the effectiveness of change initiatives. Takes a healthy broad view of what constitutes change management and focuses down on how it impacts behaviour.

Principle 1: Define your ‘why’


Think of the last important item that you bought and why.

For me it was a spiral cutter (I quite like cooking…). When I bought it I searched for a product that would match my needs (to cut vegetables into various forms of spiral, to be easy to clean, to be small enough to hide in a cupboard away from embarrassing comments…) and when I found it, which for those who are interested I did at one of my wife’s favourite shops, Lakeland, I bought it.

My life with vegetables in the kitchen changed (yes I know its sad). I now have healthy spaghetti, courgettes that don’t come in discs and sweet potato has become a versatile accompaniment. My eating habits have altered.

I did this without big Powerpoints, over attentive management, great scorecards or coercive job descriptions. The change flowed from an underlying desire to find healthier, tastier ways of eating …all of which seem to involve vegetables. The move to spiral shaped vegetables was a means to fulfilling better the rationale for what I eat.

This is an illustration of first principle for winning hearts and minds in change: Do not start with the change at all but  revisit your purpose for being there. Just as this underlies sustainable changes in our personal life it is similarly valuable in an organisational change.

Re-stoking the fires of intentionaility is a vital precursor to change, especially as we have such a tendency to lose our sense of ‘why’ we are here.

Why is a great place to start

Simon Sinek’s book and TED talk ‘Start with Why’ is a great exposition of the power of this principle in helping people to commit to change.  His ‘Golden Circle’ has at its heart the question ‘why?’. He illustrates this with his explanation of the way that Apple approaches business and a (fictional) marketing motivation that runs…

“With everything we do, we aim to challenge the status quo. We aim to think differently. Our products are user friendly, beautifully designed, and easy to use. We just happen to make …. Want to buy one?”

He contrasts this with the typical rationale for buying a product given by companies which focuses on the what: “We make great … They’re user friendly, beautifully designed, and easy to use. Want to buy one?”

Many companies, especially those with limited points of difference from competitors use this latter approach when talking to customers. As leaders, we too often do the same. We launch into changes with a focus on its features, challenges and benefits. We defend the change with a rationale for why it is good. We anticipate objections and look for wins and losses and in the process we fall straight into the trap of transacting with people and competing with their motivations, rather than leveraging the organisational reasons for being there to help them make the best decision.

It is a mistake.

The change buying cycle

Leading for hearts and minds is quite different. Change is really a buying cycle* (or even a buy-in cycle) and the starting point is the value that people seek in the context in which change is introduced.

It is easy to misinterpret Sinek’s insight and to think that to tackle ‘why’ is to focus on ‘why’ to make the change – but that is not the ‘why’. The ‘why’ is in the intentions and purposes which people bring into the situation from their context and position. It is much more strategic – much more about underlying organisational goals and purposes.

This has profound implications for organisations of all forms that want to develop a more adaptive culture and help staff to commit wholeheartedly to changes. It also generates three vital, foundational and powerful leadership tasks:

1. Develop intentionality

Organisations need to cultivate a clear ‘reason for being’ – an intentionality about why they exist.

‘Ah! A mission statement,’ you may say. But then maybe you have not read many of these anodyne paragraphs. Too often their relevance is to be taken from the fact that someone has to go and find it to be able to remember it. That is not what I have in mind. Intentionality is not the same as a strategy, nor is it fulfilled by any statement about shareholder value.

It is a clear sense of what the organisation adds to society and why it needs to be there.

To be real this must be well thought through and engaging. It must be real. It must become the touchstone for prioritisation in the organisation; a motivating factor in the branding of the business; a key factor in recruiting people; and a thread that runs through what gets done. It must live.

At the same time it will become the essential base against which any change must be shaped. In doing so the change becomes something that helps fulfil this purpose – just as a product is chosen because it fulfils the needs of the buyer.

2. Focus on the purpose of a role

The ‘reason for being’ must embrace the organisation (and the relevant part of it that the change is taking place in) and be big enough for everyone.  Additionally each individual needs a motivating purpose in their role or area. Why does it exist? What is so important about it? The purpose must be clear and important. The reasons become the rationale that drives performance and commitment to achievement in the role. It is the intrinsic reason why we do what we do. Promoting real reflection on this is a powerful engine for commitment. In the context of a clear organisational ‘why’, this helps produce something specific for each person.

3. Encourage the ‘best me’

The first two steps then set up an opportunity for leaders to encourage their teams to always reach for the best version of their roles. It sets a standard to worked towards that can be very helpful both for individuals and the organisation.

The rationale becomes the anchor to the definition of the ‘best me’ I can be, expressed in character and outcomes rather than features. It enables reflection on the best ways to realise often stretching or conflicting goals and it enables everyone to engage in positive questioning of their part in the organisation fulfilling its purpose in any and every area.

How might this look?

How might you actually work on this locally…

  • Encourage staff to watch the Simon Sinek TED video and discuss what they see as the organisation’s reason for being
  • Discuss what staff think of the ‘why’ of the organisation, emerging ideas, convictions and invite challenge (what do you think? what’s your view? How does your role fit in this?)
  • Orchestrate a process of challenge for activities, products or policies that do not live up to the purpose
  • Revisit mission and vision statements in the Leadership Team and bring them to life
  • Revise any staff review process to refocus on organisation and role purpose
  • Town hall style ‘jams’ for purpose and its implications on priorities

It is not that odd

Such activities are not really that odd. Variations of this happen in many organisations – sometimes in leadership away days, strategy sessions or planning events – often in the conversations that people have up and down the enterprise. They happen in large and small organisations.

Nor are such activities that new and they deliver real value. In September 1982, someone laced the brand leading US analgesic, Tylenol, with cyanide. This killed 7 people in Chicago. The manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, acted quickly and very publicly, recalling all retail stock of the brand (against the initial advice of the authorities). This was no small action for a product that was estimated to contribute 15-20% of its profit and to be growing rapidly in a $1bn+ market.

Its approach, an exemplar of effective crisis management, was driven by its corporate philosophy – ‘Our Credo” which the chairman, Jim Burke, has spent months rejuvenating in ‘Credo Challenge’ discussions up and down the corporation in the years before the incident. The speed and thoroughness of the response from withdrawal to subsequent triumphant reintroduction was orchestrated by the commitment to this purpose, their organisational ‘why’.

“It was our credo that prompted the decisions that enabled us to make the right early decisions that eventually led to the comeback phase,” said David R. Clare, the president of Johnson & Johnson at the time.


So before change, start reflecting on your organisation’s ‘why’.


*My favourite is Neil Rackham’s if you would like a good example


The keys to hearts and minds


This article follows on from my last one,  focusing especially on addressing the third challenge I mentioned: how to engage hearts and minds in change.

I spent a long time last year writing a book on how to handle change in church better. Clearly a specialist topic you may say! But, during the summer, I sat back to consider what all the research and energy that had been put into the book had to say for other organisations.



The uniqueness of organisations that are communities…

How special is the local church setting?

One of the most significant attributes of a local church is that it is a community of people who come together voluntarily. It is without the normal structures and incentives of a commercial or public organisation. In this sense it is like many other community groups – from golf clubs or some social enterprises to the National Trust (in its most inclusive sense) or political parties:

  • It comprises people who choose to involve themselves in a group for specific personal reasons
  • Personally chosen values and goals play a vital part in shaping involvement in the community
  • Structures are somewhat fluid, opaque and negotiable and not necessarily as important
  • Governance is by consent, because participation is voluntarily given
  • The tools of coercion are weak (no pay, no career route, limited sanctions and no dismissal!)

I like writing, and writing a book is a fascinating endeavour – part creative, part tedious. At its core it is a great challenge to hone concepts, thoughts and ideas to a sharp point. Writing has a precision that speaking can avoid and this demand fuels a creative edge.

I sat in front of a cappuccino in my local coffee shop considering the wider application of the content that I had been wrestling onto paper. Here, in this creative space,I realised what it was. I was grappling with the challenge of generating wholehearted commitment to change.

In church, as in many of these sort of community organisations, it is often impossible to realise the desired outcome of a change without the real commitment of everyone who is expected to participate.

This is especially true where we talking about ‘cultural’ attributes like:

  • the quality of the welcome (how are the cliques at your local golf club?),
  • the commitment to progressing the aims of the organisation (do you sometimes wonder why people have volunteered for your local group?), or
  • the difficulty in getting unattractive but essential tasks carried out (I notice that there were fewer party posters on lampposts in the last election).

Without wholeheartedness few of the most potentially desirable goals in these organisations will be reached, whatever the leaders’ rhetoric.

I realised that in many respects, I was summarising in the book how to lead change and carry people with you: how to build wholehearted commitment to a change.

…yet all organisations are really communities

However, after further reflection on the ‘unique’ qualities above, I realised that the list of points could just as readily be applied to commercial or public entities… or at least any that aspired to be high performing and innovative. Ideally people choose them because they resonate with their own values, talents and goals. Structures frequently change, and often do not operate as they seem. Governance is by consent: those organisations that focus on command and control do not move fast enough or effectively enough to compete well and grow. Tools for coercion are much weaker than some leaders think – especially if you want the whole person and not just their body to turn up for work!

Sadly many leaders and organisations simply don’t get this.

How do I know? Partly personal experience and partly data. In terms of data there is lots of evidence of the lack of employee engagement around the world. Performance is highly dependent upon engagement and in most organisations around the world engagement is a scare commodity.

In 2013 Gallup measured levels of engagement  in workplaces around the world and found that as few as 1 in every 8 workers could be described as engaged. In the UK it was 1 in 6. Most (over 6 in 10) were not engaged, and a quarter were actively disengaged. Other sources put the figures higher but most call out the same issue – hearts and minds are in the minority in the workplace.

Most people are coming into work without any drive to think about better ways of moving the organisation forward or new ways to tackle the most pressing obstacles they face. They are not experiencing the enjoyment of ‘flow’ in their work nor the satisfaction of feeling that they are serving higher goals in their lives.

When change comes along leaders whose mindset is more task focused, control focused and ‘my agenda’ focused, lead in such a way that it simply reinforces employee disengagement and cynicism. The very steps that they follow and their own interaction with staff disempower and disengage.

In a commercial and public world that is experiencing endemic, rapid and diverse types of change the failure to win hearts and minds is a big, big loss. Furthermore in such a situation, really effective leadership is intimately linked to the leadership of change. Effective change leadership is the order of the day, week and year.

In this respect the work that I had been concentrating on for the year was of a much wider significance than I had appreciated when I had started. I was looking at change in an environment where all the participants hearts needed to be engaged.

The big question…

This led me to a big question:

If you had to advise a leader how to lead change in a way that maximised the probability of generating real commitment, what would you say?

Some aspects of this question are captured in change management and adaptive change approaches especially speak into this space. Yet in all my research I had not seen it summarised succinctly anywhere. I knew parts of the answer, but I had never tried to distil it down.

With that in mind I tried to produce an answer on a single sheet of paper (or screen!). A set of principles that I might be able to remember and call to mind to shape actions in change programmes or in communication to leaders.

I started with five but after consultation with some colleagues the list grew to six. Still enough to sit comfortably on one side of A4. Are these a definitive list? I don’t know. I doubt it. But after a lot of thought I think that they, at the very least, provide a strong starting list… and one that it is possible to keep top of mind.

These will be the topics for my next 6 posts. In the meantime, try and answer the question for yourself…

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