Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Questions as Leadership Tools: Constructive Questions

Dear Managers and Leaders!

In my last three posts, I classified questions into the two broad categories of open and closed questions and then looked at a list of open questions to clarify a vision. I also looked at implicit and explicit questions to say that implicit questions can be dangerous for leaders and urged you to be as explicit as possible with your requests. Today I continue my journey into the world of questions as leadership tools by providing an analysis of constructive questions to help you find the right questions to move your team forward.

For a team to move forward and go beyond what they are usually producing, it needs to be able to get out of their normal ways of thinking about problems and shift their paradigm. As a leader of the group, you need to lead your people into doing this. You need to move them along the way of innovation.

Telling people exactly where you think they should go, or exactly how you think about a given situation may help, but it will generally not produce lasting effects or allow the team to actualize the thinking. A far more powerful leadership technique is to bring people to find their own solutions or shift their paradigm by themselves. Asking the right open questions allows a leader to do just that. It stirs the group in the right direction, but the group still finds its own answers, its own solutions.

According to the book “Savoir innover en √©quipe” from S√©bastien Beaulieu and Luc-Antoine Malo that I already discussed here in a previous post, there are three aspects that can be used to create constructive questions that will bring a team further:
  • Situation logical levels
  • Time
  • Perceptual positions or the position of the observer
There are 6 logical levels that can be used to look at all facets of a situation:
  • Environment – where and when, what is the context
  • Behaviour – what, which actions
  • Strategies – how, in which way, with which tools
  • Values and beliefs – why, according to which values
  • Identity – Who am I, how do I perceive myself
  • Purpose – For who, for what
Time means past, present, and future. You can play with time as you ask questions to your team to place them in different context and to make them understand and focus on the timeline of events. To move people on timeline, simply change the verb tense.

The perceptual positions are more subtle. The first position is what I see, how I look at the world. The second position is how you see me. The third position is how an observer would see us while we discuss. The forth position is how someone would look at me, you, and the observer. As you can see, there are different ways to look at a situation depending on who looks at it. There is what I see, what the other see, what the other thinks I see, what I think the other sees, what an observer thinks of our relationship, etc. There are multiple ways of looking into a problem depending on where you put the observer.

Now let’s look at a how you can use these three elements to create constructive questions that will move your team along. The first thing you can do is to mix and match time and the logical levels in the first position to ask your team things like the following:
  • What belief led me to think that way? - (past, values and beliefs)
  • For what, for whom do I act this way? What purpose does it serve? – (present, purpose)
  • What will I do to achieve that goal? - (future, strategies)
  • In which context will I make this presentation? Who will be part of the audience? - (future, environment)
  • What did I do to make that person cry? – (past – behaviour)
  • How will I feel if I took this leadership role? – (future, identity)
As you can see, there are multiple ways to mix time and the 6 logical levels in the first position.

Let’s now look at a few examples in the second position to give an idea of what this looks like.
  • Why did you do that? What was the purpose of this action? – (past, purpose)
  • What role do you think you will have in this situation? – (future, identity)
You can also place yourself in the second position to explore the impact you have on others.
  • Why does he think I’m doing that? What values does he think drive me in that direction? – (present, values and beliefs)
If you place yourself in position 3, then your question forces people to take a look at the entire system at play, but you are still part of the system. It is not about you or I in our relationship, but rather about our relationship itself. Here are two examples:
  • Why are we always fighting? – (present, behaviour)
  • What will be the essence of our team in five years? – (future, purpose)
In position 4, you observe the system and you are external to it. You look at it from a bird’s eye.
  • What position should that team have in the context of the entire enterprise? – (present, identity)
  • Why are they still fighting? – (present, behaviour)
As you can see, helping your team analyze their situation using constructive questions built around time, position of the observer, and the logical levels can help them advance to the next level of understanding. It can clarify their vision of the present and help them create a better future. Have you used similar questions in the past? Were they successful at engaging people in a constructive dialog and at looking into the future with clarity?

Until next time,
Remi Cote

PS: If you find these postings interesting and would like to learn more about what I can do for you and your team, then please visit www.innovachron.com or contact me directly at remi@innovachron.com.

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