The value isn’t in the order it imposes, but in the inquiry it elicits.
The transformations organizations have to make in this digital age have greatly increased their perceived levels of uncertainty. We’re in a period of change where people not only feel they don’t know the right answers, they aren’t even confident they are asking the right questions. So, the first job is helping teams get to the better questions that allow them to get to grips with the problem they need to solve. How do you get people thinking outside their current frame of reference, and seeing a problem space with new eyes? It turns out, based on our experience, just presenting people with a logical framework that is new to them dramatically changes the questions they ask.
Drucker Forum 2021
In teaching a recent executive education session at MIT, we made a discovery when a small change we decided to make delivered a surprising result.
Context and questions
We two have long been interested in questions, and especially how leaders arrive at the right ones for their organizations. It’s a topic that HBR has covered well, from Peter Drucker’s classic works to the recent “Surprising Power of Questions” article by Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie John. As part of this belief in the power of inquiry, we like to teach people a quick exercise Hal developed called the Question Burst, which is essentially brainstorming, but with a twist: the method is to throw out lots of possible questions to ask about a problem or decision rather than different ideas for solutions.
The session where we made our discovery was not about questioning skills per se. It was a new course focused on strategies for navigating difficult transitions – leading people (and oneself) through digital transformations, pandemics, and other large-scale changes in workplaces. In it we present what we think is a clarifying framework to help people focus on the components of the challenge. Without going into detail, it shows there are three arcs of change involved— acquiring new capabilities, dealing with emotional responses, and rethinking the roles people play in social groups. The first is obvious, but few people consciously think about the other strands.
This came when we changed the agenda slightly. From the outset, we had known we wanted to introduce the Question Burst exercise at the beginning. Beyond putting a useful tool in their toolkits, it’s energizing and a great ice-breaker. And typically in a two-day course Hal will include a second QB toward the end, to reinforce the practice and give a boost to the group’s energy level. Now, however, thanks to our reshuffling of the elements we wanted to teach, the presentation and discussion of our new framework fell right between two Question Bursts.
When we looked at the questions generated in those two quick exercises, it was like night and day. The whiteboard for the second one made clear the extent to which exposure to an unfamiliar framework affected the questions forming in people’s minds.
Suddenly we were struck by one of those why-did-we-never-see-this revelations: This is why a new framework can be so valuable.
We think of frameworks as explanatory, but their most powerful effect is that they’re engaging.
By framing a problem-space they make it easier to enter, and prompt more questions than they provide answers. They dangle half-completed puzzles in front of intellects evolved for problem-solving. They are magnets for active minds.
Maybe this is something you have already discovered for yourself. Maybe it’s obvious. But have you thought about the implications?
Here are two. First, it means that the best reason to expose your team to a new framework is to get them asking different questions. It’s the brilliant question raised by one of your colleagues that will unlock some new value for the organization. The framework is a way of eliciting that. Second, if you aren’t periodically presenting fresh frameworks to a team—alternative ways of framing challenges you collectively face—you are probably constraining its creativity. Your people may be stuck on wrong or too-narrow or outdated questions.
You should periodically expose your team to a new framework to prompt different questions, as a means of increasing your chances of arriving at a breakthrough solution. But also take a moment to underscore the bigger point—that frameworks themselves should always be questioned.
To recognize their extraordinary power to prompt questioning is also to recognize their potential to constrain questioning. In our case, for example, what if the truth about navigating transitions is that there is also some fourth arc of adjustment that we have not recognized? Presenting a framework that ignores it would make it less likely that it would come up in a class discussion or coaching session.
Understand that double-edged power and you’ll use frameworks more productively—and help your people ask the right questions to solve the problems of the future.
About the authors:
Hal Gregersen (@halgregersen) is a senior lecturer in leadership and innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management, author of Questions Are the Answer (Harper Business, 2018) and co-author of The Innovator’s DNA (Harvard Business Review Press, 2019. Roger Lehman is a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, an emeritus senior affiliate professor at INSEAD, and co-author of Return on Experience (ORO Editions, 2021).
This article is one in the “shape the debate” series relating to the 13th Global Peter Drucker Forum, under the theme “The Human Imperative” on November 10 + 17 (digital) and 18 + 19 (in person), 2021.