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“It’s Our Job to Ask Questions”: Building a Culture of Inquiry

Doug Collins - Monday, October 09, 2017

After the publication of Great Question! I began running workshops around “building a culture of inquiry.” The workshops are designed to help people explore what it means to embrace a spirit of inquiry in meaningful ways within their organization and, ultimately, within themselves.

Great Question! and its predecessor, The Dirty Maple Flooring Company, spoke to the power behind convening a group of people to identify and pursue the critical questions facing the group. Great Question! serves as the “how to” complement to the story of how the leaders of the Dirty Maple Flooring Company pursued a culture of inquiry as the means of navigating the Digital Age which had arrived at their shore.

I began to introduce as part of the workshops an exercise by which participants could asses the health of their organization’s culture of inquiry. People value the opportunity to participate in and contribute to these types of gatherings. It’s human nature. These types of events become something of a disappointment if I do most the talking. The assessments serve as a means to this end.  

With feedback from the participants, the assessment as an exercise improved.

The assessment consists of seven (7) statements that participants score on a scale of 1 to 5. A score of “5” means that the person strongly agrees with the statement. A score of “1” means that the person strongly disagrees.

The seven (7) questions are as follows:

The people with whom I work most closely reserve time during the week to explore the critical question worth pursuing.

The people with whom I work most closely assign high value to questions that, if they were to pursue them together, might lead to authentic breakthroughs.

The people with whom I work most closely assign high value to their peers who help them define the critical question worth pursuing.

The people with whom I work most closely talk about the art and science of question formation: how best to get at the critical question worth pursuing.

The people with whom I work most closely have capitalized on an opportunity because they did, in hindsight, have a shared understanding of the critical question worth pursuing.

The people with whom I work most closely are mindful about posing questions, as opposed to making declarative statements, whilst pursuing innovation.

My company as a whole embraces a culture of inquiry as a means of building a culture of innovation.

After giving the participants time to reflect on the questions and assess their own circumstances, I then ask the group as a whole for perspective.

Who scored themselves highly? Who did not? Why?

The scores and the dialogue that follow interest me, always. Self-reflection and self-evaluation always lead to some new form of discovery.  

Over the course of a dozen or so workshops, I have heard participants make a couple common observations.

For those that score themselves highly, the consistent reason why comes down to leadership. The organization’s leadership wants the employee to continuously challenge the current way of doing things.

As one participant observed, “our company’s president says that if we are not asking questions, then we are not doing our jobs.”

Some organizations are by their nature based on inquiry. Participants who work for research firms, for example, invariably score themselves highly. As one participant observed, “it’s our job to ask questions.” Here the questions become the research hypothesis that may or may not lead to new products.

On the other hand, people who scored themselves poorly gave a number of reasons for their scores.

One common refrain: “we are too busy to ask questions, much less change things.” The participants cannot carve out the time. The lack of time to work on improvement is a source of frustration for the quality professionals that take the assessment, as they are of course in the business of helping the organization make the work better in some fashion.

The second common reason given: “the leadership team sees no value in inquiry and engagement.” The employees soldier on in constrained circumstances.

A culture of inquiry drives every transformative practice that organizations embrace to effect change. Agile. Design thinking. Lean. The business model canvas. Customer journey mapping. Whereas an overabundance of ideas can indicate a problem—a stoppage—with the organization’s practice of innovation management, a seeming overabundance of questions signifies organizational health: an engaged group of people expressing leadership by exploring all the possibilities that their work opens for the future.

If change is the order of the day, which it appears to be in an accelerating fashion, then inquiry becomes the pace setter event that determines the speed at which the organization advances.

How do you score?

Please drop me a line and let me know. 

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