ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

November 1999


Boeing Flies High

Fostering Creativity: An Early Start


Large Ideas Expressed In Small Amounts
by Peter Block


Brief Cases

Diary of a Shutdown

Views for a Change



Large Ideas Expressed in Small Moments
by Peter Block

Despite our infatuation with electronic substitutes, we still attend a lot of meetings. Lacking a job of any consequence, the ones I attend are usually intended to educate, align, enroll and transform people. It continues to amaze me that most of these meetings are structured in a way that limits their effectiveness.

The meetings I attend are either public events where people from different companies come together to learn and network, or they take place within an organization that is trying to transform its culture or change its way of doing business.

What disturbs me about these meetings is, that they are still designed with the same two questions in mind: who is going to speak and what are they going to say? Even if the avowed purpose of the meeting is to build community, empowerment, participation and accountability into the world, the question remains: "Who is going to speak?" and "What are they going to say?" As long as these remain the critical questions, we are still designing experiences for the sake of the teacher, the leader and the trainer.

We hold on to the belief that change happens as a result of leaders' actions rather than as a result of engagement and grass roots accountability. In our efforts to transform our organizations we tend to over-focus on the "larger" questions of strategy and scale. We want to know how to impact the greatest number of people in the smallest amount of time. We talk about large system change. We plot a sequence of events that build the business case for change and involves top management in supporting the change.

We struggle with ways to enroll people in the change and achieve some alignment in goals and values. We revise the reward system to reinforce the change and design training to build the skills for change. And then we schedule events to launch, roll out and sustain the effort.

The questions of how are we going to run the meeting, in what kind of room, with what kind of evaluation, are treated as the "smaller" questions. They become a later consideration, literally an afterthought.

I want to advocate reversing what we call the "larger" and the "smaller" questions. The seemingly detailed concerns of how we engage the audience, in what kind of room, evaluated by what kind of questions may have more to do with transforming a culture, than the best strategy, structure and clear, compelling presentation. Transformation is as much a shift in consciousness, a shift in feeling, a change in relationship, as it is a shift in thinking and practices. When we meet for learning, who speaks and what they say makes a difference. We do need to be open to new thinking, but it should not dominate our planning. But it does. Most learning events still string a list of speakers, and use questions and answer periods as a way of involving participants. As a speaker, people who plan the event ask me three questions: when will I arrive, what kind of microphone do I want and will I be using flipcharts, slides, overheads or video?

What I wish is for planning people to ask me three different questions; (1)How am I going to engage the audience? (2)What kind of room would be appropriate for our purpose? and (3)How are we going to assess how it is going? These should be the "larger" questions of how we come together to learn and evoke change. Get these right and who speaks and what they say might be brought back into perspective.

Here are thoughts about the importance of questions in creating serious engagement. Next column I will talk about the power of the room and how to change our thinking about assessment.

The Power of the Question.
We engage people more through the questions we ask than through the answers we offer. We bring people together, fundamentally, to be faced with important questions. What we need to understand is how the construction of a question makes a difference. A good question has some of these properties:

-There is no one or clear answer. Each person has their own answer and each is right. The question highlights the complexity and paradoxical nature of change. It invites a diagnostic or inquiring stance rather than problem-solving stance.

-The question is personal. Through the question, we ask people to look at themselves - to disclose a part of themselves that is not part of normal workplace discourse. Learning quickens when we are vulnerable with each other and the question should invite this.

-The question carries the implication of individual accountability. It communicates that we are each responsible for creating the situation we are in. We are each, conscious or not, actively sustaining the existing culture and whatever future happens will carry our fingerprints.

Here are some questions that have these qualities:

· What crossroads face you at this point in your work/life?

· What do you personally want from the people in your group and what do they want from you?

· What has been your contribution to creating the difficulties facing the unit or the organization?

· What are the payoffs for operating the way we currently do?

· What gifts exist around this circle and in what ways have people brought value to you this day?

Each of these is hard to answer, takes some courage to state honestly and is also hard to defend against. They also carry the message that everyone is guilty ( a good means you are living your life ) and everyone is also an instrument of hope. The questions carry the belief that the struggle is the solution, that the dialogue, embodied by the questions we speak to, may be the point and the true means of our life shifting.

A friend and colleague, Cliff Bolster, wisely suggests that when we come together, we should call it a conversation instead of a meeting. This makes the detail of how we talk to each other important. Confronting difficult questions and doing it openly with others that we work or learn with brings us emotionally into the room far more directly than who the speaker is and what they have to say.

Join the search for questions that are hard to defend against. Try the above, invent some of your own. Make the conversation the purpose of our gathering and by doing so our institutional intent of involvement and personal accountability is enacted in the design of each event.

November '99 News for a Change | Email Editor
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