A Think piece by Winston Sutherland – 25 April, 2020
“My mom washes the dishes before she puts them into the dishwasher, so what does the dishwasher do?” This has got to be one of the greatest questions ever. That’s a child’s question but it stops you in your tracks. And makes you say hmmm I hadn’t thought of that. To be honest, I used to wonder about that very question until I saw the advert and realized that I was not alone and that it’s ok to ask what is sometimes called a ‘silly’ question. I was relieved.
Now, before you rush off and Google to see the answer, here’s a health warning. Most of the answers I saw, to the dishwasher question, were about telling you that you do not need to do so which completely misses the point of the question. So, what is the point? The simple answer is that during this Covid experience, this collective global experience, we have a great opportunity to be, not experts giving advice, but curious children asking questions which open up great possibilities and answers. In this article I want to help us to reflect on how we lead and how we lead others in times of uncertainty and to challenge us to use this as an opportunity to change and to lead in a different and more impactful way.
We know that it has been said over and over and demonstrated over and over that asking questions is a great way to solve problems. Some go as far as using the term ‘powerful 1 questions’. As coaches we use questions to help our clients to figure out the real problems they are facing and help them work out what to do.
Notwithstanding some clients being frustrated by the discomfort which these questions cause them. We know that medical doctors use questions as a diagnostic tool. We know that when we go to the doctor they ask us questions. They do that for a reason. Every question rules something out or rules something in. So, questions
can be insightful and powerful. But many of us would rather not ask them because our culture expects us to know the answer and so we pretend that we know the answer or worse we do not say anything at all. Albert Einstein is quoted as saying “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” And I could go on making the case but so not to get carried away, let me get to the core of what is supposed to be a short but thought provoking article. I have watched the Governor of New York’s daily press conferences and I have noticed that he has a pattern ofasking questions and then trying to answer them. So, what are some of the questions that we should be askingfrom the point of view of our real world existence? Here are my top ten?
1. What have I learnt about myself and others
during this ‘lockdown’ and what does that mean
for how I lead?
2. What pre – Covid habits have I stopped?
3. What pre – Covid habits will I continue?
4. What habits have I started to develop during
Covid and want to continue after Covid?
5. What is a habit anyway and why is it important
and why now?
6. What concerns do my colleagues have? How
do I know and so what?
7. How do I manage people who are working
remotely and who can continue to work
8. What are the opportunities that arise for our
business area and how do we respond?
9. How do I deliver the business differently to the
same high pre – COVID quality standard?
10. What are the opportunities for working in partnership with others to get work done?
My list of questions is actually quite extensive but I did say I want this to be a short article. The point is, we can develop lists of lists of questions for every sector of the economy but more importantly how do we use these questions to help us transition into a new world?
If I had any advice to give I would say it is to ask very simple questions. Questions which stop people in their tracks and make them think. Questions which start with – what, why, how, when, and who? The well-known principle which says, ask why five times and by the time you get to Y number five you have got to the root of the problem, applies here. If your question starts ‘Have you….. or Did you…… ? etc. you are probably suggesting an answer. I call that a ‘rouge’ question. In other words it’s an answer masquerading as a question. If you genuinely want to ‘up your game’, post Covid, I would say make yourself vulnerable. It’s ok to not know the answer. Let the people around you help you because
when people help you to create a solution they feel valued and that generates unbelievable opportunities for better working relationships and even better outcomes for those whose lives we want to make better.
Note: I haven’t actually answered the question posed in the title of the article because to do so would assume that I know the answer. It’s not a cop- out or oversight, it’s just my writing style.
David Clutterbuck and others write extensively about the concept of ‘powerful questions’ – https://www.davidclutterbuckpartnership.com/what-makes-a-powerful-question/