Nine questions your colleagues are too embarrassed to ask

Are some of your colleagues feeling stuck about making change happen?

Here are some better questions to help your colleagues make change begin to happen.

Maybe it’s time to stop talking about the problem?

Here’s the dark secret…problem analytics are for your car mechanic and the scientists. When the issue is about people and people processes problem analytics destroy productivity. Your colleagues will be somewhat embarrassed by how much easier it is to make progress if you ask them, ‘What do you want instead of the problem?’

What if there’s no debate about who’s right/wrong?

With few exceptions in organizations (e.g., how do you fly an airplane) there are no right answers. It’s useful to disagree – that brings options to the discussion – but, debate means someone has to win. Winning debates is about being argumentative, not listening. So the debate winner is just as likely to be wrong. Instead ask your debaters, ‘What is that we want in common?’ ‘What are the outcomes that will help us make progress?’

How about we find a better way to deal with the angry voice in the room?

You don’t have to pay attention to angry voices simply because they demand the most attention. They can’t listen and they’re hard to listen to. Take them seriously, (they mean it), but not literally. Empathize with language like, ‘You sound like you are very frustrated’, and go back to your agenda.

What happens if no one is allowed to play the victim card?

In a world of people making a profession out of being a victim it’s useful to ask, ‘Despite the problem, what’s working?.’ Lives (and teams) lived defined by the damaging things that have happened before are automatically self-limiting. Fletcher Peacock says, water the flowers, not the weeds. Here’s someone who did.

Do we need to tell people what to do all the time?

Sometimes we have to ‘tell’, e.g., you are breaking the law. But most of the time if we keep telling people what to do, they will lose motivation, stop thinking, become disengaged, etc. Better to define what outcomes are desired and let them figure it out. Try. ‘Suppose we meet, maybe exceed the goals, what will we be doing more of, differently, better, etc. and, ‘How do you see yourself helping to achieve the goals?’

What if we make collaboration more than a nice-to-do option?

Collaboration is not an option; it’s a necessity. And, everyone is trying to collaborate, just not each other’s way. Don’t ask why they can’t work together. Instead, ask, ‘What have we managed to achieve (i.e., what’s worked)? What would our stakeholders (e.g., customers) want to see us doing? How would we see ourselves doing that? What first small steps might we take together?

What if we could leverage the strengths of people we think are our weak link?

Everyone has weaknesses. If we only amplify weakness chances are they will still deliver them. Get to what needs to be better by first amplifying what they do well. What they do well is the platform upon which they can move to a better place.

Could we actually coach people to find their own solutions, (not just yours)?

Peter Drucker said, ‘The leader of the future will be a person who knows how to ask’. That future is today. Asking people better questions that help them to come up with solutions wins in the short and long-term. Try, ‘When you’ve faced a situation like this before, what worked?’

What if letting go made us more authoritative leaders?

The difficult part of being a leader is the need to be right all the time. Wrong! Leaders brown-out on answers as much as their support staff. Stare them in the eye and say, ‘I don’t have a clue, but I suspect we do. What would be a good outcome for us?’ Close your mouth and listen for clues to the solution.

Does this sound too simplistic to resolve situations in a complex organization? Try it and see. 


Win-Win Questions for a Win-lose Debate

Most folks tell you they make win-win proposals. Especially those with a one-sided agenda – the pushy types!

It’s not uncommon for people in organizations to be at odds with each other. It can make ‘win-win’ sound a bit quaint, certainly hard to achieve.

Rule #1 about dealing with those with an agenda that’s about them getting their way, i.e., win-lose:

S  l  o  w   D  o  w  n !

To help them move to win-win solutions, i.e., be collaborative, show them that you are listening to them. Agree with them that they’ve presented an opportunity but let them know that you don’t agree with their perspective.

Questions to ask:

Please describe your goals for the project. What outcomes do you see us achieving? Get lots of detail.

When you did that (their proposal) in the past what worked? How did it work for other stakeholders?

Acknowledge what they say by repeating back the essentials of their response.

Then ask:

Thinking of your current proposal, how do you see that aligning with the goals of the other stakeholders in the project?

Suppose the others were achieving their goals, what would you see yourself modifying in your proposal to help them deliver their accountabilities?

This won’t make a big difference – so far.  Let’s continue…

Suppose we were to use the other proposed approach, how would you see that working for you, even in a small way? What would you see the others doing to help you achieve your goals?

On a scale of 1-10 (10 is ideal) where are you now? What would it take to move 0.5 up the scale?

And so on…

Why be so patient with someone who’s not interested in the ideas of others?

  • You will probably hear something in their idea that’s in common with the other’s goals. The pushy types are so concerned about getting their way they forget to think about the needs of others.
  • When they verbalize the needs of others they can begin to let go of being right. They can more easily shift their goals/proposal towards the other’s perspectives and needs.
  • You’ll help them move forward instead of digging into being right about their proposal. Let them be seen to be cooperative without ‘giving in.’
  • You can set them up for a better outcome next time. It’s easier to set people up for win-win before hand.

So, to move to collaboration, slow down to their pace of listening.


More ways to help people slow down and move to win-win collaboration using Solution Focus ‘better questions’.


How to Take the Trauma out of Change in the Public Sector

Public debate among politicians, planners and interest groups is based on an archaic, some would say stupid model – endless debate!

It’s time to upgrade the format!

For example, if you have visited Toronto, you’ll have seen a well-ordered, civilized community that long ago created effective approaches to complex issues like multiculturalism.

That said, like many cities in the West, the heyday of economic expansion left the station a while ago. Sustained economic expansion meant we could debate right and wrong and not notice the drawbacks, i.e., inefficiencies, hit-and-miss outcomes.

A clear example is Toronto’s transit system – the TTC. Once a model to emulate, underfunding has left the system wanting. The infrastructure is under pressure, the public governance is weak and the management seems barely in control.

That is, if everyone looks at it with a critical eye and complains that it’s a mess. Suddenly, the slightest operating issue becomes fodder for the critics and lazy news editors.

TTC management is now back in control of the organization, but the big picture public ‘debate’ about what’s needed is a lose-lose contest in which options are seen as a football to be kicked around, not nurtured.

The politicians have one eye on the task and the other on pleasing enough people to get re-elected in the next election. Some think they can bully and politic their way to solutions.

Special interest groups who find it hard to listen or think beyond their frame of reference simply want things done their way…now! Prevention, not progress becomes their reason for being.

Policy and planning people think twenty years down the road, propose ideas which are not connected to what might actually happen, and create rigid concepts that don’t allow for constant change.

All sides like to use facts and figures as a light to lean on, not illuminate the way ahead. Meanwhile, management is constrained and  the customer sits in the dark bewildered by the endless argument.

So much for the problem about debating things of critical importance in a time when it’s easier to point fingers than work on solutions.

Does this sound familiar in your city? What’s the alternative? How do we take trauma out of change in with a constrained economy? 

Here’s one framework for making progress and change:

Create dialogue among the stakeholders where they can engage and listen to varied perspectives.

Substitute problem analysis in favour of describing the future we want – in detail. Rather than simply describing what rail lines will be laid talk about how the system will be used, and the economic and social outcomes.

Assess what does not need to change – there’s always lots in place to be utilized as a foundation for change.

Develop some broad goals and strategies and lots of concrete first small steps towards progress. Allow for an emergent framework to work with surprises in the near and distant future.

Communicate the plan widely and inform people of successes / setbacks / learning.

What do you get when you take this approach? Not a miracle, but understanding and progress.

It works in other areas.

What are your ideas for creating solutions (instead of debating the problem and who’s right/wrong)?