Scrap the Polling: Better Questions for Politicians to Ask What Citizens Want

You know the game. Your phone rings during dinner. A researcher wants to, ‘Ask citizens a few questions about…’

What they are doing is phoning enough people to confirm the biases of a politician who’s determined to beat the opposition party … ultimately, to get re-elected. A day later a headline screams, ”Mayor xyz proclaims, ‘The people of blah-blah city asked for blah-blah and we delivered.’” Other politicians shrug their shoulders and say, ‘That’s politics’.

They live the great conceit that citizens can’t come up with solutions.

Imagine there’s a furious debate going on about public transit in your city. The ‘experts’ are going to tell you that the public (and the transit operators) don’t know enough, especially about the problems of building, maintaining and funding transit to be able to make informed decisions. The issue the experts face is that they approach their various expertise from their silos, almost always at odds with each other.

There’s a way to bring co-creation of policy, strategy and implementation to the citizens and be helpful to the experts who think they know the solution and will make the ‘right’ decisions.

Help politicians and the experts notice that citizens can come up with solutions. Ask better questions!

Imagine the following scenario in which key stakeholders – the public and the transit authority – are asked better questions of this sort:

What works with our transit system? What works for the riders? What works for the transit system workers? In terms of what they want, what do the stakeholders have in common? How have we managed to make it work (faults and all)?

How does that help with the needs of the city? What role does transit play in the growth of the city?

What needs to be better, different and/or more delivered?

Assuming the city continues to grow, what will the transit system look like 5, 10 or 20 years from now? What purpose will it serve in fulfilling the city’s needs? 

And so on…

By asking better questions about the solutions the two key stakeholders want – the users and the providers – the experts can then start using their own better questions to make their recommendations and decisions.

Multi-stakeholder engagement using better questions breaks down the siloed view of the experts. Ideally, the politicians no longer have to spend their money on expensive polling to prove that what they are doing is what the people want.

Stakeholder consultation using Solution Focus


Authoritative Leaders Let People Develop Their Own Solutions

Autocrat bullies, conversely, are a menace to your organization…unless they have the genius of Steve Jobs

They stifle the value and diversity of individuals, know all the answers, hoard decisions, play favorites, etc., etc.

What do we want instead?

Authoritative leaders: They’re transparent. They delegate, engage people in planning, devolve decision-making, and make the most of diversity. They develop people by letting them create solutions.

‘Yes, but,’ says the autocrat, ‘they don’t have the experience / knowledge / smarts to make good decisions.’ thereby reinforcing the autocrat’s inability be a good leader.

The solution to building solutions among the team?

Ask better questions.

Here’s a typical set of better questions recently asked of several teams in an organization:

What does this team do well?

What would our clients say works best for them?

What can we do better / different / more of?

Suppose we make progress over the next 3 months on our key issue what will be happening?

What will clients notice?

What will staff notice?

What will the executive team see staff doing?

What will staff notice the leadership team doing to support them?

What 3 small-steps plans will we initiate to make progress in the next week?

This helps the staff notice the resources they have for making progress, what needs to be better, develop a view of where they want to arrive, and start working on the change so that they can see it happening right away.

What better questions would you ask to let people develop their own solutions?


Managers who kiss up, kick down.

The bad news? There’s not much you can do about them.

The good news? You can manage your behaviour by figuring out where you want to go.

Your manager has just has just given a speech saying how wonderful her/his boss is. They also give you a bit of credit too. Yet, an hour later they call you to tell you how badly you did on items X, Y and Z. Very badly!

You know the type:

They crave approval so they praise up the line and prevent transparency about their bad behaviour down the line. They are two steps ahead of you, usually to cement their case that you are out of line with their needs, that your ideas are not acceptable.

They live on despite their weak people leadership capabilities, poor communication skills, inability to adapt to change, self-serving relationship-building skills, scattered task management abilities, and poor people development skills. They are devoid of self-awareness. Nobody challenges them, even the leaders who know about the dysfunction.

Unfortunately, your boss is the exception to the rule Everyone’s trying to collaborate. The best you can do with this boss is remember the line, ‘Never wrestle with a pig – the pig enjoys the wrestling and you get dirty.’

What to do?

Think of this boss as a dysfunctional stakeholder who you can’t please. Take them seriously, not literally! Shake yourself loose of their grip on your mindset. Now start thinking of solutions for yourself and your team.

Begin with the end in mind

Go to the big picture of what outcomes you want. Not in your current role, but for your career.

Questions to regularly ask yourself:

What are you aiming to achieve? One year. Three years. Five years.

How will you know you’ve achieved it?

What was the best you ever did (at this thing)?

What went well on that occasion?

What will be the first signs that you’re getting there?

How will other people notice your progress?

This will give you direction to help move you forward within the current situation. It will aid decision-making, deal with ambiguity, and act as a bridge between the current and future.

Be patient. Be persistent. 

Be the leader your boss can’t be.

Support your staff to manage the complexity in front of them. Develop them by letting them see their ideas count (unlike your boss). Involve them in planning. Divest risk to them to help them build capability and confidence, and teach them decision-making capability. Delegate authority and leverage diversity, and set the tone – dissuade complaining.

Questions to regularly ask your team:

What are you aiming to achieve?

How will you know you’ve achieved it?

What was the best you ever did (at this thing)?

What went well on that occasion?

What will be the first signs that you’re getting better?

Will this change the behaviour of your boss?

No. It will help you think of solutions for yourself and manage through this complex part of your life while you wait for the boss to go away, or for you to decide to be successful in another organization.


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. 


When Stuck, Small Change is Beautiful

Some people feel stuck when forces make the situation they face seem insurmountable.

It doesn’t seem at all beautiful to them.

I always begin the project briefing with the question: What’s working that you don’t want to change?

Followed by: What will it look like when the problem goes away?

The answers to these questions make me confident they are going to get unstuck. Why? Because their answers are the framework for starting small changes.

Their answers are the first small changes.

Great things are done by a series of small things brought together Vincent Van Gogh

Seth Godin assures us that the best way to get unstuck is to ‘start down the wrong path, right now’. Too radical? But, he goes on to say, “As you start moving, you can’t help but improve, can’t help but incrementally find yourself getting back toward your north star.”

Here are two surprisingly easy steps to getting to small beautiful steps:


1. What’s the ideal outcome? What will the situation look like without the problem present in the future?

2. What’s one small step that will take us in that direction, i.e., we can see the small change happening?

Don’t look for miracles…look for learning and move away from letting the client think they are stuck.

You might not end up with perfect, but it’s significantly more valuable than being stuck.Seth Goin

Be radical in the small step and flush out the details in ways that will let the client see the progress happening.

You must be the change you wish to see in the world. Gandhi

Reload and repeat.

Why does this work?

As Coert Visser states in his article Assumptions In Solution-Focused ChangeThere is always already a beginning of the desired situation on which further progress can be built.

Let small steps towards the solution focused change we want start to make a difference.


Pushing elephants through keyholes

Grumpy, disillusioned, angry, or fearful (choose one!) teams and / or stakeholders can seem like a mammoth change task.

To get them unstuck we can issue orders, develop new policy and/or a strategy with clear deliverables. We can also talk about the vision and run team-building exercises, etc. These are all good things to do.

But what if the elephant is stubborn, remains unengaged and reluctant to show that they are listening? They may be in flight, fight, or freeze mode.

How do we support them so that they may actually move forward? How do we get them unstuck and focused on the needs of the organization, not just themselves?

Change the narrative! Engage the elephant in a new dialogue.

How? Here are some approaches and steps:

Reacquaint them with their knowledge of the capabilities they already have. Help them see what’s working and what doesn’t need to change. Don’t worry if they seem, at first, unrealistic. You’re helping them see what the team brings to the process.

Remember, the goals for the required change will adjust constantly as the team begins to align with the needs of the organization. They are in a constant state of production, making sense of things their way.

You can indicate that there’s no urgency to arrive at a solution. They likely have to make some intense transitions and will only get it over time, one step at a time. This is counterintuitive, but it will speed up the process.

Our role is to help them with dissolving the problem – their way. Help them shed some useful light on the problem by asking how they manage to cope. But, don’t encourage too many more details on the problem.

Help them switch to the dormant side of their thinking, i.e., being helpful. Ask what it would be like if the problem no longer existed, i.e., what they want, and how that would be useful to the organization, other teams, etc. This helps them a) build a new back-story / identity, and b) evaluate the effect they might have on others by working on solutions.

Your job is to link the story – their narrative – together, to let them see the counter to the problem and let them transition themselves out of their fears.

Keep asking them if they’ve got any ideas about using the new learning. Frame it as a beginning. Help them notice the initiatives they might take to begin the change.

What happens if your leader wants fast action? Why not simply fire some or all of the team and replace them with new workers? Just ask yourself which approach might have the best ROI. In helping the elephant through the keyhole, the team probably has a bunch of valid, useful ideas for the organization that they were unable to express through the keyhole.

With grateful acknowledgement to Jim Duvall. More on the narrative approach to change  Innovations in Narrative Therapy


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’.


The Devil Invented the RFP Process:

Note: once in a while it’s useful to provoke change … to be un-solution focused … to define a problem in order to make progress. I welcome comments with your solutions.

The devil invented RFP procurement. Only a supernatural entity could have created this procurement mess!

In consulting you can sometimes participate in projects where the client doesn’t find out what they want until after the work has started. It’s understandable – if they knew exactly what they wanted, they could probably do the work themselves!

Now imagine you are the client’s gatekeeper who’s in charge of RFPs and contracts. You get not-so-good briefs from the project owner. Then you apply RFP rules and regulations! It’s at it’s worst in government, but the private sector has its moments.

The gatekeeper suspects they have been handed a Pandora’s box of complex issues that they have to format into an RFP or contract framework.

Requests for proposals generally eliminate either value-add or innovative supplier ideas. They are often managed by procurement people who are far removed from the actual work and don’t understand the complexity of the actual work.

The submitting suppliers then spend many hours responding to the RFP. Some suppliers know the game well and realize that it’s a numbers game so they hire talent to grind them out.

When the submissions arrive on the RFP gatekeeper’s desk, their job is to weed out the non-qualified prospects – usually because they failed to list something buried on page 13. And so on…You get the picture.

The RFP process is a lottery and they are not much fun. The house always wins.

5 Tips on RFPs for suppliers. Participate in RFPs if…

You need to do the client a favour, are prepared to lose, and want to maintain your relationship with them (beyond RFPs).    

You have some expert resources who know how to complete the RFP and are prepared to pay for their time.

You are prepared to address the RFP specifications exactly as they are laid out (due dates, client references, etc.). One tiny error can disqualify you before they look at your proposal.

You can access the procurement people with questions / clarification (unlikely). 

You like lotteries.

There! Having had my say, do you have a solution focus perspective on how to improve the  RFP process?


How to Deliver B2B Solutions From the Buyer’s Perspective

The hero in B2B selling is not the supplier’s product, or the sales person.

A while ago, clients started saying to B2B suppliers,

‘Stop talking to me about your product and start bringing me value I can use. Then, I might look at your product!’

Smart B2B suppliers, especially the senior sales people realize what matters most is the relationship and the value that’s delivered surrounding the product/service.


Most client buyers have their own problem – their buying system, or procurement process! Your key buyer can experience complexity selling your solution into their own system and stakeholders.

Their organization may even make them look like they are not a smart buyer!

So, for the key buyer it’s a personal performance issue – they have to look good in deciding to use you. Suppliers who do not recognize this is reduce their odds of success.

How can Solution Focus help in B2B solutions selling?

Simple! We always make the customer the expert in, a) what works for them and, b) what they want. From a recent B2B research project here’s an example of making the client the expert.

What has been your best experience with a B2B supplier and why? How was that helpful to you in your work?

What are your expectations of B2B (name type) suppliers?   The basics?   Good quality? Exceptional quality?

Inside your organization, what barriers would you like to overcome in engaging and selling a preferred B2B supplier?

How do you see your role in ensuring the supplier delivers to expectations?

From your experience, what differentiates our firm from other B2B (name type) firms?

What was the value that our firm brought to your organization?  How did our firm help you personally in your role?

On a scale of 1-10 (1 is least desirable, 10 is ideal), where does our firm sit on that scale as an effective business supplier?

Is there anything our firm might do more of, or better in the future to move up a point on the 1-10 scale?

Suppose we are successful with the next project, how will that have been useful to you and your key stakeholders?

How do you make your B2B client the expert in what they want? 


10 Why’s & Ways to Shut Up and L I S T E N !

We know that developing people’s strengths, engaging them and creating a more productive workplace requires good direction. We also need to create an environment where people come up with their own solutions.

Hence, Peter Drucker said:

 The Leader of the past was person who knew how to tell.

The leader of the future will be a person who knows how to ask.

When we learn to ask we become even better at listening. How will better listening help you?

People will listen to you if you first show you are listening.

People may not always make sense to you, but pay attention or you may miss something that you, a) have in common, b) can actually work with.

Listen without creating responses in your head. Your ideas may make sense to you, but probably won’t work for the person you’re responding to.

By listening carefully to what’s difficult or unacceptable about what a person is saying, you can see where their diverse ideas might actually work.

The person may be keen to be told what to do. When you listen first, you will have better context to give instructions in ways that they will understand.

No one is a mind reader, If you first understand and acknowledge a person’s perspective, you’ll be able to better communicate yours.

If you assume a person has a good reason for saying something, that it makes sense to them, then you’ll be more able to help them find answers.

If you show you are listening constructively – paying attention, not thinking of your answer – you can speed up cooperation.

If you ask, ‘What’s working?’ (instead of asking about the problem), and ‘What else?’, it will motivate you to listen even more. It will also focus a person’s attention on their capabilities and the progress they have already made.

Good questions and good listening usually have a motivating effect. They lead to more awareness of what works and to new ideas for steps forward.

Want to know about the dangers of not listening? Here’s Ernesto Sirolli’s TED talk: Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!

Want an solution focused interview tool to help you listen (even better than you already do so)!