Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Purpose of Stopping to Question

As I glance at the clock on my computer desktop and realize that I have been engaged in answering and sending emails for a solid two hours, I am confronted again with the pace of modern life. Speed. It's all so fast! One gets sucked into the vortex of speed and efficiency without notice. I feel like sometimes my day starts as if it is a twisted version of the game Hot Potato where I try to turn issues, answers, papers, and requests around so fast least they get stuck, like a hot potato, on my to-do list. Do I complete more work? Do I do better work? When I am in that frenzy to get ahead of the things coming at me via email, text messages, regular mail, fax, projects delegated to at meetings, I think I process and complete more things, but few things deeply and carefully. I know I enjoy my work less, and I find less meaning in what I do. Work becomes mindless.

What is being squeezed out of our daily rhythms is the discipline of reflection. It is through reflection that we do our best work, our fullest work, and develop our deepest thoughts. It is reflection that feeds our passions. I believe this is true for each of us, personally and professionally. We are so engaged in the busy-ness of work that we forget to ask the generative questions that help our work and our lives evolve. Reflective questions about a specific project would be what is the history of this project/event? who were the people that helped create it? what was their purpose/goal? was it successful? how has it morphed over the years? is it still serving the same purpose or a new purpose or any purpose? is it enjoyable? it is relevant to its audience today? Personally, you can apply the same type of questioning - why am I doing this? do I really enjoy it? is it well matched with my skill set or was I just available to do it? can apply my creativity and passion to a situation to make it something I enjoy more and feel proud to claim?

Warding off the urge to keep those hot potatoes away, we must stop to think. We must intentionally work to develop the discipline of reflection. It is through this reflective questioning that innovation occurs. It takes time and stillness. It takes discipline. We develop ideas and insights in the throes of reflection that alter the trajectory of lives, of our work. We become deeply connected to the meaningfulness of our lives, our work. Or, we discover that the meaningfulness is missing and changes need to be made. Without learning to stop to think and question, we become disconnected from what we do and who we are. Work and life become void.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Questions to Reconsider Until Answered

I spent the last week on what seemed like the never-ending college campus tour. I have twin daughters who are juniors in high school and we spent their spring break looking for potential college matches for them. They are quite different from one another even though they are twins, and even though they look almost identical. The most common question we were asked used to be how do you tell them apart? Now we are most commonly asked do they want to go to the same college? The answer is unequivocally that they do not want to go to the same college; they are ready to be apart, or so they think, for the first time in their life.

I was given a gift of sorts at one of the college info sessions. Questions and the importance of questioning was the topic on my mind as I listened to the admissions officer at Boston College give the prospective students advice in choosing a college. Her advice was most likely lost on the 17 and 18 year olds in the room, but it was meaningful to me. She said upon embarking on this big transition in your life, you should consider three important questions. 1) What do you do that brings you joy? 2) What are you good at? and 3) Does the world need you to do it?

It's not that these questions are dismissed by the young adults. Instead, you have to have lived for a while and tried out a number of things until you can answer these questions. Here is the hard part. Once you can answer them, can you organize your life accordingly? Can you give yourself permission to pursue what brings you joy, what maximizes your strengths and what nourishes the world around you? I think too often we get on a track that just pays the bills or give us a certain class standing. The joy and the meaning become long ago lost.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A Simple Question

I love questions.

I even love to be questioned.

Questioning, in one form or another, has gotten me everywhere. The worst times in my life, both personally and professionally, were when I bought the party line and acted accordingly. At times that party line, the way we do things around here, came down from my parents who really had planned out my entire personal and career track at the time of my birth. It also came from corporate culture that said women are sales assistants working an hourly wage, and men get to be salesmen pulling in hefty commissions. It came from culture that said this is the role the woman plays in marriage and this is the role the man plays. At every juncture, I found my way out by asking one simple question, with bravado and sincerity, why not?

I have found why not to be the single most useful way to start the process of seeing things from a different perspective. What the simple question of why not does is to help me find the place where I have unconsciously made assumptions that need to be re-considered. When I slow down long enough to ask why not, my thinking become expansive, imaginative, free. When I am following the path of unacknowledged assumptions, I feel limited and confined.

How you ask why not makes a difference. It can't be asked in the spirit of bucking authority. One must ask in the spirit of understanding that this behavior is your habit or your current comfort level, but what would it be like to do things differently. One should ask why not with the intention of discovery and curiosity. One must ask in the spirit of granting permission to yourself and to others to dream, to create the future that you desire. Why not?

Sunday, March 9, 2008

A Question

One of my favorite questions to ponder comes from Ram Charan, one of the great business thinkers of our time . It sounds like an innocent, throw-away question on one level, as if the questioner just wants you to assert your self-confidence, to re-sell the expertise that got you where you are. But, I think it is really a profound question because of the reflective work one most do to give this question an honest answer.

The question is: Would they hire you for your job today?

Here's how I parse this question. First, they -- you must really understand to whom you are accountable. When you are at the top leading an organization, sometimes to whom you are accountable is not an ever-present consideration. Instead, you dwell more often in the mental space that says I am the boss and everyone answers to me. But, even the Boss answers to someone, be it the board or the shareholders or the customers or the marketplace. We all act differently when we are closely attuned to exactly what others expect of us. Being beholden to the people that hire you and their expectations is a great beacon.

The second big part of this question is your job today. So often, once we get a job and start doing it, we lose touch with how the goals of the job are constantly changing because the target moves. Once we learn the routine and the job speak, we do it and keep doing it, and we take our eye off the big picture, which is the relationship of your job to the whole. We focus on the day-to-day when the needs of the future (the target) are being re-defined as each day passes. In doing our job, we can become protectors of the status quo instead of dynamic responders to the needs of the economic environment in which we work.

The third component of this question is you -- or, do I have what it takes to do the job at hand? If you are out of touch with what the job at hand is, then you don't really ever ask the part about you. Thus, another elusive layer to this question. But, suppose you are able to render a frank and honest assessment of the job at hand, what power in asking yourself do I have what it takes to deliver! And, if you ask this of yourself all the time, what motivation to keep current, to grab every opportunity to learn and refine your skills, to risk your mettle on that reach project or assignment -- because it makes you the most competitively and comparatively qualified for the job! If you do not ask yourself this question often, what risks are you inviting?

Can you give a thoughtful, honest answer to this question, whether it is yes or no?


Questioning is powerful. It is subversive, bold, and not always welcome. In years of working with business leaders, I have found the simple question why? to be an effective tool to fetter out assumptions and beliefs that need to be challenged, re-considered, dispelled, or retired. I am amazed by the number of times when asked why he/she did something in a certain way, I am told the person before me did it this way or it's just the way it is done around here, or simply, I don't know, I never thought about it. For me, this is a huge red flag because it tells that the person-in-charge has not thought for himself and does not really take ownership of what is being done. That person-in-charge is a disengaged, not-reflective conduit, more of a manager than a leader.

A leader is reflective. A leader is hyper-aware of what she is doing and how she came to make the decision that she made. A leader is aware of all of the perspectives that he has considered in reaching a plan. A leader uses the power of questioning to reach full, expansive decisions that are as void as possible of faulty assumptions and myopic thinking. A good leader uses the power of questioning to push himself and his team to new heights. A good leader welcomes being questioned because it creates space for reflecting, re-grouping, and re-committing oneself to a course of action.

Notice the questions being asked around you, of you, out of your earshot. Do they question authority? Do they question outcomes? Do they question assumptions and priorities? Do they question process? Notice what questions are there but not voiced. Notice who questions after the decision is rendered. Notice who never questions. Notice who is defensive upon being questioned, and who welcomes a question. Notice how elucidating noticing is. Why does your group behave like this? What is lost due to lack of questioning? What would be possible if everyone valued questioning?

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Seek To Be Creative

"Everyone should seek to be creative, even though
creativity is full of risks and uncertainties."

-- Edward de Bono

Edward de Bono has made a career of teaching the skills of creative thinking. Yet, isn't it sad that most people think they are either creative, or not. And, by extension, we think the same of our children - some are creative, and some are not. Believing that one is either born creative or not is, using Carol Dweck's, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, definitions, a very fixed mindset about creativity.

Edward de Bono believes that everyone has the capacity for creativity and that creative thinking can be learned and further developed. So, what happens to our natural creativity? I think we are taught at a young age to play it safe, not to take risks, not to follow an uncertain path, not to experiment and see what we learn. We are shamed if we fail at anything, regardless of what that failure gives us the opportunity to learn. Thus, we are taught to value safety and certainty more than creativity and learning by doing. We are taught and encouraged to be staid, steady followers. As Buckminster Fuller laments, "we are all born genuises but school un-geniuses us." Not just school, but also our parents, our culture, our society.

For me, the question becomes what are the costs we pay individually and collectively for not fully developing and valuing creativity? What problems could have been solved long ago by a impetus of collective and coorperative creative thinking? What level of happiness could have been achieved by so many had their creativity not be stunted, thwarted, and shamed? Recognizing that creativity is a critical competency for the 21st century, how shall we design for creativity's resurgence?

It will take creative minds to answer these and many other questions about the way forward. The first step? Ask the right question. These are but a few of the right questions.

Leave a comment or your right question.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Sir Ken Robinson at TED

Sir Ken Robinson spoke at the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference in February of 2006. The TED Conference is dedicated to new ideas and thinking that can change the world. You can view his talks and hundred of others at I enjoy watching Sir Ken's Ted talk when I need to be reminded of the importance of enduring the hard process of change. I find listening to him reminds me of the goal, the purpose, the reason it all matters: our kids' futures.

Below is my synopsis of his talk. Read, re-read, and re-read it again. To me, it's logical; it's emotional; it's a call to action. I ask myself what is my part, what can I do?

  • There is enormous capacity and potential in human creativity, especially for those who make it to adulthood with creativity.
  • Kids have innate and enormous capacity for creativity.
  • We have no infallible, certain idea of what the future will bring.
  • Education is meant to take us into this unknown future.
  • All kids have unique talent and we squander it.
  • Creativity is an important literacy -- we don't think of it that way. Why not?
  • Kids are not frightened of being wrong at the beginning of school.
  • If we are not prepared to be wrong, then we will never have anything original to contribute.
  • By adulthood, most are afraid of being wrong.
  • This is how we raise kids and run our companies.
  • We are educating people out of their creative capacity.
  • There is hierarchy of education: Math and language. Humanities. Art………first art/music then drama/dance.
  • Education focuses on left-brain skills.
  • These skills were most valuable in the Industrial Age.
  • We are no longer in the Industrial Age.
  • The education system places importance on academic ability.
  • It is designed to get into college and then get a job in the industrial company.
  • There is evidence of a tremendous shift in education now, as the traditional degrees are now worthless.
  • MFA is the new MBA because of how it trains one to think.
  • We need to re-think how we understand intelligence.
  • Intelligence is diverse.
  • Intelligence is dynamic creativity (generate original ideas that at worth something).
  • Intelligence is distinct for each individual.
  • We need to question the fundamental principles of education.
  • Our job is to help kids make something of their future.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Sir Ken Robinson on Education

Sir Ken Robinson was the keynote speaker Thursday, February 28 in New York at the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Annual Conference. For those of us who got to hear him, what a delight! His dry wit and humor balances the gravity of his message. His basic message in is briefest form is this:

-the future is upon us right now and what we do about it matters.
-creativity is a critical skill for 21st century competence.
-Kids are naturally creative; schools seems to drain kids of their creativity.

As a beginning place to start to the process of changing schools and the environment they engender, Sir Ken suggests we alter how we think in the broadest sense about our schools; he suggests we change our school metaphor from the factory to the living, dynamic, ever-changing organism. It seems like a simple thought, perhaps even a simplistic thought. But, with some reflection and with effort to fill in some thought gaps, let me add something connecting thoughts and guiding questions.

How are factories in general faring in today's economy? Think about GM and all of its integrated production facilities and its current state of affairs, for one.
How quickly do factories adapt to evidenced need in the marketplace?
What mindset and basic assumptions govern the culture and systems at factories?
What new factory business is present in today's culture and marketplace? Where is factory business migrating to?
Are the prominent, energetic companies today less product-oriented and more idea and information oriented? Think about Google, Yahoo, Facebook, My Space, the whole "Wikinomics" boom -- is there much likelihood that this type of industry (information and idea production) is a passing fad?
Are we teaching our kids to produce ideas?
Of what use is a new metaphor or a new way of thinking about our schools? How does a new metaphor expand our thinking and understanding?

Let me offer the words of Peter Senge, social scientist and philosopher, author of Presence, to introduce the power of the living organism as a apt metaphor.

How does a tree come from a tiny seed?

It’s common to say that trees come from seeds. But how can a tiny seed create a huge tree? Seeds do not contain the resources needed to grow a tree. These must come from the medium or the environment within which the tree grows. But, the seed does provide something that is crucial: a place where the whole of the tree starts to form. As resources such as water and nutrients are drawn in, the seed organizes the process that generates growth. In a sense, the seed is a gateway through which the future possibility of the living tree emerges.

Changing the way we think as individuals and organizations about the future and how best to prepare for it is the first action step needed. Leading our thoughts and the thoughts of the people we work with in schools -- asking new questions, developing new metaphorical understanding -- is the seed that begets the possibility of the future. The seed, or school leadership, is crucial in directing our organizations to sustainable futures. But, as Senge describes, the seed is only half of the process. The seed cannot survive and grow without a seedbed that accepts and nurtures it. To me, this is our big dual challenge. To re-consider and re-fine the needs of the future. Quantifying that forms the seed. Then, we must plant that seed with its powerful ideas and their potential into a culture that is accepting, embracing, and nurturing. The seed is activated by the nourishment and caretaking of the culture. A toxic seedbed does not hold the future possibility of a living thing.