Influence Others

Lead With Questions

Last week, I was reminded of the awesome, and underutilised power of leading with questions.

Questions Leverage.001

A colleague and I spent two days together with a group of up-and-coming leaders. They’re an energised, talented group, hungry to learn and to make an impact on their organisation. A joy to work with.

As facilitators, my colleague and I had a bunch of ideas for what we could have done with them over those two days.We had a run plan. There were certain leadership topics we thought we’d cover with them, and we had the content and activities ready to go.

And, we chose to lead things off with some questions. Questions that we thought would stimulate thinking, connection, and insight. So in the morning session of the first day, we kicked off with this slide:

Workshop Framing QuestionsNow, we thought these might take us an hour to discuss. We spent over two. The conversation was rich, unhurried and thought-provoking. You could feel the engagement in the room. The organisation had been going through a tough few months, and we soon realised that the group had a strong need to make sense of what was going on. If we’d tried to rush it and stick to the run plan, I think we’d have lost the group. Anything we’d tried to teach or tell them would have washed over them. They weren’t ready to engage with new content just yet.

We followed that first slide with this one:

Workshop Framing Questions 2

 

These questions caused a shift in focus from ‘out there’ (environment) to ‘in here’ (self). There was a quieter, more reflective mood in the room, with the conversation unearthing what was most important for people to work on in their leadership. Leading up to lunch, the group were grounded, oriented to the future, and ready to do work together.

After lunch, we framed the rest of our time together with this slide:

Workshop Framing Questions 4

From that point, we were away. Everything we did came back to that question. We covered lots of territory, including leadership culture, leadership networks, deep listening, uncovering assumptions, and influence. My colleague and I taught some stuff, but mostly the leaders learned from each other. By the end of our time together, this diverse group had a) real ownership for leading a range of organisational issues, and b) developed deep connection and support across the group to make it happen. The catalyst was a handful of deliberate, thought-provoking questions.

So what’s this all about?

I’ve noticed that most leaders (and trainers, for that matter) generally still live in a world of ‘tell’. The need to have the answers, be the expert, show the way. Setting the agenda and driving through the “stuff”. That’s fine in some contexts, like when the answers are obvious, or you can rely on what worked in the past to work in the future. But of course, that’s increasingly unlikely when you’re expected to lead in a world where old blueprints need to be thrown out and new approaches invented. As I’ve written about before, we need a more curious approach.

In this context, there’s huge power in letting go of the need to tell, and instead shifting to asking questions. This requires a reframing of what it means to be a leader. A move away from being ego-centric. A move to towards other-centric (whether ‘other’ be another person, group or the system you’re in).

Here are some ideas about how you can lead with questions:

  1. Determine your intent. What is it that you want to occur during the conversation, and afterwards? I find it useful to break it down into “Think, Feel, Do”. What do you want people to think about? What do you want them to feel? What would you love to see them do?” Your answers to these questions will shape everything that follows.
  2. Frame your role. Imagine two roles: Teller and Asker. Given your intent, what percentage of your time do you think you need to spend in each? Hint: allow more time for asking than you’re comfortable with.
  3. Decide on the questions. These, of course, will depend on your intent. I find powerful questions have the following in common:
  • You can’t possibly know the answer beforehand (so you have to be the “naive inquirer”)
  • They’re not easy to answer
  • They raise awareness
  • The provide a focal point
  • They generate possibility
  • They generate responsibility and ownership
  • They tend to start with ‘What’, ‘How’ or ‘Why’

Notice how the examples above have some or all of these elements.

So, here’s a challenge for you: over the next week, pay attention to how often you choose to lead with questions versus “telling”. Perhaps get yourself a ‘spotter’ to give you feedback on how you’re doing. When you ask a question where in the past you’d probably jump to giving an answer, notice what happens as a result.

 

Like this post? You’re only getting half the story. Sign up to my ‘Fresh Thinking’ newsletter, delivered monthly to your inbox.

Are you a Change Maker? The next intake of my Change Makers programme is on 4 August 2017. Learn more.

Be An Explorer, Not A Tourist

I was in Bali in June last year, chasing some much-needed sun in the midst of the dark New Zealand winter. I took a surfboard with me, of course. Like about one million other people who had the same idea that I did.

I’d never surfed in Bali before, so I didn’t really know what to expect. When I arrived at the beach on that first day, the swell was up, and it looked pretty awesome. Except for one thing: there were around 100 other surfers in the water, spread across the break like ants that had discovered a honey-smothered piece of toast on the ground.

I sat on the beach, feeling heavy in my chest, wondering how I was going to have a good time out there. I’d almost resigned myself to paddling out and being surfer #101, when out of the corner of my eye, I spotted another sweet looking break about 400 metres down the beach. Except that this one had only two people on it. Curiosity piqued, I picked up my board, wandered as slyly as I could down the beach, and paddled out.

It was perfect. The three of us spent a couple of hours riding countless waves that we had all to ourselves, while just down the beach the hoards were all bunched together on top of each other, fighting for a spot in the lineup. We couldn’t believe it. We kept joking to each other “shhh, don’t talk too loud, they might see us!”

Afterward, I got to thinking that it’s all too easy to go with the herd. Especially when you find yourself in a new situation. You can think: “well, that’s what seems to be the go around here. These people must know what they’re doing, so I’ll do that too.”

It’s the Tourist mindset versus the Explorer mindset. The Tourist follows the crowd. The Explorer watches what the crowd is doing and then makes up their own mind about whether they want to follow the crowd or not. The Tourist’s agenda is to tick the box. The Explorer’s agenda is to discover. The Tourist’s main concern is to stay safe (“don’t get lost, Myrtle!”) while the Explorer’s main concern is to create an interesting experience.

We have both mindsets available to us all the time, of course. The tourist mindset is useful to help us scope things out. But if we want to forge new and better ways, it’s not enough.

I reckon our world has too many Tourists and not enough Explorers. It’s too easy to accept ‘what is’, even though ‘what is’ is clearly not working as well as it could be. Explorers find new ways, show them to others, and help other Tourists tap into their inner Explorer.

Where in your life are you being too much of a Tourist, when you could be more of an Explorer? What would happen if you chose to dial up your Explorer?

Here are three ways to tap your inner Explorer:

  1. Do one thing each day that scares you (thanks, Eleanor Roosevelt)
  2. Ask yourself “what’s the normal routine around here?” and do the opposite (e.g. if you usually have meetings where everyone sits down, make it a standing meeting. Call it an experiment).
  3. Hang out with other Explorers. They’re infectious.

Back to my surf session. Maybe there were rules that I didn’t know about. Maybe the first spot I went to was known as ‘the place’ to surf in the area, and that’s where the cool people go. Maybe the spot I ended up surfing at was full of taboos and stories about the bad things that will happen if you surf there. Who knows? What I know is that I had a great, memorable surf and I felt the better for it.

Sometimes you need to separate yourself from the herd.

 

Photo: Digby Scott

Like this post? You’re only getting half the story. Sign up to my ‘Fresh Thinking’ newsletter, delivered monthly to your inbox.

Are you a Change Maker? The next intake of my Change Makers programme is on 4 May 2017. Learn more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How To Be Curious

The late novelist David Foster Wallace tells a wonderful story about ‘incuriosity’ in his commencement speech This Is Water:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

We can all be blind, at times, to the world around us. We might think we know how stuff works, what drives our people, that we’ve got the solution to the problems. But do we really?

A team of organisational development (OD) professionals was tasked with helping the senior leaders of their organisation to have better and more frequent ‘talent conversations’ with their people. The OD team, convinced of the value of this activity, spent months developing easy-to-use tools and frameworks to help the leaders. But they struggled to get any traction. It took another few months of trying to adapt the tools to make them even better, until someone asked: “wait a minute, do these leaders even want to have talent conversations?”

The answer was a resounding ‘no’. The OD team had assumed that the leaders were keen, but in fact, they were terrified. Not because they didn’t know how. But because they saw the conversations with these ambitious people as creating a threat to their own job security.

This is a case of not seeing the water you’re swimming in. When you’re so close to your own perceptions of how the world works, you can forget to ask the bigger questions that really matter. Knowledge overwhelms curiosity.

There’s a correlation between the amount of knowledge you think you have and the amount of curiosity you demonstrate. fMRI research suggests it looks like this:

curiousity-knowledge-model-1

When there’s a gap between what you think you know, and what you think could be known, you’re curious.

Let’s break it down a little more:

curiousity-knowledge-model-2

When you have no knowledge of something, there’s nothing to be curious about. Think of the young fish in the water. That’s ignorance.

When the old fish swims by, you start to get curious. What’s he talking about? That’s wonderance.

When you realise you’ve actually learned something new, when you ‘see the water’, you can apply that knowledge to your world. That’s confidence.

When you think you know everything, you think there’s nothing to be curious about. You know it all, right? That’s arrogance.

In a world that values answers, it’s tempting to rush towards the right-hand end. Ryan Holiday, the author of The Obstacle is the Way, says when your ego gets bigger than your ears, your curiosity starts to die.When people keep calling you superman, soon enough you start to believe you are.

The trick is to stay curious at all times. To stay in that place between wonderance and confidence. Know what you know, and be humble about it. In a world where yesterday’s solutions are less effective at solving today’s problems, those who can stay curious will help us create new ways forward.

Transportation expert Wanis Kabbaj is a good example. He’s been trying to solve the increasingly huge traffic problems that rapid urbanisation presents us with. He asked: “what if traffic flowed through our streets as smoothly and efficiently as blood flows through our veins?” By simply asking that question, and being in ‘wonderance’, he’s taken our thinking in a new direction that just might yield new solutions. Check out his TED talk on that here.

Fortunately, we aren’t fish. If we choose, we can see the water. We’re born with an innate sense of curiosity: that strong desire to know and learn. Unlike other living things, we’re wired to ask “why?”

Curiosity is one of the critical meta-skills for interesting times. When your tried-and-true methods don’t work like they used to, then it’s time to dial up your curiosity. If you want to reinvent how things happen in your world, your starting point is curiosity.

Here are six ways to upgrade your curiosity:

  1. Expand Your Mind: Read and listen outside of your usual bubble. Subscribe to podcasts that cover a wide range of subjects, like NPR’s TED Radio Hour. Go into a new agent and buy magazines that you wouldn’t usually read. Sign up to Blinkist to absorb 15-minute book summaries in written and audio format.
  2. Expand Your Experience: Get yourself out of your comfort zone. Walk a different way to work. Hang out with people who think differently to you. Visit a new country each year. Go test yourself.
  3. Ask Better Questions: Be like Wanis Kabbaj. Make your default questions “why?” and “what if?” Sound like your three-year-old self.
  4. Cultivate ‘Beginner’s Mind’: Learn something completely new. That could be a new language, a new skill, a new sport. I’ve written about that idea before.
  5. Notice others: (Discreetly) observe someone in a coffee shop or a meeting, and imagine what it might be like to be them.
  6. Notice yourself: Reflect daily on your experiences, and what you made of them. Even just five minutes of journaling a day can help hone your self-curiosity.

Curiosity is the driving force behind human development. More than ever, the world needs you to be curious. Where could that be true for you?

 

Photo: Curious Cows

Like this post? You’re only getting half the story. Sign up to my ‘Fresh Thinking’ newsletter, delivered monthly to your inbox.

Are you a Change Maker? The next intake of my Change Makers programme is on 3 March 2017. Learn more.

Evolution of A Blog Post

Here’s how I take an idea and turn it into a useful post.

Let’s take my recent post Opportunity and Agency

This one started as a random idea in a lecture I was giving for my Auckland MBA cohort. During the class discussion, the idea came to me, so I drew it up on the whiteboard, and explained it to the class:

opportunity-and-agency-whiteboard-1

The next day, I transferred it to my little black book that I capture all of my ‘interesting’ ideas in. Some of those ideas might sit there for a day or two,before I act on them. Some for a year or more. Some, never. But they’re all there, in one place:

opportunity-and-agency-journal

I’ll flick through my little black book once a week or so. When one of those ideas jumps off the page at me (sometimes it’s when I write it in there), I know it’s time to flesh it out. The question I always ask is “what will help make this idea more useful to people (including me)?” I’ll often scribble more notes on my whiteboard at home for this:

opportunity-and-agency-ideas

Once I feel I’ve got enough to work with, I’ll start writing. By the way, in my home office, I have separate spaces to create, and to produce. Create = couch + coffee table, or whiteboard. No computer. Produce = standing desk with computer:

opportunity-and-agency-writing

My structure varies, however it usually includes a lead-in story to set the context, then the key point, then a model (usually schmicked up in a simple PowerPoint, converted to a jpeg), then some tips to make it useful, followed by a leading question or a call to action. Just like in the finished post.

Hope that’s useful!

 

Are you a Change Maker? The next intake of my Change Makers programme is on 15 December 2016. Learn more.

Like this post? You’re only getting half the story. Sign up to my ‘Fresh Thinking’ newsletter, delivered monthly to your inbox.

 

 

How To Tip The System

Recently I was working with a group of about 20 people at a residential workshop. It was morning tea time and we were all gathered in a room relishing our caffeine top-ups.

As facilitator, it was my job to keep people on time. I considered how I’d let them all know when it was time for us to move back to the main room. I had a few options:

  1. Quietly walk through the group and tell each and every person individually that it was time to move.
  2. Stand up on a chair and holler to the whole group “it’s time to head back in!”
  3. Find an easier, simpler way to do it with minimal effort.

I experimented with the third way. This is what I did:

I walked to the back of the room, the furthest spot from the door. A couple of people were loitering there. I quietly let them know it was time to move back in to the workshop room. They started moving towards the door, through the crowd.

And what do you know? The rest of the people picked up on this slight shift, and within 30 seconds, everyone was moving back to the room. Job done. No sweat.

This is an example of what I call ‘tipping the system’. Seeing the group as a self-organising system, finding the points in the system that look like they will give you the most leverage for the least effort, and levering those to ‘tip it’.

Let’s look at the other options and their pros and cons.

Option 1: Tell everybody individually. Mechanical management. Inefficient. I would have ensured that everybody got the message, but it would have taken a long time. Meh.

Tip The System 1

Option 2: Stand on the chair. Hero leadership. Disempowering. It would have achieved the outcome, but it makes me the focal point. It sets up a subtle leader / follower dynamic where people can become reliant on me for telling them what to do. Double meh.

Tip The System 2

 

Option 3: Find the tipping points. The way I did it was through a systems lens. My role as ‘leader’ was to tip the system to effect the change I wanted to see. With as little effort as possible.

Tip The System 3

 

This is a micro-example from which the lessons can be applied to more macro situations. Large-scale change initiatives come to mind. Evolving team culture. Getting an idea to go viral.

It’s about seeing and working with the patterns. Similar to how the best surfers learn to read the patterns of the waves and currents, as I’ve written about before.

It’s also about not trying too hard. Here’s a great example of how to get a group of people to organise themselves in a certain way by providing just the merest of instructions:

 

Here are some guidelines for tipping your own system with more grace and less effort:

  1. Define the outcome you’d like to see.
  2. Notice the system that’s at play.
  3. Look for the leverage points.
  4. Lever those points.
  5. Get out of the way.
  6. Notice what happens.
  7. Repeat steps as required.

 

It’s worth noting that the points of leverage will often be a few key influential people. In my example above, the leverage points were the couple of ‘key influential people’ that were standing at the back of the room. Not because of any authority they carried, but simply because of where they were situated in the room.

The key is to adopt an experimental mindset. Be like a scientist. Treat it lightly and don’t force it. Be curious. You can learn more about this approach in my post ‘How To See’.

So, what outcomes are you trying to achieve? What is the nature of the system that’s at play? Where are the leverage points? Get experimenting, then get out of the way and notice what happens.

 

 

 

Shine A Light

IMG_2036 (1)

 

When I was about 14 years old, I joined my school’s Army Cadet corps. It was attractive because I’d heard they did cool things out in the bush. I was having a bit of a hard time at boarding school, and I thought it would a great respite.

It wasn’t what I expected. The rule-bound hierarchy, the command and control culture, and the endless, monotonous routines of learning how to march in formation and shining your boots until you could see your face in them was not what I signed up for. For a boy seeking freedom from the confines of boarding school, it wasn’t cutting it. I felt small, unseen and unheard. In many ways, it was worse than school.

However, I chose to stick it out for a year. We actually did do some cool things in the bush, like learning how hike from A to B though rugged terrain using only a compass, map and your common sense. How to light a fire with no smoke so you could stay undetected. But, for the vast majority of the time, it was spit, polish and parade grounds, all the while being bossed around by a bunch of older boys and teachers. Blah.

Towards the end of the year, we had to decide whether we wanted to stay on the following year. A simple choice for me: “No”. Yes, I had learned some good stuff, but the way they did things in the corps was not for me.

A few days later, one of the senior officers came to me and said he was surprised and disappointed that I hadn’t chosen to stay on. He said that they saw me as leadership material. Would I reconsider?

This came as a huge surprise to me. When and how did they see my leadership potential? I had been given very little feedback during the course of the year, other than that I could shine my boots better. I thought they didn’t see me at all. To my mind, my leaving would be of no great consequence to them. And here they are telling me that I’m leadership material?

Of course, it was too late. I’d emotionally checked out a long time ago. There was nothing he could say or do to convince me to stay.

That incident has stayed with me ever since, and has fundamentally shaped my approach to leadership. A core responsibility of leadership is to shine a light on people and show them their potential. Especially if they’re not seeing it themselves. It is nourishment for the spirit. It is a catalyst for confidence and builds courage. When we fail to do this, we not only do them a disservice, we also do ourselves and our organisations one.

Most people think that shining a light is about giving positive feedback. That’s part of it. However the real gift is to let someone know the potential and power you see in them. Whenever someone has done that for me, my self-belief soars and the world opens up in front of me.

Where and how are you shining a light? Where and how could you shine it more?

Some guidelines:

  • For everyone you work with (not just your direct reports), find out something interesting about them.
  • Be actively curious about what makes them tick. Find out what drives them. Ask them.
  • Let them know what impact they are having – on the mission, on the team, on you.
  • Let them know the potential and possibility you see for them.
  • Work with them to set stretch goals that are important to them.
  • Recognise effort, and achievement. Let them know you see their progress.

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of these simple things, you’ll know how much they mean, and what they do for motivation, engagement and discretionary effort, let alone your relationship with them.

It’s not rocket science. It’s uncommon sense.

Make it common sense. Shine a light. Every day.

 

Like this post? You’re only getting half the story. Sign up to my ‘Fresh Thinking’ newsletter, delivered monthly to your inbox.

Photo: Digby Scott

The Three Letter Word

But

Lurking in our language, there’s a number of naughty words that we have conveniently categorised as “Four Letter Words”. You know what I’m talking about.

Most of us typically utter these offensive tones to express our dislike of something, or someone. If you’ve ever been the unlucky “someone” on the receiving end of such an outburst, you’ll know that it tends to cause offence, and doesn’t do much for the relationship you might have with that person.

So we tend, as a rule, to avoid using Four Letter Words, at least if we’re interested in building a positive, trusting relationship with the people we deal with in day to day life.

Unfortunately, there’s a “Four Letter Word” that has been more cunning than most. Like a computer virus, it has disguised itself as a benign part of our language, embedded itself in our communication system, and is causing havoc without us even consciously knowing it. Whoever invented this word was sly indeed – they disguised it as a three letter word, while having the same offensive force as the common, garden, four-letter variety.

The word? “But”

It shows up everywhere. Once I began to notice the “But” phenomenon, it appeared incessantly. The first time I tuned into it was on the radio, when I heard a prominent politician saying something along the lines of “we have consulted with the local residents on this issue, and we fully understand where they are coming from. But our advice from the experts is that …blah blah blah…We will give both sides of the story full consideration blah blah blah and come to a final decision.”

My translation? “We are siding with the experts on this one, and we don’t value the residents’ point of view.”

Words create worlds. Our language we choose to use betrays our thinking. What the use of “but” said to me in the above example was that this person’s mind was already made up, and he was going with the experts. On the surface it may appear that he was being objective and impartial. At a deeper level, if you really listen, you can hear the real thinking and intention behind his talk. All because of one little three letter word.

In many cases, the use of “but” says “Ignore everything I have just said, this is what I really mean.”

Further examples:

“You did well in covering all the relevant points in that last report, but you need to work on cutting it down” (Translation: “Your report was too waffly and I think you need to be more concise.”)

“I love you, but your nose hairs are too long” (Translation: “I don’t find you attractive right now.”)

The upshot? We often trigger negative responses in other people, either at a conscious or subconscious level, when we unwittingly use the word “but”. Responses that could include defensiveness, frustration on outright anger. In trying to be nice, in attempting to be seen to be offering a balanced view, things can may not go as well as you’d hoped. You may not get the buy in you’ve been hoping for. In my experience, people, at some level, get a sense that you are not saying what you really want to say. Trust, at some level, breaks down.

By the way, if you really want to break down trust, forget “but”, and try “however” – and watch the relationship dissolve before your eyes…

So what do you do if you want to get your point across and maintain the relationship? Fortunately, there’s an easy solution. An antivirus, if you like. And it comes in the form of another three letter word.

That word? “And”

Try replacing “But” with “And” in any of the three examples above. Consider this: “We have consulted with the local residents on this issue, and we fully understand where they are coming from. And our advice from the experts is that …” Does that sound like a more truthful, and potentially more effective way, to building trust and credibility with the audience?

The trick is that “and” has the effective of building on what has been said previously. “But” tends to negate. The speaker is genuinely heard to be offering a more balanced point of view when they use “and” rather than “but”.

You might take a moment to reflect on how often you’ve used the three letter word today. My guess is, that if you have, it hasn’t been intentional. Most of the time, we say it without giving it a second, or even first, thought. And what effect does it have on your audience? What effect do you intend having?

 

Like this post? You’re only getting half the story. Sign up to my ‘Fresh Thinking’ newsletter, delivered monthly to your inbox.