In these times of transition, what is a leader to do? Find the right questions…

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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.

~Albert Einstein

It’s a big mess out there. In fact, it is probably several messes, all inextricably linked. How does a leader make sense of it all? How do you find a way to navigate through the mess and make reasonable, robust decisions?

We are in the UK, yet the world is so interconnected that things like Brexit and President-Elect Trump affect everyone, no matter where we live. I was with the Board of a social enterprise (a regional housing association) during the two days pre-and post the US election, working on their strategy for the future. With the realization that Trump had been elected, the team surfaced on the post U.S. election morning looking like an animal caught in the headlights. The unthinkable had happened. What do we do now? What does it mean?

They looked at the work we had done on the previous day with a different perspective and considered what all this might mean to their stakeholders. What did the results of Brexit and the U.S. election mean to their current environment? In the first minutes of the morning after Trump’s win was announced, they touched on helplessness in the face of the unthinkable. Then their brand-new leader asked a question: “How might we find opportunities in this space? How might we do things differently? What if we weren’t JUST a housing association – what could we do that might be win/win?”

This wasn’t just any question, it was a pivotal question. It created the space for a very different – a generative – conversation to take place. It created energy in the room, energy in the team. It gave people permission to think differently and to take responsibility not just for the ideas that came up, but for making them happen.

What kind of generative question can you ask yourself or your team that will make better use of the tension between polarized positions? Leadership that works today does the following:

Takes responsibility. To implement the changes that are needed, many people need to be involved, so how do we do that? It takes a group of people exercising initiative and leadership collaboratively by taking responsibility to do something positive. There is no place for bemoaning what we can do nothing about. Responsible leaders search out opportunities from wherever they may hide. Instead of despair and helplessness, they focus on hope and opportunity.

Sense making. In today’s world, how can one person make sense of it all? Getting people together to make sense of the systems around them and their organisation provides a sense of security in the midst of uncertainty. A sense making exercise helps the team to formulate the right question. Collectively this leadership group can collate more data – not just facts, but also stories that are floating around and feelings that are surfacing. The discussions around the data and information, the making sense of what is out there, allows the group’s intelligence to be expressed.

The right question. The right question will present the foundation for a different kind of conversation; the kind of generative conversation that opens the space for possibility and looks toward creating a vision of a positive possible future.

Energy for change. What fuels commitment and getting it done? Where does the energy lie? Exploring the question(s) you’ve identified will surface where the interest and passion for action are. The exploration helps the group find ways to amplify the positive vision of the future and discover alternatives to make it happen.

Monitoring for course correction. Monitoring what is happening reveals an emerging need for course correction. More eyes checking the course will ensure that as soon as any obstacle is sighted, correction can (and will) occur. The entire group is responsible for leading.
Recent research (Thinking the Unthinkable. Downloadable at: http://www.thinkunthinkable.org/) tells us that today, leaders everywhere are unsure even if they don’t admit it in public. None of us can escape the uncertainty and ambiguity that surround us. It seems to be more in our faces than ever before. Yet the hero-as-leader doesn’t work anymore, so we need a different kind of leadership. We need leadership that can generate the useful questions which will help organisations make better decisions for the future.

So, what kind of generative question can you ask yourself or your team that will get you better results?

This article was first posted on Huffington Post Great Work Cultures blog 19.12.16

About the Author

Patricia Lustig is a faculty member of the Future Fit Leadership Academy. She works with organisations to help them make sense of the emerging future and develop and implement strategies to create positive futures. She sees a growing need for more people and organisations to use foresight. She works with leaders to develop their foresight muscles and build foresight capability into their organisations. Latest book: Strategic Foresight: learning from the future. Triarchy Press, 2015. Contact Patricia at: www.lasa-insight.com. @patricialustig.

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