Is consulting about offering your own solutions, or working collaboratively with clients to generate solutions jointly? The former involves telling, advising, recommending. The latter involves asking, diagnosing, exploring possibilities. I guess the answer depends on what sort of consulting you are offering. Perhaps you are an IT expert and there really is one best way of implementing a solution. More likely, you are engaged in collaborative consulting. OD is collaborative consulting. The A to Z of OD continues. Q is for Questions.
The Paradoxical nature of change
The paradox of change is that if you push too hard, it resists. If you let go, often it comes more easily. It’s the same with OD. If you seek tightly-defined solutions, elegant models, rigorous frameworks or SMART outcomes, people can become sceptical and resist.
OD is the planned approach to change, and yet it is equally invested in the process-centred journey as it is in the destination-focused goal. “What we need is better practice,” muses management guru Henry Mintzberg. “Not neater theory.” What he is saying is, “What we need is better questions, not neater solutions.”
Self as instrument of change
The practice of OD is the practice of asking questions. And it seems we’re in fashion: mansplaining is out, humble inquiry is in. It requires offering our vulnerability that we do not know the answers and that we might just find a path toward change by working together.
And by asking a question, the OD practitioner is intervening in the system – he is using himself as an instrument of change. OD scholar Ed Schein offers suggestions for some opening questions in his 2013 book Humble Inquiry:
“So…” (with an expectant look)
“How are things going for you?”
(Note: not “Hi, how are you?”, which is likely to elicit a closed response, “Fine.”
“What brings you here?”
“Go on…” (or my personal favourite version of it, “Can you say more about that?”)
“Can you give me an example?”
The critical point here is to remain curious. To “seek first and then to be understood” as Dr Stephen Covey would have it. Yes, have an opinion, and yet at the same time hold it lightly. Explore everybody’s ideas equally, sincerely and with humility.
Some types of questions
There are good uses for open questions to explore issues, “What is keeping you awake at night?”, closed questions to focus, “So you are saying…, is that right?”, and choice questions, “on a scale from 1-10, how would you rate the current situation?”
There are several useful facilitative questions, used by people chairing or facilitating meetings to generate accountability in the other people present and move the conversation on, from, “What happened?”, to exploring root causes (why?) and possibilities, “How can we improve?”
There are also some very special types of questions, such as Nancy Kline’s incisive question, “If you know that you are [positive assumption, e.g. highly regarded by your client], what will you do differently?”, or the agreement frame from NLP, “I appreciate you want to [insert other person’s desire], how can we do that and [insert your own desire]?”, e.g. “I appreciate you want to dramatically increase sales; how can we do that through influence rather than pushing our clients too hard?”
Of course OD practitioners need to have insight too. There is a time to inquire and a time to advocate your opinion. Usually in that order.
OD thought leader: Robert E Quinn (b. 1946)
Robert E Quinn is a professor at the University of Michigan School of Business, specialising in HR management and organisational behaviour.
He believes organisational change cannot happen without deep individual change. He believes everyone in an organisation has the power to change the organisation. These ideas are set out in Deep Change, in which Quinn articulates a set of principles for personal transformation.
He suggests too many people are living their lives out as a version of ‘slow death’ for fear of rocking the boat. He suggest you choose deep change over slow death. This requires courage, sacrifice and hard work. It requires reflection and self-inquiry, looking inwards to ask yourself what you really, really want, what you believe, and how you will find the strength to begin to change. You might well need the support of a coach yourself. It is worth it. Avoid slow, creeping death and discover the new you through deep change. The new you can change your world.
Recommended reading: Quinn, Robert E., (1996) Deep Change: discovering the leader within, Wiley, NY.
Next time: R is for Reflective Practice.