I have always loved the story of Jack and Beanstalk. While Jack may have seemed foolish to trade his cow for three magic beans, I’m attracted to his ability to imagine a greater possibility. What a risk-taker he was! To trade certainty for something untested takes courage and openness. You have to be willing to sacrifice what you have relied on. By letting go of the cow’s rope and grasping the magic beans, Jack was saying there’s more to life than what he’d seen.
In a nod to that fanciful tale, I’d like to offer leaders “3 Magical Questions”. Gathered from different quarters, these questions give you a way to open up the discussions you have in one-on-one coaching sessions, with your entire team, or with wider groups of stakeholders. Posed in a safe, facilitated setting, they can change the conversations in ways you haven’t imagined. Better still, they are a way to get unstuck and to explore possibilities in pursuit of excellence.
- If you woke up tomorrow, and the problem was solved, how would you know it?
This question comes from a solutions-focus approach. It works wonders when you ask someone what they’d like to see change, and they honestly say “I don’t know.” It’s a great way to climb the felt sense of insurmountable problems. You unleash your mind by skipping the how-to of solution-finding and going right to the finished product. From that future place, you can then work backwards on one small element worth building.
- What do you value most about this (situation, team, organization)?
This invitation to look for what’s working right now can feel counter-intuitive but it really is a cornerstone of the Appreciative Inquiry (AI) approach. Even in the direst circumstances, if we stretch, we can find a glimmer of hope. Our current way is held in place because it fills a need. In AI, this question goes hand-in-hand with collecting stories about our best experiences. People are energized by positive affirmations, so asking this question allows for a renewal. The idea is that we can amplify those positive things that we have experienced and, by doing more of what works, make progress against insoluble problems.
- If you were to design a system/solution to do the opposite of what you want, what would you do?
This question comes from an understanding of complexity theory and a knowledge that human systems are dynamic. As a facilitated discussion question, it allows people to brainstorm and have fun designing a failure. This is much safer than asking a team to find their own flaws, or point at others’. For example, if the team is struggling to create a more collaborative workspace, you can ask them “If you wanted to prevent people from collaborating with each other, what kind of workplace would you create?” Once the dreaded failure is conceived, you can talk more about what aspects of it are too familiar, and start shutting them down.
Holding possibility conversations is a key role for leaders. You or your team can use these provocative questions as a jumping off point whenever you feel stuck. And, if you are grappling with a situation where you need to be fully in the conversation, I’m happy to facilitate this conversation with your group.