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Tools and practices for tackling complex systems.

Guest Interview: Asking the right question with Gene Bellinger

Today we're talking about the power of asking the right question with Gene Bellinger, host of the almost 19,000 member Systems Thinking World LinkedIn group and the Systems Thinking Certification Program.

Gene, we've talked before about the importance of the asking the right question but let's take a step back. Why is it so important that we use questions to frame our challenges?

Questions tend to be opening whereas statements tend to be closing. We tend to find better answers when we spend time better understanding a situation rather than simply jumping to conclusions.

But all questions aren't created equal. What are examples of how most people ask questions?

Most people ask questions with the answer already in mind…

  • Is this Jeff’s fault?
  • Isn’t this because Jeff neglected to do…?
  • Can't we just get replace Jeff with someone else so we don't have these issues?

Okay - clearly those aren't going to be that fruitful in getting at the root of a challenge. What types of questions should we be asking?

The most relevant question is usually

and what can we learn from this situation?

I find that more often than not to be the most relevant question. Continuing to seek out what it is we can learn gets us to a better understanding of the situation and then a better understanding of how to figure out how to deal with the situation.

I've used the 5 whys approach from lean manufacturing and it feels like a similar process & result. How is this different?

I’ve found that "Why?" is too abrupt and tends to put people on the defensive. And at times even the “What is it that we can learn here?” question is too abrupt and puts people on the defensive.

What I’ve found actually works the best is the Columbo Approach. Columbo was a TV detective show where Columbo repeatedly led people by asking them to help him understand things. By discounting his sense of self others were inclined to participate and this approach was such that it never put people on the defensive.

While I see a lot of power in asking the "What is it we can learn here?" question, it also feels dangerously broad. How do you focus a question like this?

The situation you’re trying to understand provides the focusing agent. If you remember that you came to drain the swamp you’ll stay out of the mouths of the alligators.

You created a powerful diagram called "Understanding Transcends". Walk us through how you use it.

Understanding Transcends

To improve the character of the questions we ask it is important to transcend the levels in the above diagram. If we ask questions that allow data to be an answer that is what we will get.

If we ask questions regarding relations, i.e. cause and effect, then we will find, or make up, causes as answers to the questions we pose. When we reach the level of asking questions that move us to seek out and understand the patterns responsible for the situations we consider, we arrive at answers that represent knowledge.

When we ask questions which move us to seek the underlying fundamental principles that are responsible for the patterns represented in the knowledge we are finally in a position to develop answers rooted in wisdom.

As such, when posing questions think about the manner in which the situation has developed over time. Think about the relationships between the components that make up the situation, and how these relationships have developed over time.

How one asks questions is a choice. Make of it what you will.

So we've got to become more aware of where we are on the plot and have some techniques for taking the next step. How do we do that?

Initially it takes a bit of practice to get used to it though once you become familiar with the difference between data, information, knowledge and wisdom it’s very easy to determine what level the understanding is at…

  • "It is raining" is a piece of data, it represents a fact or statement of event without relation to other things.
  • "The temperature dropped 15 degrees and then it started raining" is information in that it embodies the understanding of a relationships of some sort, possibly cause and effect.
  • "If the humidity is high and the temperature drops enough, the atmoshpere is unlikely to be able to hold the moisture so it rains" is knowledge in that it represents a pattern that connects and provides a level of predictability as to what is described or what will happen next.
  • "It rains because it rains" and the understanding of all the interactions that happen between raining, evaporation, air currents, temperature gradients, changes, and raining is wisdom in that it embodies an understanding of fundamental principlies. Wisdom is essentially systemic.

What other barriers should we be watching for that keep us from asking quality questions? Where are we our own worst enemy?

The primary barrier to asking questions like this is when we speak before we think and provide pronouncements rather than asking questions. For as much as I’ve practiced this I find I still fall into the trap from time to time...and then have to dig myself out.

I also wanted to touch on your post about re-considering our wants. As much as we try to have better questions in our day-to-day work, we need to do the same with our personal wants and desires.

It would appear that we have an unlimited capacity for want - want of a better job, more money, a new car, more free time, the kids to grow up and do well, lower taxes, etc. Yet, do we ever spend any time considering our wants beyond the want itself?

From the Argyris perspective the thermostat thinks about controlling the temperature, but does it ever think about its thoughts about controlling the temperature? Not hardly!

Tell me about the realization you went through and the changes it caused.

I gained a lot of insight into this dilemma from Robert Fritz's "The Path of Least Resistance: Learning to become the Creative Force in Your Own Life." I spent time actually thinking about my own thoughts - why I wanted what I wanted.

And when I answered that question I asked it again about the answer. By continuing this sequence until I got to the essence of what I wanted the possibilities which opened up became awesome. The difficulty I initially found in doing this was primarily due to an unwillingness to be honest with myself operating in conjunction with a whole set of mind games I played with myself with regard to self-unworthiness. I don't know how to offer others a way to get around this. I do know that it is essential.

One day quite by accident I was talking on the phone and doodling at the same time. When the phone call was over I looked at the pad and I found that I had quite unconsciously written, "What is it that life wants from me?"

I spent time contemplating all the activities of my life that I could recall and there seemed to be a very recurring theme in all the things I remembered fondly. The theme related to learning and sharing what I had learned with others.

This ignited and focused my efforts on sharing my learnings with others about how to solve problems effectively. We're sharing and learning together about how to solve problems in a way so that they stay solved - without creating new problems in the process.

Systems Thinking World (and the certification program and most everything I'm working on) is not a pursuit because the world needs it. It's not a pursuit to change others. It's a pursuit because I want it, and I want it because I want it. It's a pursuit in the same fashion that a composer composes or a painter paints or a runner runs. It's a portion of what I am and what I am becoming. And as I progress on this journey toward somewhere it is above all else meaningful because it is meaningful. It's the instantiation of a passion for learning and sharing.

Wonderful, thanks for sharing both your time and your wisdom with us today. Here’s to more of the right questions and less digging out of the holes we create with the wrong questions!

If you haven't had the opportunity to check out Gene's Systems Thinking Certification Program, I highly recommend it. You can sign up here or learn more by contacting Gene directly.

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