The Right Question is the Best Answer

Peter Jones Dialogic Design, Wu Wei

Recent Designing with Dialogue sessions (at OCAD’s Strategic Innovation Lab) have led to a series of inquiries into collective thinking with questions.

We initiate dialogue with a question. At its best, dialogue continues with and ends with more questions. The right question has more power than the right answer. The right question is the best answer to an inquiry. A powerful question has the ability to focus personal and collective thinking, energy, orientation, and participation.

In a collective context, such as for an organization or team, the ability to focus perspectives and thinking is known as leadership. A collective inquiry distinguishes the context of dialogic leadership from individual leadership. All participants own the questions and the responses in a dialogue, creating a shared capacity for understanding and action. However, when people “follow” a leader’s own framing of a problem, their ability to identify with, reflect, and own the problem is limited.

When a group has collectively reflected and reframed a problem through dialogue, they all own the inquiry and understand their collective perspective. People internalize the meaning, and the conversation has staying power. When a group intends this perspective, dialogue becomes generative, creating a context for reflective action.

As David Bohm said in On Dialogue, A Proposal, authentic dialogue creates an “arena” for collective learning.

Dialogue is a way of observing, collectively, how hidden values and intentions can control our behavior, and how unnoticed cultural differences can clash without our realizing what is occurring. It can therefore be seen as an arena in which collective learning takes place and out of which a sense of increased harmony, fellowship and creativity can arise.

In my view, this is a good description of the next gen organization. The strategy literature includes streams of connected ideas going back to the 1970’s on strategic dialogue, but the world has since become an interconnected Web-enabled mind. We cannot afford to hoard dialogue as a precious tool for the “small table” of closely-held organizational power. Before strategies are designed and launched, we need to set the “big table” of participatory dialogue to learn what the enabled organizational mind understands.

We might start by facilitating strategic dialogues for understanding, not for outcomes or execution. Dialogue belongs with leadership as a resource for organizational change, and becomes a mode of listening and reflecting. A style of leading through reflection and sharing power in collective thinking and, over time, an authentic collaboration toward shared wisdom.

(While I am not convinced we have skillful means for online dialogue yet, I believe it is becoming possible. In several venues we continue to explore the possibility of reflective dialogue online.

Perhaps the most powerful initial change people notice in organizations is that “real dialogue” has immediate impact. Authentic dialogue becomes authentic leadership. It generates a completely different presence than the false, coercive staged events many managers call “dialogue,” commonly employed when they have bad news to share in a softer tone.  In true dialogue the space of listening becomes palpable, and all people, especially leaders, become vulnerable to their own questions.  Having to respond as a real person is a hazard of the dialogue inquiry.

How? Dialogue is a communications perspective and style of thinking we can cultivate as a harmonious style of leadership. By asking “big open questions” we invite participation and demand whole-brain, whole-person attention. Questions larger than our capacity to answer require us to admit humility, to share with each other until we understand more. We learn to step back from the quick and easy answers that we use in”looking good.”

What if the very purpose of your life was best framed by continually responding a big question, and not the narrow instrumental pursuit of a particular goal or outcome? What if our lives were so expansive that only an extraordinary and provocative question could enact that purpose? An unanswerable inquiry that lasts a lifetime, or longer, as a question might grasp its own immortality by grabbing hold of the culture itself.

As Einstein said

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the answer, I would spend the first 55 minutes figuring out the proper questions to ask. For if I knew the proper questions, I could solve the problem in less than 5 minutes.”