Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Asking Great Questions

We are here at the Society for Organizational Learning's Annual Conference in Boston and will be writing a bit this week about what we are learning.

Yesterday I had David Isaacs, one of the founders of the World Cafe, sign a copy of "The Art of Powerful Questions: Catalyzing Insight, Innovation and Action" and we have noticed that in this community asking powerful questions (rather than the answers) often gets the most applause in the plenaries. In fact, there seems to be no particular expectations on the part of SoL members to answer all the questions - they celebrate the good ones. Here are some of the good ones Lizzie and I heard yesterday during a panel called "Purpose Beyond Profit":

  • What if educators had the same attitude that car manufacturers in Europe have, that they "owned" their students for life. How would they educate differently?

This question was inspired by Peter Senge's comment about how EU regulations are requiring European automobile manufacturers to take back cars that they build, so they build them differently. After students leave educators' classrooms they then become parts of educators' communities - they might leave their seat at the front of the classroom, but they never leave their life.

  • What is the current US Administration's analogy of putting a man on the moon?

When Kennedy came into office, he dreamt of a man on the moon in 10 years and set this as a challenge to his scientists. 8 years and 2 months later, there was a man on the moon. At the time, the average age in the NASA control room was 26 (meaning they were on average 18 years old when the challenge was put forward). What will be Obama’s man on the moon? And what and how can we learn about best tapping into today’s 18 year olds to make this dream come true?

  • What is in our system that we don’t know the long term effects of yet?

This was a great question asked by Darcy Winslow, founder of Designs for a Sustainable World Consulting with over 20 years experience working at Nike. Her presentation inspired a question from the audience:

  • When businesses cut costs are they really cutting them - or are they just moving them into customers or into the community?

When taking a systems viewpoint, cost-cutting exercises take on a whole new meaning. The archtype called "Shifting the Burden" comes into mind. A similar question can be asked by institutions and project teams.

These questions provoke many lively conversations and ideas which connected people and their experiences and really demonstrated how asking great questions can add energy to a process, help people think differently, and get things moving.

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