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Business Insight: What? Questions that count in business

Published July 12, 2013 9:09 am

Move forward in coherent and productive ways.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Glenda Eoyang, author of the book, "Adaptive Action: Leveraging Uncertainty in Your Organization," says deceptively simple questions are critical in today's business environment.

Why are questions so critical?

Sometimes change comes slowly and in a predictable way. In times like those, answers are really helpful. If something worked well before, you can be sure it will still work today, and you can count on it to work in future. You can't have the same kind of certainty when change is fast and unpredictable. When things are changing, answers have a really short shelf-life. What is useful here and now may be useless at another time or place. If you try to use old answers to new challenges, you are sure to get stuck. When you can't count on answers, you can rely on really good questions to get you moving again.

Where does the "Why" question come in?

Action keeps you connected. As things change, you see what is ahead and prepare for it. "Why?" is much more problematic in unpredictable situations. We talk about Why as a rear-view mirror question. It can only be answered about the past, and it may not be helpful at all in the future. Often the causes of change are so broad, multiple and massively entangled that it is impossible to know why something happened. Time searching for a root cause in such a chaotic mess is time wasted. Instead, we encourage people to focus on what is emerging and plan adaptive responses to reality as it unfolds into the future.

How about the "So what" query?

"So what?" is about making meaning of what you discover in "What?" We have habits of mind that get us stuck in one way to understand what is happening, and that one way to see leads us to one way of action, which may or may not be effective in the moment. During 'So what?" you consider multiple interpretations, talk with others about what they see, challenge your own assumptions, imagine alternative futures. All of these practices help you stay flexible and innovative, so you don't get stuck with one out-moded or rigid expectation of yourself or of the world. 

And the "Now what?"

"Now what?" takes you to action. In really complex situations, it is all too easy to get stuck in analysis paralysis. We think, if we spend enough time in analysis we will be able to see the one best solution to a challenge. And we can, if the situation is simple and familiar. Sometimes, though, a situation is so complex it is impossible ever to know what the very best course of action is. In those situations, you should just do something and see how the system responds to your action. "Now what?" draws on the first two questions of Adaptive Action, but it does not require you to determine what is the best option for action. Instead, it helps you pick one that is better than others and get on with the process of Adaptive Action to see what the next "What?" might reveal.

Any others?

What?

What has surprised me lately?

What am I willing to risk in the interest of the future?

What is happening above and below the level where I usually focus?

So what?

So what are my distant neighbors doing?

So what will the effects of my decisions be on my grandchildren's grandchildren?

So what is the greater good and how can I support it?

Now what?

Now what can I do today to make a difference?

Now what are the questions that move me forward?

Now what will I do the next time I'm disappointed? Glenda Eoyang, author