10 questions from your future organisation

A colour photo of Gardens by the Bay in Singapore. Tall pink garden structures with green gardens below.
Gardens by the Bay, Singapore. Photo by Yeo Khee on Unsplash

Most of work is “conversation design” most of the time, for which good questions play a critical role. Questions disrupt our default ways of thinking, communicating and designing. Questions are conversational and cultural interventions that invite and entrust. Offering a solution collapses options. Offering a question opens up the space for possibilities and plurality.

These ten questions contain within them the mindsets and practices of your future organisation: psychologically safe, decentralised, equitable, agile, complexity-informed, ecologically-minded. If you want to change the mindsets that underpin organisational behaviours, consider starting with good questions. You might find your conversations take on radically different qualities.

This is a check-in question. Check-ins create better meetings, enabling everyone to be present and feel heard, which fosters psychological safety.

Ask this question when… you kick off a meeting, before you jump into any discussions.

The most effective start to a meeting I’ve ever seen was a product owner kicking off the first Show and Tell on a new project. The product aimed to expand the choices for young people after leaving school. The product owner asked everyone in the room to raise their hand if they’d been to university. All 30 of us raised our hands, bar one person. We were a homogenous group of people when it comes to educational experiences. There were hardly any people in the room with lived experience of making different choices after leaving school.

We often make decisions without seeking advice from people who will be affected by it or who are subject matter experts. The people making decisions in organisations are often from over-represented groups. It helps us all to become more aware of who isn’t in the room.

Ask this question when… you’re deciding who to invite to a meeting, to ensure the right people are in the room. Or, at the start of the meeting to highlight the likely blank spots in your perspectives.

David Marquet is a former nuclear submarine Commander in the US navy. He realised that when leaders give instructions they create dependence, but asking “what do you intend to do?” prompts people to exercise their autonomy and distributes decision-making.

Ask this question when… someone tries to ask for your permission, sign-off or advice on a course of action.

It’s normal for humans to jump to solutions, and sometimes we need help to articulate the actual problem, so we can explore more options. It is more effective, and kinder, to ask this question than to rubbish someone’s solution.

Ask this question when… someone has requested a specific solution, rather than expressed a problem or need.

Help people to understand that their ideas are guesses based on assumptions. No one can predict the future and we all make assumptions about how people behave or will behave. If you reframe those ideas and plans as assumptions and hypotheses, they become tangible and testable. Read more here.

Ask this question when… everyone gets excited about a new product/ service idea. Especially if someone wants to build an app or some other piece of hype technology.

Powerful but still underused. Read Ann Shipman’s post about how the Government Digital Service use this question.

Ask this question when… everyone gets excited about a new product/ service idea. Especially if someone wants to build an app or some other piece of hype technology.

We should also be thinking beyond user needs, as Cassie Robinson.’s writes. How do our actions now affect communities, our society, our planet?

Ask this question when… when making a decision, designing or planning.

Read more: Wales developed an act using ancestor thinking in 2015. The Long Time Project, Designing for future needs by We are Snook, How to be a good ancestor by Roman Krznaric.

Fear often gets in the way of good decision-making. Explore if the decision is safe-to-try and reversible if it doesn’t work. If it is, proceed. If it isn’t, can you break the decision down into smaller chunks that are safe-to-try? Once you’ve tried it, you’ll have data to evaluate if it was a good decision or not. As always, a prototype is worth a thousand meetings.

Ask this question when… you’re going round in circles because there are lots of unknowns and “what ifs”.

This is the secret to fast decision-making for low-stakes issues. Asking: “what does everyone think?” results in ten people spending an hour debating the phrasing of one sentence in the new expenses policy. Asking: “does anyone have any objections?” will focus attention on the truly important implications. Caveat: if you don’t have a psychologically safe group, people will not feel able to raise objections and will instead subtly sabotage the decision after the meeting.

Ask this question when… You need an agreement to proceed on a low-stakes issue.

Everyone loves to start something new: a new project, a new product. New things feel great. Love of newness and fear of endings drive a lot of organisational dysfunctions, like having too much work in progress. This is often a root cause of poor well-being and burnout. Whenever you want to start something, agree on what you will stop to make space for it. If you’re willing to kill an existing project to make space for the new one, then it’s worth doing.

Ask this question when… You’ve decided to do something new.

Further reading: the magic phrases of sociocracy.

Organisational design consultant. Coach. #chronicillness advocate. She/her. Newsletter: thismightresonate.substack.com. Website: https://www.emrosebaz.com/

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