May 29th, 2011

I hear a lot of “How?” questions: How can we change the way we do things around here? How do we get people to change their behaviour? How do we decide what’s important? How do… you get the picture.

Peter Block, consulting guru, says the answer to how is yes. In fact that’s the title of one of his books.

Barbara Jacobs, American Library Association, wrote on the amazon.com site:

“The new approach to change management that is presented here will completely flummox control freaks. Block posits a refreshing series of truths that, if adopted, will transform workplaces into journeys of meaning. The best-selling author of Flawless Consulting (1981) and Stewardship (1993) insists that we ask the wrong question about accomplishing the important things in our lives, particularly in our place of employment. We too often ask “How?” which focuses too closely on the practical way of getting something done and is actually a subconscious expression of society’s emphasis on control of people, time, and cost. Instead, our concentration should be focused on “Why?” In other words, we need to pay attention to what really matters to us personally, from heart-felt commitments in our private lives to the creation of projects in the workplace. To be able to act on what matters, explains Block, we must reclaim specific qualities, such as intimacy and idealism. Then we can tackle purposeful work as if we were social architects seeking engagement and change. Provocative and stimulating reading.”

Switching to a facilitation perspective, questions that start with how are frustrating at best, a diversion from what’s really important at worst.

From clients: How do we get alignment? How do we get buy-in? How do we get action? How do I make sure everyone hears what I have to say? How do I get my ideas across? How do we make sure everyone has all the right information? How do we make sure we don’t waste everyone’s time? How do we reach sustainable agreements? How do we follow-up and make sure people do what they promised?

From facilitators: How do I design a workshop? How do I know how long an activity will take? How do I ask the right questions? How do I know if it’s the right process or activity? How do I know if I’m right for this job? How do I get people talking? How do I get people to stop talking?

On the surface, these appear to be perfectly reasonable questions. They take us, however, straight to the transactional realm, focusing on action and process, rules and regulation, control and dependency. Questions of “What?” and “Why?” are entirely different. To explore what we want and why it’s important requires a different sort of thinking, and more dialogue, with self and others. These questions require us to have conversations and to build relationships. Conversations and relationships are the foundations for action, commitment and getting things done.

Don’t just take my word for it. Here’s a snippet from Peter Block’s website.

The challenging part of facilitating is not the facilitating itself – it’s helping clients in particular, and workshop participants in general, to articulate specifically what they want and why. When the focus is on “How?”, the discussion remains somewhat superficial and old habits prevail. It’s only when we can give time and energy to exploring “What?” and “Why?” that we can surface underlying frustrations and hopes, name them and begin the process of dealing with them.

Anything else is mere wallpapering over the cracks.

2 Comments so far

  1. David on May 29, 2011 7:37 pm

    I’ve been immersing myself in the design approach to facilitating outcomes for workshops and finding it works well. The team at IDEO work from the approach “How might we…?” http://designthinking.ideo.com/?p=301 and the team at Google are now using it too: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mTpa-bJiMp4

    So doesn’t it make a difference on how you deliver the how and what the rest of the process is?

    The more I learn (and there’s still so much good stuff out there to learn) the less I think that there’s any one way.

    So how do you know whether or not to use how? 😉

  2. Viv McWaters on May 29, 2011 8:00 pm

    Thanks David, you bring up some interesting points. And you’re spot on when you say there’s more than one way! I think the Ideo, design thinking approach is great once you are clear about what it is you want. The challenge, i think, is getting clients/participants to clearly say what it is they want – in concrete terms, without abstracting. This requires some introspection and is contrary to the current ideology of focusing on action and outcomes. “How?” questions are increasingly a red flag to me to ask if that really is the question, (and it may be) or if it’s just a way of avoiding the ‘real’ issue – that tends to leak out anyway. Facilitation, like many other organisational systems, is prone to fall into the trap of providing a mechanistic ‘answer’ to what is essentially a complex, human-centred issue. When making widgets it was/is easy to see how making such-and-such a change would improve output and/or efficiency. When working with essentially human systems, and ideas, such a linear relationship is not so helpful. And facilitation processes that rely on a linear approach of do this, then that, then that are, I think, suspect and reinforce existing habits of thinking and acting. And as you know if you’ve read any of my other posts, I’m sorta fond of disrupting those patterns of thinking and acting 🙂
    Cheers, Viv

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