We’ve all faced this situation at some point – being asked to do something that we have never done before. Sometimes it is a senior person in the organisation who is asking you to do so, sometimes it’s a colleague, perhaps even a team that may have ‘ganged up’ on you in their request. Or maybe it is you that is doing the asking.
Whoever is doing the asking, the feeling this often triggers in us is unmistakable, a great discomfort. I suspect that we have been accustomed to this feeling more often since the year 2020 came in earnest.
In some, it may lead to paralysis, some procrastinate, while others vent their frustration. Some may ask themselves ‘why me’, while a few would go seeking answers – a ‘How To’ guide, from their professional network.
The problem in this myriad of responses is that we seldom stop to ask – where lies the question in what we are being asked to do?
As author Peter Block explains, How-To questions are often simply statements, masked as questions. They point to a simple search for knowledge that already exists, so-called ‘best practices’ that may have served us well in a more predictable past, but not necessarily the paradoxical questions we face today. In short, they point us to what has been done before and ask us to adopt the answer, to (hopefully) match the situation we face today, hoping there is a fit.
Paradoxical questions are different. They lead us to less familiar, more persistent and complicated questions. They ask us to appreciate the complexity inherent in the question, before attempting an answer.
Here is an example. If I were to ask you “How should you hold people accountable in your organisation?“, you may feel compelled to provide a quick answer. However, we can recognise that there is a paradox inherent in this question, as we learn to appreciate that accountability must be chosen by the person whom we are asking to hold accountable. And in today’s WFH or hybrid environment, that is anything but simple.
In this context, if we were to wait for them to choose accountability and they avoid it, won’t we end up holding them accountable as a result, not a choice, effectively by force? If we were to set up more systems of control, aren’t we asking for mere compliance, rather than accountability? What if more control is not the answer and accountability can be better matched with transparency, access to data and greater visibility?
Venturing into new terrains, the land of Never Been Done before, invites us to discover the deeper, more valuable questions worth posing, They lead us to discover better answers and play in spaces where collaboration, mutual learning and new value is created.
Isn’t it time we start? Let’s do that…
Have a good weekend everyone!
Saar Ben-Attar (A Connector Beyond Limits)
The Answer To How is Yes, by Peter Block. A brilliant book on acting on what matters most.
“When I ask a How-To question, I take the position that others know, I don’t. I am the student, they are the teacher. The question carries the belief that what I want is right around the corner. What this question ignores is that most of the important questions we face are paradoxical in nature - questions that have many right answers, and many of the answers seem to conflict with one another. These paradoxical questions lead us to what matters most.”