Working with some colleagues the other day in an action learning session, we stumbled on a very powerful insight into why many organisations function the way they do and how that functioning can be released into something quite transformational.
Action learning is a small-group process which has one simple rule: no one may make any statement unless it is in response to a question. Commonly, this way of working brings to light many of the group’s (and individual members’) unexamined assumptions. This was the first time that most of the members of the group had experienced this format, and the problem we were inquiring into had to do with the EU Commission’s annual strategic planning and programming (SPP) cycle. Having spent the better part of an hour unpacking this thorny organisational issue, it was time to distil our collective learnings from the process. One colleague said “I learned that we have an awful lot of assumptions, and that assumptions lead to expectations, which lead to frustration“. When I formulated this on paper as the SPP cycle 1.0, the group exploded into laughter. We had hit the nail on the head.
So what would happen if, instead of just blindly following the chain reaction of assumptions to expectations to frustration ad nauseam, we were to reverse the flow and replace our statements with questions? So when we’re sitting with frustration, rather than re-engage in the cycle, we acknowledge the frustration: “I’m frustrated. That means that I have some expectation that has not been met. What is that expectation? And what assumption of mine is that expectation based on?”
This looks very much like the work we do in our action learning sets. Only instead of doing it in secret, off in a corner somewhere where no one can witness, we do it together, as a collective discipline. This shared inquiry makes it possible to transform the vicious cycle of ‘organisational life 1.0’, step by step.
As we learn, as individuals, to become aware of our frustration and express it, we can begin to recognise the role played by our own expectations and understand that these flow from our own unexamined assumptions about reality. This helps us take responsibility for our own feelings, which is nothing if not empowering. When we do this with others – in our work or private environment – the different elements of the cycle can begin to metamorphose. The assumptions underlying our expectations, when made explicit, give way to clear purpose. The unexamined expectations which used to fuel our frustration, when openly articulated can lead to clear agreements (about our roles, our outcomes, our behaviours). And working together transparently in this way quickly results in mutual trust. Which, as a way of living and working, is so much more pleasant, healthy and balanced that no one in their right minds would not hang out there if given the choice. What’s more, all the organisational bottom lines like performance, accountability, transparency, efficiency and effectiveness escalate off the scale as well.
When this new way of doing business becomes internalised and automatic among a group of people, it will tend to spread virally as the individual members sow the seeds of the new behaviours of questioning assumptions and expectations in the other arenas of their life and work. The conditions are then ripe for ‘organisational life 2.0’ to begin to emerge. Whatever the content of the work to be done, whatever the scale of the challenge, the surest way to wise action is through collective clarity achieved by inquiring together into the question that best holds the essence of the purpose to be served.
I shared this model with a friend of mine, and he saw in it the inner dimensions of the ‘forming, storming, norming, performing‘ model of team development, which describes the behaviour of the team from the outside. However it may be, there are three dimensions that I find particularly important.
- Unearthing and shedding light on previously unconscious expectations and assumptions is the royal road to personal development. That to which one was previously subject becomes an object in awareness, something that we can see and therefore act on.
- In our increasingly complex and interdependent world, we cannot afford to keep blindly following the vicious circle down into conflict, exploitation and bloodshed. Once we move into collective inquiry, the social technologies of collaboration abound that can help us move to wise action at any scale, from local to global. The first step is to help the individuals to shift.
- The art form at the root and core of all these transformations is the wicked question. When people start practicing action learning, the first thing they discover is that questioning is an art the usefulness of which they had overlooked. In action learning, the leader is the person who can ask the best questions.