The Answer is in the Questions

It is easy to get discouraged. Political wrangling. Corruption. Violence. Hunger.

These are patterns of disaster or disappointment that fill the news and challenge hope. We can see the patterns, name them, and analyze them in many different ways. We can prioritize and strategize, report and evaluate, but the patterns persist. It is easy to get discouraged.


Last week, I had the pleasure and honor to participate in a series of Taking Action Workshops at the Conference on College Composition and Communication (4Cs). My role was to guide 35 concerned academics as they “narrowed and named” their opportunities for advocacy and action. The experience was energizing and depressing at the same time. The energy came from the obvious commitment and courage of those who chose to take action. The depression came from the massive waste that emerges when dogma replaces dialogue in service of the public good.

I didn’t offer answers to any of the wicked problems facing these bright, brave, and frustrated academics, but I did share four questions that moved some people away from helplessness and toward action.

Question 1: How do you escape the trap of your “ever and always voice?”

Every important problem is surrounded by stories. Different groups tell different stories. Each one is based on the memories, hopes, and assumptions held by members of the group. Within groups, though, stories are repeated, embellished, and repeated again. These habitual narratives are what we call “ever and always voice.” Often, these stories trap us into inaction, repetition and hopelessness as we choose to tell stories that satisfy our need to embarrass our enemies and justify our helplessness. Every time we hear or retell the story, we become more convinced that our problem is, indeed, intractable. We are stuck. We face a wicked issue.  

Only one thing will help us escape from this trap of negative and self-reinforcing narrative. Inquiry. In the session at 4Cs, I invited people to share a three-sentence version of their story and to receive the gift of inquiry from another person. Without responding, each storyteller heard questions about their story that challenged their habits of thought, speech, and action. The questions held the power to disturb their ever and always versions of truth. This simple inquiry exercise helped participants get past some of the barriers embedded in their “ever and always voices.”     

Question 2: If solution isn’t an option, how do you find your “next wise action?”

Problems that continue to plague us are usually ‘wicked’ problems. They have no natural boundaries. There is no definitive measure of success. Complex relationships hold the problematic patterns in place over time. Because of these extraordinary conditions, wicked problems can never be solved. We can describe and label them in any number of ways, but they persist.

No matter how intractable they appear, we still take action every day to engage with and  manage the patterns of our most wicked problems. When a solution isn’t possible, our only option is a “next wise action.” These wise actions come in response to particular circumstances, places and times. They are based on current information, power, and opportunity. The three Adaptive Action questions (What? So what? and Now what?) help us choose a wise action in a moment that may shift, even if it will not solve, the wicked problem. We don’t know what the consequences of our Adaptive Actions will be or whether the actions we take are the best possible. The best we can do is to use what we know, to understand what we can, and do what we will. The courageous and resourceful members of 4Cs who attended our session, completed one cycle of Adaptive Action and left with at least one wise action to make a difference for them and their communities.       

Question 3: What becomes possible when you stop trying to win and work to “keep a game going?”

For most of us, and for the people with whom we work, to succeed is to win. As we plan and take action, we expect to win. Winning and success are the same thing in what we call finite games. A finite game can be won because it has clear rules, boundaries, opponents, and objectives. The problem is that wicked problems have none of these characteristics, so winning against a wicked problem is impossible. If the only way to succeed is to win, then wicked problems doom us to failure.

At HSD, we consider a different kind of game, and an additional definition of success. An infinite game has no clear beginning, ending, set of rules, consistent opponents or pre-determined objective. The purpose of an infinite game is to keep playing. All of our most discouraging challenges, from satisfying world hunger to stopping terrorism, are infinite games. When we give up the unreasonable idea of winning such games, we can discover realistic opportunities for meaningful actions. My 4Cs colleagues saw within their wicked problems elements of both finite and infinite games. Within each, they found new strategies and tactics that released them from the trap of the expected win and opened pathways into the power of influence in infinite games.            

Question 4: What is the power of naming your “wicked problem?” 

A name removes some of the mystery and power of the wicked problem by putting it into a conceptual box. While the problem may still exist as part of an infinite game, your engagement becomes more manageable when you give your problem a name. Good names are designed to help you see patterns clearly, understand them in useful ways, and move toward realistic action. Usually a good name:

  • Includes a verb to help you move toward action
  • Frames the issue in positive or humorous terms to entice you into engagement
  • Changes frequently to reflect how your next wise actions shift the patterns over time
  • Creates for you and your colleagues a new “ever and always voice” that is constructive and empowering

The 4Cs are writers, so their names were creative and fun. For example, one person was dismayed by political appointments that, in her estimation, threatened the integrity of post-secondary education in her state. She decided that her problem would be to “Find the Cracks.” 

These four questions and 75 minutes of discussion did not erase the problematic patterns that brought people to the Taking Action Workshops at this conference. Participants did not leave as world-class activists and advocates, but they did leave with next wise actions and new adaptive capacity to find the next wise actions that will inevitably follow.

If you would like a copy of the slides I used to guide this discussion at 4Cs, drop me an email at

Glenda Eoyang, PhD
Founding Executive Director
Human Systems Dynamics Institute 

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