The Power of Questions

To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science. Albert Einstein

We are in the middle of a storm of intractable issues:

  • Structural, institutional, and individual racism
  • Virus without vaccine or cure
  • Global pandemic without global leadership
  • Changing climate bringing drought, fire, hurricane, and record-breaking temperatures
  • Hunger
  • Conflict and violence
  • Economic and political inequity and injustice

These are wicked issues. They cannot be solved because they emerge from complex systems where the boundaries are open, measures of success are many, and interdependencies are unknowable. Such issues never go away, and they never repeat exactly. They are questions without answers and problems without solutions¹.

Some people choose to passively ignore or actively deny problems they cannot solve. That is a short-term strategy at best. Today, in the USA and in other places around the world, we are reaping the consequences of that kind of willful blindness. The death toll rises, and the people march.

Others search for answers with massive investments and high-level policy. These, too, can have short-term benefits. Parts of wicked issues can be tamed, and promising practices can hint at solutions, but none of these answers is sufficient to solve the problem for all places and all times.

Complexity science teaches us another way to engage with intractable issues. This alternative approach is the world of human systems dynamics. It requires three practices.

See patterns not problems. Instead of seeing wicked issues as problems that cannot be solved, we see them as patterns that can be shifted. A pattern can be seen in an infinite number of ways, and each way reveals an option for action. None of those actions is completely satisfactory, but all of them have the potential to make a difference. As we listen to the reports of personal and community grief and terror, we see patterns. As we move toward social justice, we begin to shift old patterns and create new ones. People and their communities carry patterns of pain and possibility in many different ways. Each one deserves a hearing and a response. Each one can open options for hope and emerging power.

Learn in action. A complex system is in continual motion. In each moment, new patterns emerge, and old ones disappear. As they do, new options can replace old habits of mind and action. The simple, iterative process of Adaptive Action (WHAT? SO WHAT? NOW WHAT?) allows observations, understandings, and actions to evolve along with voices that emerge in the community. None of us can take Adaptive Action for others. We can use our own power to see, understand, and influence what is to create what might be.  

Stand in Inquiry. No single answer is sufficient for any wicked issue. Police reform, as an answer, might shift structural racism, but it will not solve it. Neither will education, economic development, civil rights legislation, or violent riots. Questions, on the other hand, can open minds and open doors. Questions can uncover the many options for action that will shift a pattern of racism toward one of greater empathy, equity, and justice. They can shift a pattern of poverty into possibility for individuals, families, communities, and bureaucracies.

In these challenging times, coronavirus, police brutality, and damaged democracies reveal and amplify complex patterns in our neighborhoods and cities. For the last 30 years, HSD practitioners have developed models and methods to support the practices of Pattern Logic, Adaptive Action, and Inquiry.

Since mid-March our community has convened every weekday to engage in these three practices. In 85, 20-minute conversations, we have found individual and collective actions to tame the wicked patterns we face. Many thanks to Stacy Becker who co-conceived and co-hosts the sessions with me.

The process is simple and elegant.

  1. WHAT? One person describes their wicked issue briefly. In three to five sentences, they capture the pattern that has them stuck.
  2. SO WHAT? Everyone else in the circle asks questions. The questions are open ended, authentic inquiries. Disguised advice and personal experiences are not allowed.
  3. NOW WHAT? The person who posed the issue does not reply to the questions. They listen. Each question invites them to see the pattern of their intractable problem in a new way. As the time draws to an end, they are invited to reflect on what they’ve heard, what they’ve learned, and what they intend to do with their new insights. 

We have focused on personal and professional wicked issues from around the world. They have covered a wide range of issues. A physical therapist was not able to touch her most vulnerable clients during the COVID lockdown. A middle-aged professional wonders how to respond when his city turns becomes a police state overnight. We have found no solutions, but we have found creative options for actions for each of us. As we hear others’ issues and contribute our questions, we recognize our own wicked patterns and find our own pathways toward action.

We are also using this approach with institutions in education, health care, public health, and finance. In all cases, leaders discover hope and possibility in the Power of Questions.   

If you would like to see how it works, you can watch recordings of past sessions or join in the inquiry yourself. When you register, you’ll get daily 30-minute reminders before each session, and links to the recordings and chat transcripts following each session. We plan to continue holding the sessions as long as people find them useful. Please do join us and discover the power of questions for yourself.

¹Rittel, H. W., & Webber, M. M. (2018). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Classic Readings in Urban Planning, 52-63. doi:10.4324/9781351179522-6 (https://bit.ly/stickyissue)

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