When physicist David Bohm studied what enabled Einstein and other physicists able to achieve breakthroughs, he discovered that they emerged out of free open conversations where they “exchanged ideas without trying to change the other’s mind and without bitter argument” as described in a Psychology Today article called Awakening Our Collaborative Spirit. They felt free to share any idea and had the professional collegiality and respect to listen to each other. In contrast, many other scientists of the time worked in an atmosphere of fear and politics, which meant they avoided sharing their ideas and argued with each other on petty points. They created no breakthroughs.
In a current-day example, Microsoft created an internal environment that created a “lost decade” in terms of innovation, as a Vanity Fair article by Kurt Eichenwald reports:
“Microsoft had “a management system known as “stack ranking”—a program that forces every unit to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, good performers, average, and poor—effectively crippled Microsoft’s ability to innovate. “Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees.”
Employees ended up focusing on competing with each other, rather than focusing on creating better products that better served the customer.
How can we create environments for visioning, strategy development, and problem solving that enable this free flow of conversation…where possibilities and options expand and new insights can emerge? Organizations may not take as extreme an approach as Microsoft, yet long-ingrained subtle organizational dynamics get in the way of free conversations, for example, meetings where the senior people dominate the conversation and other voices do not get heard, people’s fear of raising an uncomfortable issue or challenging group norms/accepted thinking, or people’s desire to get credit that inhibits sharing ideas openly.
Asking open questions is a core skill and technique that can overcome these dynamics, creating the quality of space that enables innovative thinking. I recently facilitated an annual company meeting of about 80 people for a fast-growing entrepreneurial company in Connecticut and used the Search for Insight process, which uses strategic questions to spur creative thinking. After some training in how to ask strategic open questions, directors from four departments each presented a current business challenge, e.g., how to select which new products to launch, how to train new staff efficiently. Participants divided into four groups, one group per challenge and brainstormed strategic questions that could be useful for the challenge. No answers were developed, just question after question was suggested. Then the groups rotated twice so each challenge got the diverse thinking of dozens of people from all parts of the company.
In the debrief afterwards, each of the department leaders shared the most powerful three questions, and in each case, the experience had given them a different lens on how to approach the challenge. The broad range of perspectives, from various departments, as well as a mix of people with the company and people brand new to it, brought out new views on the challenges. Their assumptions about the challenge were shifted, for example, the challenge about how long it took to train new staff was seen in a new light when someone asked “what if we only had two days to train new staff?” At first the training director’s reaction was, “no way,” but then she said her mind was full of a cascade of new questions she had never considered. Another question that shifted thinking was “How would we approach training if we viewed it as a core way to sustain our culture?”
In creating a space where we only ask questions, every one participating could relax from having to come up with answers or prove themselves competent to their peers. Back to the Einstein example, the free exchange of ideas is enabled when we can step out of our titles and roles and the flawed assumption that we have all the answers. By practicing asking questions we do not need to have answers to, we create that experience of discovery and exploration. The competitive dynamic of people putting “their” idea out there that they want credit for can lessen.