Organizations that are undertaking agile transformations are usually defined by rigid phase-gate approaches. Departments may even have been created to enforce rigid compliance to pre-defined processes and policies. Overcoming this cultural inertia can be daunting. Restructuring organizationally can be damaging to the effort, particularly if it means job loss. Even if the transformation requires organizational restructuring, which agile usually does, it can still be difficult to break the rigid enforcement of methods and policies. For example, management might mandate that everyone shall do something in a particular way in an attempt to promote consistency and maintain control of the organizational system. Assuming that things will apply broadly across an organization can be stifling to transformation efforts.
The Transformation Approach as a Barrier
If care is not taken in the beginning, the transformation approach itself can be a barrier to successful transformation. By creating mandates and policies, it is quite possible to limit options at lower levels in the organization. Assuming that training and education alone are sufficient to support sustainable change is a mistake, particularly if agile experience within the organization is limited or nonexistent. Seeking third-party assistance through training and ongoing coaching can greatly improve the ease with which the organization is able to implement agile. Taking care to create an environment in which transformation can take place is critical to long-term results. The foundational element of creating this environment is proliferating the values and principles embodied by the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. This occurs through management demonstrating the agile principles and values through their actions so individuals within the organization have a working model to guide their own behavior and an environment that minimizes the risk to the individual so innovation and learning can take place.
A Better Approach
It’s easy to state that the agile principles and values should be embodied within the organization, but it’s not so easy to enact and instill the practice. Meaningful change is enabled first through the realization that what is being done isn’t working and then by seeking new ways that may work within a specific context. This requires that every individual, and the entire organization, look in the mirror and arrive at the realization that the way things are done around here is not the way things could be done around here.
Socrates was attributed with having said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” While the saying doesn’t literally mean that people know nothing, the effect that the sentiment can have on personal growth can be phenomenal. When we deceive ourselves into believing we have all the answers we unwittingly close ourselves off to opportunities for learning.
The Power of Questioning
Learning occurs through questioning and applying, not through memorization of facts alone. Therefore, to learn about others we need to tap into our own internal curiosity about others. Listening to them and asking deep questions brings their internal values, fears, and assumptions to light. When they do surface they can be quite surprising, even to the individual being questioned. Psychologists, social workers, and teachers have been aware of the power of questioning for quite some time and have effectively applied the Socratic method to their respective professions. The business world has not been so quick to embrace the technique for a number of reasons, one of which may be a simple ignorance of the importance of questioning.
Barriers to Questioning
The unacceptability of displaying emotion in the workplace is a large barrier to questioning. Additionally, the unwillingness to make ourselves vulnerable for fear of how we’ll be perceived by others is a large barrier to interpersonal communication and close relationships. Genuine curiosity about others and a willingness to discover their underlying beliefs and values allows us to identify areas where learning may occur. This use of questioning for guided discovery should not be confused with manipulation. Asking leading questions to push someone toward a certain action or behavior might be construed as manipulative.
Admittedly, the difference is subtle. The key lies in our predetermination. Even as we are leading and guiding organizational transformations, when asking questions we want to be open to the possibility that the discussion and outcome may lead to someplace that wasn’t expected at the outset. In fact, it may even lead to a discovery or breakthrough on the part of the coach. Often, the questioner can learn as much about himself or herself as he or she can about the other person. The goal is not to lead people to answers; rather, it is to stimulate their thinking and get them to challenge their own assumptions that they may hold as sacred truths. The questions that comprise the Socratic method fall into five broad categories and are used to uncover deeply held assumptions, beliefs, and values.
The Five Types of Socratic Questions
There’s a technique known as the five whys that’s popular for exploring cause-and-effect relationships and discovering root causes of issues (Sondalini, 2013, para 1). The efficacy of this technique can be debated, but this should not be confused with Socratic questioning. The Socratic method uses questions that are much deeper and more thoughtful than repeatedly asking “why?”. The Socratic method is framed by five main types of questions that are meant to initiate critical thinking.
When engaged in a discussion, something will often be said that leaves you wondering what the individual is trying to state. Asking for conceptual clarification can help broaden our understanding of what the other person is trying to say. Questions to ask for conceptual clarification include:
- Can you explain that further?
- What do you mean when you say _______?
- Could you give me an example?
We can often take what someone says at face value. In many instances what someone says has been crafted out of myriad assumptions. These assumptions may or may not be known explicitly by the individual. Questions can be crafted to probe these assumptions to discover what underlies them. Questions that probe assumptions might include:
- What assumptions are you making that bring you to that conclusion?
- Do you think that’s always the case? What makes you think so?
- You seem to be assuming ______. Is that correct?
Probing Rationale or Reasoning
Probing rationale or reasoning is very similar to probing assumptions, but there is a distinct purpose. When we’re probing assumptions all that is being asked is for the person to state what the assumption is. In essence, it’s a direct attempt at uncovering the assumption. When we probe rationale or reasoning, we’re trying to discover why an individual holds a particular assumption. Examples of probing rationale or reasoning might include:
- Why do you think _____ is true?
- How did you come to the conclusion that _____?
- How do you know?
Questions that ask for clarification are used to ensure that we understand what it is that an individual is stating. Questions that clarify viewpoints might include:
- Can you state that another way?
- Are you saying that _______?
- Can you clarify what that means?
Probing Implications and Consequences
When we’re more certain that we understand what someone is saying, we can progress to identifying implications and consequences of a viewpoint. These types of questions are intended to initiate thought about the impact of what one is saying or implying. Questions that probe implications and consequences include:
- What would be the impact or result of _______?
- Would that necessarily be the outcome, or might something else happen?
- If that is the case, then what else might be true?
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