In Exponential Times, Questions Matter

“What if our schools could train students to be better lifelong learners and better adapters to change, by enabling them to be better questioners?”  -Warren Berger A More Beautiful Question

And it begins with us, the questions we are asking as individuals and organizations…

What changes?

What stays the same?

What is relevant?

What remains relevant?

What is irrelevant?

What falls into obsolescence and discontinuity?

What questions are we asking?

What questions do we need to be asking?

How will the current digital transformation effect education at all levels, across the spectrum?

How will we determine to prepare our students for a digitally disrupted world that is facing an unprecedented acceleration of change?

How deeply will the digital transformation effect the future that our students are walking out into? (Think of the next 5, 10, 15, even 20 years)

How do we prepare our organizations, educators, and students for the proliferation of data that is increasing and expanding exponentially and how to use it without becoming overwhelmed by it?

How will we prepare our students for a globalized future that is being outsourced and automated, as well as continually disrupted and enhanced by artificial intelligence?

How do we ensure that our students are being equipped with the knowledge, skills and abilities that provide them opportunities in a vastly changing future?

Are we constantly asking…

What is?

What if?

How might we?

Too often we want answers, not more questions. We thrive on trying to create safe environments focused on predictability and certainty, while avoiding the questions and conversations that may invite in more volatility, disruption and uncertainty.

As Jeanne Liedtka shares, “Innovation means moving into uncertainty. To foster innovation, we need to embrace that learning only occurs when we step away from the familiar and accept the uncertainty that inevitably accompanies new experiences.”

But how will we truly define our individual and organizational challenges if we are not asking deeper and better questions? How will we begin to invoke greater learning and inquiry, if we lack the questions that invite that thinking into our organizations? If we are not asking better questions, how will we know whether or not we are even solving the right problems and challenges?

Far too often we find ourselves and our organizations providing well-considered answers and solutions, only to find that they are in collusion to solving the wrong problems and challenges we are facing.  

Asking questions allows individuals and organizations to grapple with their current circumstances, promoting both individual and team thinking, learning, inquiry, autonomy and agency, which is vital to dealing more effectively with the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity that surrounds and infiltrates our organizations in today’s world.

Questions cause us to consider our future, as much as our current circumstances. Questions allow us to move our thinking away from a predetermined consideration to more possible and preferable contemplations of the future.

Inability of individuals and organizations to endure the uncertainty brought forth and raised by our questions, will inevitably serve as the gatekeeper that locks us in status quo ways of thinking, doing and acting. Or you might say, if we remain unable to ask what if, we will stay forever entrenched in what is.

“Questions challenge authority and disrupt established structures, processes, and systems, forcing people to have to at least think about doing something differently.”  -Warren Berger A More Beautiful Question


Our Creativity Bias

“As important as creativity has been in our species’ recent centuries, it is the cornerstone for our next steps. From our daily activities to our schools to our companies, we are all riding arm-in-arm into a future that compels a constant remodeling of the world.”  -via The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World by Eagleman and Brandt

And yet…

Research and studies inform us that we have a inherent bias against creativity, especially in leadership roles.  As Heidi Grant Halvorson shares in her 99u article, The Bias Against Creative Leaders…

“Our idea of a prototypical creative person is completely at odds with our idea of a prototypical effective leader.”

While David Burkus follows up in his article from The Creativity Post, Why Do We Keep Creative People Out Of Leadership Roles? of evidence published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology by researchers Mueller, Goncalo and Kamdar that when they analyzed their findings on creativity and leadership…

“They found a negative correlation between creativity and leadership potential. The employees were assuming that those with more creative ideas were less prepared to be leaders.”

However, the bias against creativity did not stop with leaders and leadership roles. We actually harbor individual bias’ against creativity itself. In a follow-up study led by Mueller it was found that “Participants said they desired creative ideas, but subconsciously rejected creativity.”  

For which Burkus adds…

“Perhaps the explanation for both studies is our preference for order and the status quo. For an idea to be creative, it must be novel and useful. For a leader to be creative, their ideas and methods must be novel and useful. But if an idea is novel, it departs from the status quo or established order. That same order is often used for evaluating whether the idea is useful.”

We know that our brains crave certainty. And in the same way, even though we purport to be in favor of creativity, deep down, we still cling to order and the status quo.

As Eagleman and Brandt share in The Runaway Species

“This mandate for innovation is not reflected in our school systems. Creativity is a driver of youthful discovery and expression – but it becomes stifled in deference to proficiencies that are more easily measured and tested. This sidelining of creative learning may reflect larger societal trends. Teachers typically prefer the well-behaved student to the creative one, who is often perceived as rocking the boat. A recent poll found that most Americans want children to have respect for elders over independence, good manners over curiosity, and would prefer them to be well behaved rather than creative.”

Which may be one of the reasons that our organizations deal much better with ideas of reform and incremental change, over disruptive, transformational and even exponential shifts. Even though we love to hear the stories of the latter, we cling to the former.

If creativity is as important as we believe it to be for the future success of our individuals, organizations, and even society, as stated in the opening quote by Eagleman and Brandt, yet we inherently hold onto bias’ against creativity and creative leaders, then we will most assuredly continue to struggle to effectively move towards any type of deep transformation of our organizations and systems that move us beyond incremental changes that run in line with the current order of things.

And should not be surprised that we continue to march forward in a predictable, linear, status quo fashion.

“If we want a bright future for our children, we need to recalibrate our priorities. At the speed the world is changing, the old playbooks for living and working will inevitably be supplanted – and we need to prepare our children to author the new ones.”  -via The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World

Exploring “What If” With Our Systems

If the brain thrives on certainty, we must intentionally create environments and situations that both allow and force us to engage and grapple with uncertainty, if we are to gain the capacity that pushes us towards change that leads to transformation.

For transformation to occur, to really occur, we have to begin to create organizational environments where the willingness to ask “what if” moves us from greater awareness, to collective action around and toward a better vision for the future…

For this is much deeper than just risk-taking.  

It is embracing a willingness to move past the constant exploitation and amplification of the known, of what we’ve always done, in order to intentionally engage with the unknown and explore uncertainty. Spending time in this arena, grappling with thinking and ideas beyond our current awareness and understandings, allows us to stretch and even unlearn the frames by which our current mental models are held in place.

For this is where new learning and new knowledge is created.

As individuals and organizations, we need to both explore and engage more “what if” questions that require us to create the mental scenarios that allow us to anticipate, forecast, and even prepare more effectively for the future, and what the future might require of us and our organizations.

We have to approach “what if” collectively…

What if we knew that we were going to be facing a possible dystopian future with automation and artificial intelligence causing major job displacement and economic upheaval, how would we decide to change our organizations and systems?

What if we knew that our current way of operating as an organization would be determined irrelevant and would face major disruption in the next two years, how would we decide to change our organization and our systems?

What if we knew that the content and skills we were teaching our students would be determined to be disconnected towards helping them find future success in a quickly changing world, how would we decide to change our organizations and systems?

What if we knew that the only way to thrive effectively in the future as individuals and organizations, required ongoing and continuous learning and change, how would that change our organizations and systems?

What if we knew that the way forward for individual and organizational success in the future required greater emotional intelligence, empathy, creativity, inventiveness, curiosity, how would we decide to change our organizations and systems?

What if we knew what the future would require of us and our organizations, would we be willing to change ourselves, our organizations, and our systems?

It is in our questions, much more than our answers, that we truly begin to determine a vision of what transformation may look like, both individually and organizationally.

And yet, what we often fail to realize, both individually and organizationally, is that even when we know the dire outcomes of an unwillingness to change, when we know that status quo thinking and doing will lead us into eventual irrelevance or worse, we still cling to the known, of what we’ve always done.

Too often, the fear of the unknown keeps us grounded in the irrelevance of the known.

Framing the future in fear is not going to create the change necessary to move us and our organizations forward more effectively. Rather, we need to create new frames, new scenarios of a much more positive future, by allowing our “what if” questions to paint a picture of what we could become, of a better way forward, and a better future for us all.

In the end, always remember, if we never ask what if, we will always be left with what is.