A good day’s work yields a new question


I sometimes talk with people about whether they’re working on the wrong question. Here’s a story about that.

I spent a day with the leadership duo from the futures group of huge global engineering and development firm. They build skyscrapers, bridges and dams. Highways. Whole city blocks. We spent the day because they sought a social design perspective on something they wanted to improve. Which was: too often when they built a big thing, it disrupted the community that lived in the place where they built it. So we started the day with a question. “How can our projects to be less disruptive to communities?”

My role was mostly to listen as they worked on this, and occasionally ask questions or suggest a tool. I noticed that most of their solutions sounded like architect’s answers to their question. They were trying to imagine structures that accommodated pre-existing communities.

We got out modeling clay, spent time modeling a situation, and trying to transform the model so it represented something closer to the ideal. The model had both existing and new communities in it. They wanted both to feel connected to the outcome. Not just the structures, but the place.

So around lunch time they got a fresh piece of newsprint and wrote their new question. “How do we help people connect to a place?” That felt a little like progress.

After lunch we had just another couple of hours, and again they went to work sketching out approaches to their new question. And again they were talking and drawing like architects. Not like social designers, who would bring relationships to the foreground, and move things to the background. We were missing the history and connections through which people form a sense of belonging. We were missing care—people’s engagement and sense of ownership of a place.

Near the end of the day, they had two important realizations. The first was that they couldn’t change their results until they changed their way of seeing the problem. The social challenges and social outcomes both required new lenses. The second realization was that this went deep into their organizational culture. A few individuals beating a drum wouldn’t make a difference.

They crossed out the question from lunch, and wrote their new question: “How can we become a company that creates connecting, connected places?”

For me the phrase “Who do we need to become?” is a sign of a profound strategic question.

Well these two were excited, because they felt they had touched the roots and soil of their original problem. They have a long haul in front of them, but certainly after that day they have a wonderfully powerful prompt for conceiving experiments.

ContextGlobal corporationGroup size2DurationOne dayOutcomeShifting the strategic question from surface to deep