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An Inquiry on Inquiry: Listening Past the Answer January 19, 2006

Posted by Yvonne in Dynamics of Resistance, Frameworks and Focus, Power of Dialogue.

Last night I was on the phone with a couple colleagues; we needed to prep for an upcoming meeting with a larger team. Our subteam lead couldn’t get on the call so we hung out for a bit, looked at the (really) brief notes he’d emailed just prior to the call and said: “Well, he’s on his own.” We signed off and sent an email to him to call us individually if he still needed time with us as ponder partners.

About half hour later, he called me, and we got into the subject.

A little bit of background: The chicken scratchings he’d sent were the result of over two months worth of a few folks’ work. To tell the truth, it didn’t look like it amounted to much. I kid you not: three lines on a page, about 5 words each. Not a lot to be inspired about and, going into a two day meeting, no surprise it left us wondering how the heck we’d be using our time.

Having worked for about a year on another related piece and gotten that one rolling really well, this was the second thread we’d just begun pulling, and the sweater hadn’t quite unravelled as yet. We were at the beginning again, only a few of us had engaged with the new ideas, just scratching the surface really, and although we were using a similar technology as we did for the past year’s work …

… since the results so far looked nothing like what we had seen before, we thought we had nothing.

But it was time to report, and we had a meeting to prepare.

So we just hung out, facing that reality … and then started asking ourselves questions like:

  • What the heck is this that we’ve done here?
  • Given the larger effort we’re engaged in, how could it be that what we’ve got is actually useful?
  • If this were the right place to be, what would be interesting to see?
  • Where could we go from here?

And that led to a whole ‘nother place. We suddenly got interested in what had us engaged in the way that we were engaged. We suddenly got curious about the way we were working and the place we had gotten to.

The shift was in the focus of our concern. Last year, the work was about stuff that needed to be created to satisfy the client organization’s needs: job descriptions, procedures and policies – all that stuff of the work-a-day world. But this new inquiry was something else completely.

We didn’t have something for the team to “review”; we had stumbled upon a new place of inquiry.

Not knowing quite what it was, all we knew was that it was something about how we were working and something about what that way of working provided, some extension or expansion of what was possible to consider as the source or cause of innovation. Something about the way the technology we were working inside of worked on us, and the kind of results that were possible because of that.

That’s when we saw:

What we have here is perhaps a very different something.

We were both at once energized and expectant about what the team would be able to do, pulling and pushing on these strange little notions, 3 lines, 5 words each, that minutes before had seemed totally worthless and insufficient. Suddenly, it was possible that this was in fact the exact right place to start a new exploration, and since the subteam was at a place of “this doesn’t seem like much”, the timing was in fact perfect to do so with the larger team.

With that realization, we could start crafting the environment for the new inquiry, designing conversations and questions that would open the subject out to discover other perspectives on where the work could go from there. After only 35 minutes, my colleague ended the call saying, “This has been helpful. I know what I can do with this.”

Lessons Learned: A couple of things came out of this …

  • At the place of “It ain’t much” or This is worthless, keep listening. The next inquiry may be right there waiting for you.
  • What seems like nothing may be only a very different something.

Future Potential Inquiries: Powerful Questions at the Point of Blindness, Despair, Boredom, and Distraction; Small Team/Large Team Timing; Interaction for Innovation



1. Tom Portante - January 22, 2006

ideas — wholly new — springing from 3 lines, 5 words… nice.

I’m reminded of one of the creativity exercises Edward de Bono wrote about – the idea of provoking new lines of thinking by spring-boarding off something that seems trite, or silly, or just downright wrong. I don’t kow the context of the meetings that led to the skeletal notes, but maybe their value was in their being something to ‘push off’ from _rather_ than being something to evaluate as either true or false. We’re so used to meetings where we progress like the slow bridge-building Generals of the Civil War – ploddingly, meticulously, analytically. Sometimes we arrive at a point that’s clearly ‘off’ any predictable trajectory and we typically tut-tut it and move back to someplace more comfortable. Maybe that clutch of words was such an uncomfortable place – a place your group somehow used to create a whole new set of ideas and possibilities…

2. Tom Portante - January 22, 2006

I found a better description of this — from (predictably enough), the de Bono Group. In talking about this ‘springboarding’ (“Movement” in Lateral Thinking circles), here’s something appropriate.

“Movement is a crucial part of lateral thinking. Provocation without movement is useless. The apparently crazy idea is not an end point, but only the first stage. It is what happens next that really makes all the difference.

Movement is not just a suspension of judgment. Movement is an active mental process. There are steps that can be learned, practiced, and used. With judgment, we look at an idea and compare it to our experience. If the idea does not fit our experience, we reject it. With movement, we use the idea for its movement value to go for- ward to a new idea.

Movement is not just an intention or a positive attitude of the mind. There are five formal ways of getting movement:

1. Extract a principle or feature and work forward from that.
2. Focus on the difference.
3. Look at the moment-to-moment effect of putting the idea into practice.
4. Focus on the positive aspects.
5. Figure under what circumstances there would be direct value.”


3. Yvonne - January 22, 2006

As it turned out we had a brilliant day. In particular, on the topic I wrote about in the main post, we had about a 2 hour exploratory conversation which can only be described as “magical”. Most of us were on our feet for it the entire time. There was such a lively energy.

But there was one colleague who hadn’t made it for the last few meetings, had hauled himself and his family hours down into SF for the weekend, and while he was in a meeting room with us, they were out sight seeing.

He sat with arms crossed, and wasn’t felling like he was getting it, so we stopped to check in. He was considering taking himself off the team.

We hung out. Listened to what was there now. Then listened for what had him join the team last year. And as he returned himself to what moved him, his vision for a future, there was a palpable poignancy and presence.

Somewhere in the conversation, just allowing him and the stop, the topic slowly eased up, tentatively slid forward, opened and then broke out wide and clear.

And that’s when we hit the target. And we all knew it. There was a cool, clear silence like being at the top of a mountain.

Out of his willingness to hang in through the stop, and the team allowing that too without getting in his face too much, we got next big breakthrough.

And there was so much energy, we finished all two days work in one day. A fricking miracle.

Today he’s out enjoying SF with his family.

And I’m blogging away, with this morning’s inspired post : https://ymburgess.wordpress.com/2006/01/22/how-you-know-youre-dead/ .

4. Donna Kuck - January 22, 2006

“How far down the rabbit hole do you want to go?” Hi Yvonne. It sounds to me like those 3 lines of 5 words each opened a door/ maybe a tiny trapdoor into another way of looking, another reality. And you get to explore! Have fun and report back!

5. Yvonne - January 22, 2006

Tom, Thanks for the posts. Awesome contributions!

6. Yvonne - January 22, 2006

Donna – You and I were typing simultaneously! See my report at comment #3 above. It was grand and we’re for definitely sure going to see what we can do about keeping that space open till the next team meeting in May.

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