Reframe the question

How many times have you been forced into a situation where you have to replace the status quo, but no alternative seems an improvement? You’re not going to get your followers to move from “here” if they don’t see the potential for “there.” My suggestion is to reframe the question and come up with a different solution entirely.

I learned this trick as a graphic designer, and I think it applies just as well to leadership. Turn the question around and ask it in a different way. Reframing the question means asking whether your problem could become an opportunity if you looked at it a different way. Let me give you two examples.

I think Apple reframed the issue of smart phones. My previous cell phone was too big. I wanted something smaller, and I tried a number of brands, seeking the smallest phone with the largest screen. Then I got an iPhone, which is the biggest cell phone I’ve ever carried. My biggest complaint? It’s too small. I wish it was just a touch bigger. So what happened? The iPhone reframed the discussion of what a smart phone could be and do. The iPad is Apple’s solution, and I admit I have iPad envy.

My second example comes from my house, where we spent the long weekend adding to our stack of boxes ready for our move to Calgary. Our biggest challenge was convincing our kids to part with some of their toys, even for a few months. We tried “spinning it” as an opportunity to send a gift to themselves in Canada, labeling the box to themselves to open and get fresh toys to play with. Didn’t work. Meanwhile, their play room has been getting smaller and smaller as boxes line the walls. What did we do? We reframed the question. Yesterday, the solution presented itself: build a fort/maze with boxes. All of a sudden, the whines have turned into persistent cries to pack more boxes so we can add more walls to the maze.

So, whatever issue you’re facing right now, is there a way you could present it in a different light, set it in a new context or turn it around so the negatives become positives? Perhaps it will require a bit of creativity, but the solution is likely lurking around the edges.

All it takes is a question

Don’t ask a question unless you already know the answer.

Have you heard that before? The paternalism in that quote makes my blood boil. I remember my wife and I were once part of a Bible study led by one of our pastors. When he’d ask a question, he’d dutifully faciltiate discussion, adeptly drawing in every participant… but then he always concluded with his own authoritative comment. As we began to realize that he was the only one with the right answer, our discussions became forced and clipped. Becky and I soon found a reason to stop participating in that group.

I’ve blogged before about the power of a question, quoting Ron Heifetz’s great line, “One may lead perhaps with no more than a question in hand.” In The Leadership Jump, Jimmy Long pointed out that a “well-structured question” can draw emerging leaders into the creative and leadership process. It goes back to control. If you want the outcome to be exactly as you expect, then do all the work yourself. If you want a better result, with a strong developmental bent, then you have to work more as an art director.

When I worked with graphic designers, I would present the question or challenge but withhold my own possible answers until I saw what others came up with. I didn’t want my “authoritative” answer to steer or limit the creative potential of my staff. Offering creative freedom often resulted in an unpredictable but even more creative end product than I could have imagined. More often than not I ended up tucking away my own feeble attempt to answer the question!

Of course, there’s also the risk that your team’s creative ideas just won’t work. There’s a tension that you learn to manage between involving others and drawing out their best versus the fact that you have ultimate responsibility for the end product. I’ve had to make some tough calls as an art director and as a manager to take control back and change the direction. I’ve done it poorly, and I’ve done it well. On a few occasions, I’ve been able to do it in such a way that the team can still share ownership, by steering the project and keeping my staff engaged in the new direction. Usually it involved vulnerability and accepting blame.

So what are some great questions to ask? I’ll suggest a few this week, but I’d love to hear your questions as well.