About 25 years ago a very wise mentor gave me a piece of timeless advice: always pick the path that provides the greatest number of options. To this day I cannot recall a single instance where it has failed the test of hindsight. I remember telling my own children that the reason prison or jail is the worst place to ever end up is that it represents a state of fewest options.
What can schools learn from this simple guideline?
None of us ever know our true range of options unless we ask a lot of questions. The art of questioning is about exploring options and paths to their logical conclusion; knowing how far down a path of questions you need to go; turning over stones that may not want to be disturbed; teasing out options that are not obvious. Questioning lies at the core of my educational philosophy and has its own chapter in The Falconer. I think we are finally starting to recognize that good learning is more about learning to ask questions than it is about finding a specific right answer. We want to increasingly integrate this skill in our students’ lives. What about in the life of our school organization?
In 14 years at my school and 20 years of science, research, and business leadership before that, I have worn a lot of hats, but my job has always been the same: ask the questions; find the problem; solve the problem; implement the solution. I find consistently that when groups of bright, well-intentioned people are brought together to address a problem they will almost immediately jump to solutions and implementation, rather than first asking questions. The result? Immediately your options are limited to a handful of solutions. You have not maximized the number of options. It takes more time to walk the full path, but the result will be the difference between solutions and elegant solutions.
There are two main reasons we jump to solutions: perceived lack of time and a fear of creativity. At schools we ALWAYS have too little time, and walking the path of good questioning takes time. We also give in too quickly to our fear of change, and asking questions means being intentionally creative…which can lead to scary or threatening ideas. We have to make the time and make the creative leaps in problem solving; if not we can’t begin to tap into innovation strategies as a creator of enhanced value. And without enhancing value, we are just treading water. For most of us, treading water is not a great model of long-term sustainability.
If there is one major organizational change you can implement that will have direct, long-lasting impact, lead your employees to explore options first, through good questioning. The rest is the easy part.
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