Is this is a ‘me’ question or a ‘we’ question?

At Harvard Business Review’s blog last week, Hal Gregersen offered to teach us a new trick. It was offered in the spirit of New Year, in recognition of the rather low strike rate our resolutions tend to clock up. If resolutions were employees, surely we’d do something about it? Odds are we’d probably tell them to buck their ideas up. Even if we might inwardly wonder if looking for causes might achieve more. (Nicola Lowe recently had a different take on resolutions here.)

Gregerson’s trick is, on the face of things, a fairly simple one. When you’re identifying your biggest challenges, don’t create statements: ask questions. He gives some clear examples:

Challenge Statement Question Goal
New ideas never move forward How can we translate new ideas into tangible results more successfully?
Employees aren’t engaged What is causing employees to check out emotionally from their work?

I like the approach: a question invites a response in ways that a statement simply cannot. And if a statement is a description of an unsatisfactory state of affairs, something that moves us towards tackling it is definitely a first step. Statements may make diagnoses, but getting a diagnosis doesn’t cure the patient. Questions can help us dig below symptoms. Help us realise that not banging our head on the wall is a better step forward then taking painkillers.

But I did find myself scratching my head slightly at what felt like a dissonance between the examples and part of Hal’s argument. His examples all address their re-formulated questions to ‘we’, or talk about ‘our’. His framing argument seems to disagree:

Fundamentally, I’ve discovered that turning a challenge statement into a challenge question consistently turns the finger of responsibility away from others and back to ourselves. Someone “out there” is no longer responsible for solving the problem. Instead, someone “in here,” me, is responsible for making change happen.”

As he says about problems earlier in his piece:

Rarely are they framed as an “I’m part of the problem” issue.”

I couldn’t help but think that his examples posed a different question. While they moved us on from naming the problem and considering the issue dealt with, his surrounding prose posed a different question. Who do we label as responsible for taking action?

Take the first example question above and change ‘we’ to ‘I’. How far does that change the question? Partly it depends who ‘I’ is. If ‘I’ is someone in position of authority, able to influence processes, culture and practice, it’s a potent question: ‘I’ can do something about the issues that the question puts in the spotlight.

But if ‘I’ is someone who has no difficulty in generating or formulating new ideas but who has little influence over whatever prevents them from being turned into tangible results, how far can the question lead to improvements?

If we go back to our own example of the brick wall, it’s probably not a huge imaginative leap to see the ‘brick wall’ as a metaphor. The walls that we bang our heads on in most organisations are as likely to be of flesh and blood as of bricks and mortar. (And those that are made of ring-bound paper are the work of flesh and blood too.)

But do we pose the goal-question of the wall? Or of the person with the repetitive headache? Isn’t the underlying question “Are we asking this question of the right people?”

I thought of a recent blog post by Harold Jarche, where he quoted a comment on one of his own earlier pieces:

It’s about you, but you’re not the only bee in the hive”

So do we need to add another question to Hal’s table, and remember to ask it each time?

 Is this a ‘me’ question, or a ‘we’ question?


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