Powerful Questions to Drive Change

Over a decade ago, I saw an advertisement for a workshop on Powerful Questions. That’s an odd topic, I thought. Now with hindsight, I realize the topic was ahead of its time.

What is a powerful question? Reos Partners in their Change Lab methodology use powerful questions as the catalyst for significant social innovation. A powerful question is one to which there is no answer yet. A technical question, in contrast, is one to which we do not know the answer but the answer exists. In other words, when faced with a technical question, research can provide the answer. When faced with a powerful question, we must turn to one another and engage in dialogue and discovery, through which new intelligence emerges.

Examples of powerful questions being explored now using Reos Partners’ methodology are:

  • “How can all of us ensure that all children in Calgary grow, learn and thrive by the age of 5?” being explored by The United Way in Calgary and Area’s community change initiative, Thrive by 5
  • “What will it take for Canadians to succeed in creating a good future?” explored by the Possible Canadas Project 

Powerful questions are challenging because they focus on complex, systemic issues. Often the questions are about “wicked problems”.   The Austin Center for Design defines a wicked problem as “a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for many reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems”.

Forming a powerful question takes a lot of trial and error to ensure it is a “real” question, not technical, that will inspire and engage others in the search for change. However, be inspired by this wonderful quote from Albert Einstein, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

The Power of Reframing

Midway in the movie Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, there is a powerful moment of reframing. Jack’s fiancée has surprised him by coming to Moscow. She discovers Jack is working with the CIA, and insists on being part of the covert operations. Jack is vehemently opposed. Jack’s boss interrupts their argument by saying, “This isn’t couples therapy. It’s a geo-political crisis”. Instant reframe. Different context. Different decision.

Reframing is a key leadership skill, critical to problem solving and innovation. Reframing is the ability to take a different perspective on a situation in order to develop a new approach or solution. It requires stepping out of your paradigm, and using a “new lens”. In the simplest form, reframing is what happens when you say, “Let’s look at this in another way”.

Here are three perspectives I use to help leaders reframe situations:

  • Stakeholder Lens
    Who are the stakeholders who can impact or will be impacted by this situation? How would they describe this challenge or situation? How are their views different from or the same as yours? What would they see as possible solutions?
  • Opposites Lens
    What do you believe is true about this challenge or situation? What if the opposite was true? What would be the appropriate action? For instance, what if the generally accepted economic forecast is not true?
  • Systems Lens
    Think about the various levels of a system: Individual, Group, Organization, Community, Global. At which level are you viewing the current challenge or situation? How does the situation change if you view it from a different level? For instance, if a group is underperforming, how might the organization as a whole be contributing to that problem? Or conversely, how might the performance of a few individuals be impacting the performance of the group?

How Great Leaders Think: The Art of Reframing by Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal suggests four lenses to diagnose and solve organizational problems: Structural, Human Resources, Political and Symbolic. Used singly or in combination, these lenses help leaders avoid hasty, myopic solutions.

Reframing brings new meaning to the lyrics, “Do you see what I see?” Enjoy the experience.

Acing Your Leadership Transition

Have you been promoted or assigned to lead a new-to-you team?  Are you looking for a fast way to get up to speed and provide effective leadership?  A Transition Workshop might be a perfect way to ace your leadership transition.

What is a Transition Workshop?

  • A facilitated one day working session for a newly appointed leader, and an already established team

What is the purpose?

  • Provide the new leader with the information needed to make sound decisions and provide needed direction for the  team
  • Set or confirm goals and priorities for the coming six months
  • Accelerate the integration of the new leader and the team


  • The Transition Workshop was first developed by the US Military in the late 70s to address transition issues faced by newly assigned officers. Corporations have since adopted the process as one of their most effective tools in times of reorganization, mergers and acquisitions, or leadership changes. During change, organizational performance can drop for up to six months as employees wait and see what changes will come with changes in leadership. Bill Bridges called this time the “neutral zone” – a time of confusion at best, or inertia at worst, with the potential to negatively impact team and individual performance.
  • A Transition Workshop accelerates the formation of new, healthy and functioning teams. The organization can reap benefits in terms of productivity, morale, retention and reputation.

Preparing for a Transition Workshop

  • The new leader meets with the facilitator to clarify the goals of the session.
  • The new leader prepares information on his/her career to date, leadership style and expectations of the team.
  • The facilitator conducts confidential interviews with some or all of the team members.

Typical  One Day Agenda

  • Opening and welcoming remarks –  New Leader
  • Review agenda, and set ground rules – Facilitator
  • Introductions including clarification of roles – Each team member
  • Overview of the role of the team, history of the group, functions performed, clients, and key stakeholders – Team members
  • Current State. Identify information, issues, commitments and plans about which new leader should be aware – Team members
  • Prioritize action items for the new leader and the team in terms of urgency and importance – All


  • Share information about his/her work history in the organization and prior, his/her leadership style, and expectations of the team – New Leader
  • Provide input on what the team needs from the new leader – Team members
  • Clarify how the new leader and team will handle meetings, communication, performance reporting, issues management and other work related processes – All
  • Open forum for questions/answers – All
  • Clarify next steps – All

Your choice is simple: Wade through the “Forming” stage for six months or more, or invest in a Transition Workshop to jump start you and your new team forward.  Go for it!

A Simple Model of Accountability

Accountability, or rather the lack of, has been a hot topic for many of my clients this year.  Its symptoms appear as failure to execute, unmet expectations and disappointed customers.  But what is at the root?  I have found that it is often a lack of clarity around what was requested and what was agreed to, and a lack of feedback on whether what was promised was delivered.

I had the pleasure of attending Bob Dunham’s program, “Elevating Organizational Performance”  this year. With a few simple diagrams, Bob illustrated how accountability is built in an organization. Here are four of the concepts that I have found most helpful to my clients:

  1. Accountability starts with a clear request, “Will you….?”.  The request could be from a boss to a subordinate, a colleague to colleague, or customer to provider.
  2. An effective request has the following components:
    • Relevant background regarding why the request is required and important
    • The expected time to fulfill the request
  3. The recipient of a request has three possible responses: “Yes”, “No”, or “I will get back to you with my answer by (Date)”. Of course, the recipient can counter-offer but the heart of accountability is a clear request and clear response.
  4. When the recipient of the request has fulfilled the request, the recipient asks the requestor, “Did I meet your conditions of satisfaction?” If not, the recipient of the request negotiates a new timeline and takes action to fulfill the expectations.

With this simple model, some groups realize they rarely close the loop to ensure their actions met requestors’ expectations.  Others realize that they “suggest” actions but don’t make clear requests, and therefore don’t get clear commitments.

Bob’s definition of trust as it relates to accountability is also helpful.  He says, “Trust is an assessment of the likelihood of a person following through on his or her commitments”.  The factors that are considered in making a trust assessment are:

  • Sincerity – Is the person’s response to my request genuine?
  • Competence – Does the person have the skills, knowledge and ability to deliver what they are promising?
  • Reliability – Does this person have a track record of delivering what they promise?
  • Care – Does this person care about me and this request?

This model appears simple but is “simplicity on the other side of complexity”.  Dunham and others such as Fernando Flores have found that the heart of accountability lies in clear offers, promises and requests.

The Power of Story

I am intrigued by the rise of storytelling and storytellers in organizational change initiatives.  For example, the City of Calgary hired Ken Cameron, a playwright, to be the “Citizen Raconteur” in support of the City’s Cultural Transformation Initiative. The City of Edmonton hired Todd Babiak and Shawn Ohler of Story Engine to support Make Something Edmonton, a story-telling initiative to rebrand the City. Stories are powerful, emotional tools for change.

Playwright Kenn Adams developed a wonderful tool called the Story Spine to create powerful stories. You simply fill in the blanks:

Once there was…… 
And every day…… 
Until one day….. 
And because of that….. 
And because of that….. 
And because of that…..
Until finally…..
And so……

I have used the Story Spine as a facilitation tool in a variety of settings from project kickoff sessions to preparations for a merger. For example, in a community development workshop, one group scripted this story:

Once there was a struggling community
And every day children and teens had nothing to do. There was vandalism. Families were going without adequate support. Neighbours were unconnected and isolated, hoping someone would do something to make things better.
Until one day they heard about a new way of building neighbourhoods and realized they had the power to make changes.
And because of that they formed a resident group and invited their Councillor and some City staff to work with them in revitalizing their neighbourhood.
And because of that they created an action plan to find local solutions to local issues.
And because of that neighbours reconnected, and children and youth became actively engaged in their neighbourhoods, schools, and the larger community.
Until finally the quality of life and a sense of belonging increased.
And so we have a healthy, vibrant, engaged neighbourhood and citizens for the future.

The story structure gives participants permission to talk about current state problems, what is required for change, and expected lasting benefits.  Assumptions about cause and effect surface, and powerful visions are created.

What’s your story?

Executive Presence- Get It, Got It, Good

Competence should be a given by the time you are being considered for an executive role.  So what could stop you from being selected for promotion, or successful even if promoted?  One answer is weak executive presence.

What is executive presence?  It has been called the “Je ne sais quoi” of executive success – invisible, hard to define, but definitely palpable in the boardroom. Bates Communication calls it the “wow factor” and defines it as “the ability to walk into a room and instantly attract positive attention”.  With it, a leader is heard and considered; without it, overlooked and dismissed.

In my work with succession planning and executive team coaching, developing executive presence is emerging as one of the most critical development areas.  Although some might think presence is the same as charisma, I believe presence is a skill that can be developed, not a charm that some are fortunate to have.

What are the building blocks of executive presence?

  • Character
  • Confidence
  • Conviction
  • Clarity
  • Consciousness


Someone with executive presence is grounded in deep values and known for consistency between his or her words and actions.


A healthy self-regard attracts the confidence of others. Self-doubt and a need for approval create warning flags as does arrogance.


The ability to stand alone marks someone with presence.  Doing what is right despite opposition and obstacles has immortalized leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi.


The ability to communicate good and bad news and connect with others in a straightforward, compelling manner earns the respect and commitment of others. Waffling and confusion do not.


Without strong self-awareness and emotional intelligence, a leader with confidence, conviction and clarity could be cunning and controlling.   That kind of presence creates fear and resentment.

To sum up, competence is a necessary but not sufficient foundation for executive presence. Character, confidence, conviction, clarity and consciousness must also be developed.

Is it a coincidence that the building blocks to enter and thrive in the C-Suite all start with “C”?  I think not.

Developing Your Strategic Thinking Skills

Many leaders today find themselves caught in the tactical here and now at the expense of time spent strategically thinking about the future and creating plans to ensure the organization thrives in the future environment.

Strategic thinking is the ability to visualize what might or could be, as well as take a day-to-day, strategic approach to issues and challenges. Strategic thinking skills include:

  • Anticipating future consequences and trends accurately
  • Having broad knowledge and perspective
  • Articulating credible pictures and visions of possibilities
  • Recognizing strategic opportunities
  • Creating competitive and breakthrough strategies and plans

Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad in their book, Competing for the Future, offer this “test” of strategic thinking skills. Check the box that best describes your point on view on each continuum.

How does our point of view about the future stack up against that of our competitors?

Conventional and Reactive Distinctive and Far-Sighted


Within the industry, do competitors view our company as more of a rule-maker or rule-taker?

Mostly a rule taker

Mostly a rule maker

What are we better at – improving operational efficiency or creating fundamentally new businesses?

Operational efficiency

Creating new businesses

To what extent has our transformation agenda been set up by competitors’ actions versus being set by our own unique vision of the future?

Largely driven by competitors

Largely driven by our vision

To what extent am I, as a senior manager, a maintenance engineer working on the present or an architect designing the future?

Mostly an engineer

Mostly an architect

Among employees, what is the balance between anxiety and hope?

Mostly anxiety

Mostly hope

If most of your checked boxes are in the middle or to the left, you may be stuck in analytical thinking about the past and/or present, and not devoting sufficient time to creating the future. If most of your checked boxes are on the right, chances are good that your strategic thinking skills are well developed and your company’s “headlights” are shining further out than those of your competitors.

What’s the difference between analytical and strategic thinking?

Analytical thinking

Strategic thinking

  • Breaks things into parts
  • Answers “how”
  • Assumes a mechanical view of the world
  • Is based in an appreciation for “control”
  • Connects parts to a whole
  • Answers “why”
  • Assumes a dynamic systems view of the world
  • Is based in an appreciation for “creation”


The Successful Manager’s Handbook offers these suggestions to further develop your strategic thinking skills:

  1. Stay abreast of the latest trends in your industry.
  2. Assess your competitors’ strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Get up to date on new developments and activities in other parts of your own organization.
  4. Brainstorm with your staff new ideas that could help your organization achieve competitive success.
  5. Spend time visualizing how your organization could increase its profit or market share.
  6. Periodically assess your group’s contribution to achieving corporate goals.
  7. Make it a habit to spend time with others you consider strategic thinkers.



World Energy Center in Mongolia

One of the highlights of my recent trip to Mongolia was the opportunity to visit the World Energy Centre in the Gobi Desert.  A monastery was originally built on this site in 1821, and a new monastery was built on the ruins in the past decade.  People come from around the world to access the powerful energy,  which is reputed to result in health, fertility and wealth.

Energy is at the core of most of my work – leadership and organizational drive, passion, and resilience.  Rosabeth Moss Kanter recently wrote about energy in organizations http://blogs.hbr.org/kanter/2009/09/tips-for-being-an-energizer.html.  She urges leaders to relentlessly focus on the bright side, redefine negatives as positives and maintain a bias for action.

Organizations are facing an energy crisis.  Leaders can access, stoke and share their personal energy, which Kanter points out is abundant, renewable and free.

Declare, Discuss, Decide

Have you been frustrated by business meetings that go in circles never reaching a conclusion?  Here is a simple tool that will make decision making more effective.   One of my clients told me that he first experienced this process at IBM.

The first step is to be clear on the decision that needs to be made, such as, “Which of the proposals do we accept?”.  Each leader then declares his or her position at this time, such as “I favor proposal A”. Then the leaders discuss why people favor one proposal over the other.  After everyone thoroughly understands all the factors considered, the group decides which proposal to accept.

The key benefit to this process is knowing where each person stands at the beginning of the discussion.   Effective leadership teams know that “starting positions” will and should change as a result of what is learned through the discussion.  Where ineffective teams spend their time convincing each other,  effective teams use a spirit of inquiry to explore why others think differently.

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