The questions that we ask determine the stories that we create, tell and live. The stories that we share reveal our underlying values. Our values, in turn, shape the questions that we ask.
It is now frequently being said that we need to look again at the questions that we are asking, create new stories and get back in touch with the values that matter to us. In order to do this, we need to learn to ask the big questions, which will unlock the powerful stories, and enable us to share a common ground of values.
If we use this model, the effect that this will have in our communities where we live or work is:
- to engage people in conversation, through the questions that are asked, and the questions that these questions provoke
- to unlock motivation to act through the sharing of powerful stories
- to generate ongoing action based on a collective sharing and understanding of values.
These are the activities that we need to be engaged in if we are going to meet the challenges that we currently face, such as ensuring that every business, organisation and community is in carbon descent in the next 700 days. Below, I will explore each of these three areas, their inter-connection and how they are key to driving action.
“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”. (Albert Einstein).
Einstein knew a thing or two about solving problems. Yet asking penetrating questions is frequently overlooked in the rush to get to answers – even if the answer won’t be clear because the question is not clear.
In their paper, ‘The Art of Powerful Questions’, Eric E. Vogt, Juanita Brown and David Isaacs give examples of powerful questions, and the key outcomes that resulted from those questions. Watson and Crick asked the question ‘What might DNA look like in 3D form?’. The outcome was the discovery of the double helix. Ray Kroc asked ‘Where can I get a good hamburger on the road?’. The outcome was the creation of McDonalds. Powerful questions are the drivers of innovation.
We need to become skilled in asking these powerful questions if we are going to make the shift that is required in the way that we live and the way that we do business. Marilee Goldberg in her book, ‘The Art of the Question’ said ‘A paradigm shift occurs when a question is asked inside the current paradigm that can only be answered from outside it’. Dr Alan Knight, founder of Singleplanetliving.com and a member of the Sustainable Development Commission, spoke at the Goodenough College Challenge of Sustainability conference on June 13th 2009. He said that the question that was going to be asked at the Copenhagen conference in December was ‘How can we reduce our carbon impact by 80% by 2050?’ However, simply doing less of what we are currently doing is not going to achieve the levels of carbon reduction that are required. He therefore posed a new question, ‘What do we want 9 billion sustainable lifestyles to look like in 2050?’ There is currently no vision for what 9 billion sustainable lifestyles will look like. Surely, if you are embarking on a strategy, you would have a vision of what you are setting out to achieve? How can we undertake a mission of this size, without having a vision? The major piece of the jigsaw is missing.
The nature of the question determines the level of engagement as well. What story would you prefer to hear – or tell – or act on: the story of how to reduce carbon use by 80%, or the story of 9 billion sustainable lifestyles? What appeals to the imagination about either of those questions? The story of 9 billion sustainable lifestyles grabs my interest because of the human aspect.
Do you know what the secret to the Obama campaign was? Stories. And it wasn’t the Obama story parroted by people up and down the country. It was individuals telling their own story and answering two questions: ‘Why are you here?’ (taking part in the Obama campaign). And ‘what matters to you?’ Obama Camp trained the volunteers who mobilized the volunteers at grassroots level. The first thing that volunteers learned how to do was to tell their own story in two minutes. If they could tell their own stories powerfully, about what had moved them to become part of the campaign, then they in turn could motivate and inspire others to get involved.
If powerful questions are under-utilised, then stories are absent too. We need to begin sharing our stories with each other as a way of explaining why issues are important to us, and setting the context for the action that we are taking, if we are going to inspire others to do the same. To be reminded of the power of story in action, watch Obama’s speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004 – he seamlessly links personal story, with wider values, with the challenges faced by the country, with the urgency of a call to action. Marshall Ganz was one of the architects behind the 2008 Obama campaign, and you can hear him talk about the principles behind the campaign and the importance of stories in this video.
The third component of the circle is values. Marshall Ganz has written:
“The irony is that access to our moral sources is exactly what we need to create the possibility of winning. One of the key lessons of the social movements of the past — of the left and of the right – is that their power grew out of the moral energy of their people (not just their organizers), their readiness to take risk, and their resourcefulness – all of which was rooted in turn, not in “self-interest” in any obvious sense, but in the values at stake.” (Read full article here.)
If we share stories about why we are taking action, then we are at the same time sharing the values which are driving our action. A shared sense of values is more likely to result in ongoing action, as the values provide a deep-seated foundation. As we go through the cycle of questions, stories, values, the questions will begin to change and become more powerful as we reconnect with our values and what is important to us. And our actions will grow in power too.