Being Intentional About Questioning

Being intentional about questioning what we do and why we do it seems to be a problem for many people including myself. I do not think we are trying to consciously avoid questioning what we do. Rather, I think we get wrapped up in what we do so we forget to ask periodically why we are doing it. I have been giving some thought to this issue after my recent reading of 3 books about organizational change. They are:

  1. Death by Meeting by Patrick Lencioni
  2. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni
  3. Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services by Robert C. Dickeson

The first 2 books are worth any working person’s time to read as they directly relate to core working processes: meetings and teams. I do not know of any organization of any kind that does not have meetings and teamwork. As soon as 2 people get involved in whatever is going on, there will be meetings and teamwork.

The third book may not seem like it has application beyond the academic setting, but it provides a good blueprint for identifying what an organization does, the value of what it does and prioritizing what it does in order to decide where to put the organization’s resources. A non-academic example may be Google evaluating which services or products to offer, and in the process Google must decide the value of the different services it offers and its internal units that support these services. The ultimate goal is to put resources into those services and units that are essential (priorities) to Google. This may result in resources being reallocated from other services or units and/or some services or units being discontinued.

As I was reading these, I thought about the 2 challenges I have seen repeatedly in all the literature I have read about organizational change:

  1. Successful implementation of the change.
  2. Upon successful implementation of the change, not declaring “We are done!”

I will examine the second of these 2 in this post, and how being intentional about questioning can mitigate this issue.

What Is Wrong With Being Done?

The problem with “being done” is making the distinction between being done with the project or initiative for now and being done with the project or initiative forever. An example of this may be an organization moves from running its own email services to having an external provider such as Google handle its email. The danger is in thinking that once the switch is made from internal hosting of email to external hosting of email with Google that the organization is done with email decisions forever.

What can be said is the email hosting project is done for now. Sometime in the future, email may need to be moved from Google to another provider, or the organization may find email needs to be internally hosted again. Email may even go away, and a different method of communicating may need to be implemented. The organization needs to be intentional about questioning its communication practices on a periodic basis.

Let me give a household example that may illuminate the distinction between being done for now and being done forever. As I type this, I see that I need to vacuum our carpets. I can see bits of leaves our dog has deposited. I see other stuff that I know is not part of the carpet, and the carpet looks matted. I have nice visual indications that it is time to vacuum. So I will vacuum, and the carpets will be done.

But are the carpets done for now or are they done forever?

Obviously, they are only done for now. In some matter of time I will get visual indications again that the carpets need to be vacuumed again. What indicators do we have in our work that let us know we need to do something? Some of our work may already have such indicators. In higher ed, the flow of the academic calendar provides the indicators for many of our processes. As the different parts of the year approaches we can see the stuff on the carpet. Some examples:

  • Recruiting and admitting students
  • Starting academic terms
  • Running different sports
  • Graduating students

Going back to our carpets, I believe I know the distinction between being done for now and being done forever. Yet, I have a more fundamental problem. I am thinking about carpeting instead of floor covering. Even though it is nice that I have visual indications that I need to vacuum the carpet, why do I have carpet? Why not wood? Why not tile? Why not something else?

Intentional Questioning

Why have carpet instead of some other floor covering? Why have floor covering at all?

So I have a process (vacuuming) that is done for now but not forever, and I have decisions about floor covering (carpet) that are done for now but not forever. When the carpets wear out, what do they get replaced with? Will the floor covering vary by location in the house? Will the floor covering vary by intended use? Has the intended use changed since the last time a floor covering was chosen? What other considerations (e.g., money, allergies) will affect the choice of floor covering?

These types of questions are often missing in our daily workflow because we are wrapped up in doing what we do. We forget to ask why we do what we do. We simply vacuum the carpet again, and replace the carpet when it is worn out.

To mitigate this problem, I suggest being intentional by creating mechanisms (stuff on the floor) that prompt asking the “why” questions. In one of my work situations the academic calendar guides the workflow. Currently, this means I have a fall and spring semester along with summer terms. Because I cannot change the academic calendar, I will see how I can use it to my advantage. The end of the fall and spring semesters can be a prompt for reviewing what we did that term and why we did it. The end of spring semester also is a natural point to prompt for reviewing the academic year. The summer terms feel less defined as courses often have a varying length of duration, so the summer calendar may not provide a good prompt. Looking at the end of summer, we do have another prompt that may be useful – the return of the faculty. This is about as reliable a prompt as the return of the swallows to Capistrano.

Again, the 3 reliable prompts for questioning I have identified in one of my current work situations:

  1. the return of the faculty
  2. the end of fall semester
  3. the end of spring semester

At these prompts, I will be sure to ask the “why” questions. Because I am being intentional about the questioning process, I am mitigating the tendency to become too immersed in what I am doing that I cannot ask about why. This will help avoid the “we are done” trap.

Given your current situation, what prompts can you create that will help you be intentional about your questioning?

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