Organizational change is rooted in the belief that change is possible. Yet, when many of us go to work each day we are not concerned with changing our workplaces. In fact, many of us want the opposite: show up with a clear idea of what needs to be done and then take the steps to do that work.
However, there exists a group of people passionate about influencing workplace cultures, creating atmospheres where employees thrive, and ensuring that the way coworkers engage with one another is just as good as the products or services delivered. These people have a name: change agents. Change agents do this work formally and informally, maybe as members of a human resource team or, more generally, through subtle coaching, mentoring, and the elevation of their co-workers’ strengths.
Using Questions to Create Organizational Change
A question that often sits in the back of a change agent’s mind is “what would it take to create [….fill in the blank…]?”; that blank is filled in with a vision or characteristic – maybe for how to collaborate meaningfully, or to cultivate a sense of inclusion within a newly formed team, or to reimagine the way a process happens within the organization. Most notable in this question is its future orientedness. This question is about creating something, not fixing something. It’s also, quite simply, a question and not a solution. The inquiry is what guides a change agent’s work and not a predetermined solution.
What would it take to create….?
The power of this question is subtle. First, you must fill in the blank, which seems easy enough, but don’t be fooled! When is it ever simple to describe the future that you envision? Vision processes – even short-term imagining sessions – are powerful experiences on their own. This is in part because it is impossible to describe a vision all on your own; it requires you to seek input from others and to co-construct an image of a future state.
The Forces That Affected Change
But don’t rush past the first piece of this question phrase either. These six words – “What would it take to create” – are about understanding the forces that enable or block change. Which resources are available and required; what are the forces at play that will support this effort? “What would it take to create” is not about simply identifying barriers; it’s about navigating and addressing them. “What would it take to create” is about the team’s qualities and characteristics – a perspective of possibility, a collective skill set to do the work, the safety and comfort to be vulnerable, seek help, and share success.
Leading by Asking Questions
This is an important question for learners, too. And while we are all learners (whether in formal education or not) for students who are learning about organizations and leadership, the very act of learning how to inquire is an essential leadership practice. In the professionally-focused college where I direct two graduate programs related to leadership and organization studies, the practice of learning how to ask powerful questions is at the very heart of students’ coursework. When students reach their capstone course, they are pushed to frame an experiential project with this type of guiding question: “What would it take to create ….? As graduate students, they immerse themselves in concepts and activities that deepen their understanding of how to lead and enrich organizations. They graduate after designing a change project that seeks to initiate some sort of fundamental shift in their own leadership or in the immediate context in which they work.
But you need not be a student to take an inquiry perspective on the world around you. What would it be like for you to observe the questions you ask of others each day? Could you observe and reflect upon what makes a question powerful? What would it look like for you to take an inquiry mindset or even to become a change agent yourself? Whether you’re a student learning about change or someone reflecting on when you’ve navigated change in your team or organization, think about what it might take for you to become an agent of change. What is your own personal “what would it take” question?
Dr. Kierstyn Hunter serves as Assistant Faculty and Program Director for the graduate programs in Executive Leadership and Human Relations & Organization Development. She holds an M.A. in Whole Systems Design from Antioch University Seattle and a Ph.D. from Prescott College, where her research focused on organizational learning for gender equality in higher education. Her coursework, research, and consulting bring expertise in many relevant areas, including diversity, organization development and leadership; power and participation; and systems thinking.