Questioning and Vision
Vision is different from typical decision-making. You don't commission a survey. You don't sit around a table with a group and pick mission statements out of the air. You don't concentrate on the paper trail to keep your posterior out of a sling. What you do is try to understand the essence of an organization and its goals and then see how what you do relates and where it fits in.
The Need for Questions
Why are so many statements, rallying cries, and marching orders so excruciatingly dull and predictable? Because some group of people sits around a table and comes up with something that “sounds good.” That's a huge mistake. The result becomes corporate group-think and group-speak, even if you're talking about a nonprofit organization. Unfortunately, many people learn such managerial blandishments as a form of proper expression.
If you want a good example of what happens when groups make statements and don't ask questions, take a look at the average organization's mission statement. Inevitably they are ballooned by platitudes and rarely reflect how the entity actually operates.
Such pronouncements generally embody the assumptions and biases of the people at the table. Surprise upon surprise, they may have nothing to do with anyone or anything else in the world. That's no basis for getting others to take part in what you want to accomplish.
Starting with a statement is an almost-guaranteed way to torpedo whatever you want to achieve, even before you start. Since vision is about the connections between what people do and the greater intent, you need to understand the nuances of the venture and have a grasp of what team members are doing. That means getting past your dearly held assumptions and premature conclusions for long enough to see what is happening and establish context. Any time you want to learn something about reality, work from questions, not statements.
In both interviewing and negotiations, the standard advice is always to ask open-ended questions. There are two reasons for this. One is that when you ask close-ended questions, you let people answer with a monosyllabic yes or no. These are answers in name only because they don't tell you anything more than an elementary fact.
But relationships are never simple, and to build them, you need to understand the intricacies. That's why you need open-ended questions. You want the nuances, and that means being open to hearing those things you didn't know you were asking about.
Creating open-ended questions is harder than you might think. Don't feel bad — even professional journalists often flub this assignment. The problem is that you assume the range of things you want to know from a question, but you don't parse out the actual words like a grammar geek to literally notice what you actually said. For example, if you wanted to know how a team member was doing on a project, you might ask, “Are you going to be done soon?”
Ah, poor questioner. You're thinking, “I want to know when this is going to be done.” But you asked if it will be done soon, leaving open the yes/no door, and you extended the opening by not defining what you considered “soon.” You could try breaking down your questions first. In the context of vision, that is usually possible and helpful. But if you're stuck, here is a trick. Instead of starting a question with a verb, use one of the great interrogatives taught in every introductory journalism class:
Let's look at the previous example: Are you going to be done soon? You're interested in the time frame, so recast the sentence with the “when” interrogative at the beginning: “When will you be done?” Or you could ask variations: “What progress have you made?”
Close-Ended Loaded Questions
On the surface, stating a question so that it's open-ended sounds easy and is mainly an issue of avoiding close-ended ones. After all, a close-ended question is one that allows a binary answer: yes or no, black or white, right or wrong, good or bad, chocolate or vanilla. An open-ended question, on the other hand, allows a range of answers.
Structuring a question well is nevertheless more difficult than you might think. A big problem is asking a loaded question. The format is not technically binary, but the wording sets such conditions on the answer that you've drastically narrowed how someone in her right mind would answer.
Be careful. It is terribly easy to ask what seems to be an open-ended question but that really forces a specific type of answer, even with an interrogative. Look at the classic “When did you stop beating your wife?” Starting with “when,” this question would seem innocent enough, but it has an agenda worthy of a joint session of Congress.
As an example, let's say you are in a corporate setting and say to someone on your team, “Is the project going okay?” Just what do you expect the person to say? “No, we're completely underwater and only a miracle can help us”? You'll probably hear, “Fine.” By the time you hear a more complete answer, it will be too late.
You got the simple answer because you telegraphed what you wanted to hear. Had you wanted a real answer, you would have lowered the judgment-value component of the question and asked, “Where are things with the project?” The team member cannot be tempted to toss off a quick “Fine,” because you were not asking a loaded question.