Powerful Questions for Emergence


In the world of leadership development, we are consistently looking for ways to generate new understanding and challenging others to grow and learn. For decades, the methodology of theory-practice-reflection – leading with a concept to learn, applying that concept, and then reflecting on the experience – has proven most prevalent. This methodology is powerful in building skills and awareness that achieve learning outcomes. However, the complexity of the world around us continues to ask for new ways of thinking and approaching leadership development.

The dominant approach relies on asking questions at the end of the experience. This is based on solid and proven theories that reflection increases the participant’s learning. What we know is that reflective questions allow for learning to take place, as John Dewey noted,

“We don’t learn by doing, we learn by thinking about what we do.”

These reflective questions can take many forms and can offer a varying degree of rigor:  What did you notice about yourself? What did you learn about engaging effectively with others? What did communication look like between team members?

This is an effective and insightful practice in developing new ways of understanding actions and identifying tangible next steps or behavior changes. It brings light to what exists.

Conversely, starting with the questions brings light to what is yet to be. in order to invite new thinking and innovation to effectively prepare leaders to address complex problems, there are new practices that offer a slight (yet significant) shift in what has been the dominant practice for decades;

provide the question as the experience.

Beginning with a powerful question draws the participant into a new awareness of what is around them, increases perceptions of how they are thinking and listening, and engages the participant in seeking answers to the question that they didn’t already have by offering relational engagement in possibilities.

Leading with the questions invites emergence to take place.

Emergence, in this sense, is the forming or identification of new patterns. These patterns weren’t miraculously manifested from the ether, but rather through engagement with others, patterns that were previously unpredictable arose. This is the bedrock of innovation; asking complex/powerful questions and seeking the answers. “What can we do together that we can’t do alone?” “What is required of us to shift our culture?” “What are the conditions necessary for innovation to take place?” These are examples of questions that draw out emergent thinking and engage participants in exploration. This exploration informs new actions, new patterns and ultimately builds on the cognitive diversity and experience of the participants.

Leading with powerful questions that invite emergent thinking allows for new thinking and patterns to emerge that can aid participants in discovering new pathways for tackling complex problems. Coupled with action and reflection, this approach can aid participants in uncovering their leadership knowledge and lead to new outcomes.


About Author

Dave Newell

Dave Newell is director of the Chidsey Center for Leadership Development.

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