Strategic Questioning to unlock co-design

After 20 years I can safely say that Strategic Questioning is the most powerful tool I have employed for helping organisations to become more open to other ways of interacting with their communities.

I’ve posted before about the wonderful contributions of Fran Peavey on the art of Strategic Questioning. Fran was committed to inspiring changemakers with the tools to help groups (including organisations and systems) to become unstuck and start moving when overcome with despair, a lack of confidence, or fear.

Lately, I’ve been working with many organisations, mostly local government councils and water authorities, who have invariably felt immobile, unable to shift their culture and work differently with their communities. Those willing to consider a different approach, such as codesigning solutions with the community, invariably feel blocked. I wanted to understand those blockages more, and this is what I’ve discovered.

The reasons stated for being reluctant to collaborate, or co-design solutions, with the community are reasonably consistent. There are different objections, but as a collection of objections, they are expressed often.

“I just don’t think our Councillors (or Board, or Executive) are ready for this.”

“These matters are really technical in nature. I don’t think the community can get their heads around this stuff.”

“Co-design might work in some communities, but we know what ours is like. It will never work here.”

“Goodness knows what the community would come up with if we gave them more power to determine a solution to this complex challenge.”

“There are so many constraints with this project. How can we co-design a solution when there is so little that can be altered.”

Sound familiar?

Authentic Co-design relies on readiness; and getting ready takes a great deal of commitment, willingness and clarity. If organisations are stuck, how do you even get moving in the direction of readiness? This is where Strategic Questioning comes in. Fran Peavey would ask herself, what kind of question can help us move in this situation. Fran asked the Strategic Question. Let’s do it now for those who are being confronted with typical objections (remembering also that a Strategic Question might have a different impact in different situations – there are no silver bullets here).

What might we ask when confronted with:
“I just don’t think our Councillors (or Board, or Executive) are ready for this.”

Firstly, don’t ask ‘Why?’ That invites people to dig their heels in. You could try ‘If they were ready how would we know?’ Or perhaps ‘What information or support might they need to start moving toward readiness?’

Questions we might ask when confronted with:
“These matters are really technical in nature. I don’t think the community can get their heads around this stuff.”
We could ask, ‘What might be the consequences of pushing ahead without giving the community the opportunity to appreciate the complexity of this project?’ Or perhaps ‘To what extent do we understand what the community thinks about this project and what matters to them?’ Or again, ‘How might we provide an opportunity for all of us to learn about the complexity of this project (both technical and social)?

What might we ask when confronted with:
“Co-design might work in some communities, but we know what ours is like. It will never work here.”

We could ask a useful, but not overly powerful Strategic Question like ‘When has authentic co-design been attempted with this community in the past?’ A more powerful Strategic Question could be ‘What would need to change here for co-design to be given the chance to work?’ or even ‘Who are the people (groups, stakeholders, individuals) who might be curious about co-design?’

I’ll leave it to readers here to have a go at framing Strategic Questions for the last three objections. Have a go at them. Start brainstorming – see what you can come up with.

The point about using Strategic Questioning is the belief that systems/organisations/ communities will change based on the questions being entertained. Things change when we invite people to genuinely explore, and in so doing, reflecting on their own assumptions and implicit objectives.

Remember, a great Strategic Question is one that cannot easily be responded to immediately. It forces a shift by inviting people to think; to try to make sense of something they have not previously considered.

For more information on Strategic Questioning check this out.

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