How to use Collective Inquiry to take effective action

Collective Inquiry is the name I use for the process to help people manage complex challenges and identify practical actions they can apply to either resolve or lessen the impact of the challenge.

The process enables the collective wisdom of the participants to be surfaced, which builds trust and facilitates ownership of the eventual actions. Please give it a go and let me know what you think in the comments.

Collective Inquiry is summarised in the following seven steps, each of which are explained in more detail, below:

  1. Get the “right” people in the room
  2. Identify existing challenges and select the one that will create the most significant benefit if resolved or lessened
  3. Consider why the challenge exists
  4. Consider “what if...” scenarios and select the one that will have the most significant positive effect on the challenge
  5. Identify how you will bring your preferred “what if…” scenario to life
  6. Identify actions
  7. Take action

1. Get the “right” people on the room

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As much as physically possible, involve people in the Collective Inquiry who are experiencing challenges and those who can contribute to the decision-making and actions to resolve or lessen the challenges.

The “room” may be physical, virtual or hybrid. For the sake of this article, I will use a physical room example, but the entire process can also be facilitated online or in a hybrid model.

Example. A client recently had the owner and four members of the Leadership Team participate in this process.

2. Identify existing challenges and select one that will create the most significant benefit if resolved or lessened

Depending on the size of your group, either every person has their sheet of butcher’s paper fixed to a wall, or you start with people set up in clusters (ideally, no more than five people in a cluster).

When clusters are required, extra steps are needed within each of the seven steps outlined here. I will focus on individual contributors rather than clusters for this article for clarity.

Each person identifies challenges and lists them on their butcher’s paper using the phrase, “The challenge of…”. I encourage everyone to identify at least three challenges that would most benefit the organisation or team if resolved or lessened.

When all participants have identified their challenges, each person is to walk around and view the “gallery” of listed challenges. After everyone has had a chance to read all the challenges, they can ask questions for clarification about any challenges that don’t make sense to them. The responses must be as short as possible, with the intent of each clarification being about all participants “understanding” what was written on the butcher’s paper. This is NOT about finding an agreement, and without agreeing with it, it is possible to understand what someone has written.

Once all participants agree that they understand what each challenge means, they will group any “similar” challenges. Participants must be unanimous in deciding that two or more listed challenges are the same. They must also unanimously agree on the wording of one of the “similar” challenges that best represents the set of similar challenges. If the unanimous agreement does not happen quickly, the challenges are not identical enough and should remain as “live” challenges.

All challenges that will no longer be used because they were part of a set of similar challenges are to have a line drawn through them and removed from the process.

This is the point where I like to use a process shared by Bob Dick in his book, “Helping groups to be effective“. I call this “Two Ticks, One Tick”. Each participant selects the challenge statement from all those available (except the ones on their butcher’s paper) that they believe, if resolved or lessened, would provide the most significant benefit to the organisation. They place two ticks next to that challenge statement. They then place one tick next to the challenge statement that they believe will have the second most significant positive benefit for the organisation if it is resolved or lessened.

Count the ticks for each statement. Typically, one statement will have the most ticks. If you have a draw, use whatever quick process you like to determine which challenge you will focus on first, then complete the same process from this point forward for the other “equal” challenge.

Example. The most powerful challenge statement selected by the Leadership Team was, “The challenge of keeping staff engaged.” When we commenced this process, we did not know that this statement represented the most significant challenge the company faced. They were growing at an extraordinary rate and had just hired six new people, but everyone was feeling exhausted, and the year had only just started.

3. Consider why the challenge exists

Focusing on the selected challenge statement, provide each participant with a fresh sheet of butcher’s paper to identify at least five questions that commence with the word, “Why”.

Once all why questions have been identified, each person tours the “gallery” of why questions. Again, similar why questions are identified, which eliminates some of them. The Two-Ticks, One-Tick process determines the most powerful why question that relates to the challenge.

With this question identified, the group collectively and publicly creates the answer on a fresh sheet of butcher’s paper.

Example. The most powerful question identified by the Leadership Team was, “Why do we need staff to stay engaged?” Part of the collective answer to this question included, “They need to be engaged to deliver good advice, which is our core product.”

4. Consider “what if…” scenarios and select the one that will have the most significant positive effect on the challenge

Looking forward to a future where the original challenge is lessened or resolved, each participant, with a fresh sheet of butcher’s paper, identifies as many What if… statements as they can that relate to the why question and its collective answer.

When all participants have exhausted their lists, they again tour the “gallery” of what if questions. Yes, you guessed it, they again collate similar questions, which eliminates some, and complete the Two Ticks, One Tick exercise to identify the what if question that will give the most significant benefit to the organisation.

Example. The Leadership Team’s most powerful what if question was, “What if we asked staff what they need to feel engaged?”

5. Identify how you will bring your preferred “what if” scenario to life

With a fresh sheet of butcher’s paper, each participant lists at least three how questions that, when answered, will provide clarity for action. When all participants have exhausted their list of how questions, the gallery takes place and the Two Ticks, One Tick process is used to identify the most powerful how questions.

Example. The most powerful how question the Leadership Team identified was, “How will we ask staff what they need to feel more engaged?”

6. Identify actions

With a fresh sheet of butcher’s paper, this section can usually be completed immediately as a collective group. You will be surprised how often the actions appear to “pop” out for everyone and seem apparent. Yet, if you had predicted these actions immediately after step one above, you likely would have had a very different set of actions and a lot of disagreement about what to do.

Example. Among a range of actions, each member of the Leadership Team committed to having a one-on-one conversation with each of their direct reports where they would include the following question in their conversation, “What is the one thing we should keep doing or start doing that will help you to continue to be great at your job AND continue to enjoy coming to work?”

7. Take action

Ultimately, this is the most crucial step in this process. Every participant must be willing to act on the outcome of the Collective Inquiry.

The benefit is a resolved or lessened challenge with a massive upside for the organisation.

Example. The Leadership Team gave themselves a specific time frame in which they would complete their actions and when they would get back to staff with recommended actions, understanding that if some things could be done swiftly for individual staff, then the leaders should act on the responses where appropriate.

When you read the above process, you may feel that it seems long and cumbersome. When everyone is up on their feet and moving around, you will be surprised at how quickly it can move, providing someone has been permitted to act as the time-keeper to keep the process ticking along. In the example provided with each step, the Leadership Team took two hours to complete the entire process.

If you think about it, two hours is a small investment for identifying actions collectively determined while building trust between participants and resolving or lessening a critical organisational challenge.

Please give it a go or reach out and ask me to help you. This is an example of our work to help leaders move from good to great!

Please feel free to share this article with your network.

By Gary Ryan

Gary Ryan helps talented professionals, their teams and organisations, move Beyond Being Good®