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5 powerful questions leaders and teams should ask when they are truly lost!

08 October 2018

Every now and then even as accomplished leaders and teams we get “lost”.

It is not simply that we may face new challenges, it is that we find ourselves in unfamiliar and unrecognisable territory. We do not know how to get out of our predicament and consequently become disorientated, lacking self-confidence and losing the ability to agree on a direction. We are in completely uncharted waters and we really do not know what to do.

In these situations, powerful questions can help us to look reality directly in the face. It appears that even in unfamiliar territories if we are able to face our realities we can begin to find the first steps through the confusing the dilemmas and quandaries that we face.

The connection with reality provides a stronger, more grounded basis from which to experiment; to test possibilities and to find new pathways and patterns that may lead to new solutions.

So what questions should leaders and teams that do not know what to do ask first?

Here are 5 suggestions drawn from our many conversations with leaders and teams. The questions are important because they appear to be some of the critical questions that force us as leaders and team members to face up to the reality we are in, to inquire into new possibilities and pathways, and to initiate the changes that emerge from this inquiry.

1. What if anything do we need to do to protect our well-being? – If we do not know what to do our first efforts should be towards looking after ourselves, ethically and well even under these unfamiliar and alien circumstances. When we lose ourselves we do not necessarily loose our senses, intuition and feeling. The environment around us may not be giving us much direction as to where to go and what to do, but it will still be affecting us physically and psychologically – individually and collectively. If we are able to stay calm, admit that we are lost or confused about where we are and face the reality of our predicament directly, we will be better able to conserve our energy. In turn, we can then use this energy to attend to the immediate task of assessing and responding to the threats and hazards facing us.

Focusing on protecting our wellbeing in an organisational setting makes us notice the individual vulnerabilities and collective weaknesses that may expose us to threats and hazards. If we collectively take these into account we are better placed to channel our resources and assets towards what is urgent and important.

2. What is helping? – When “things fall apart” action and activity feels unproductive, inappropriate or unhelpful. Persisting in doing something simply because that is what you have done before, even if you know it is not working in this situation is dysfunctional and can be dangerous.

Habits, fears, rules, institutionalisation and wider systemic factors can force us into staying stuck (metaphorically and actually) in unhelpful behaviours and practices.

Noticing what is helping can move us towards meaning and or meaningful purpose. It is a way of appreciating the systemic constraints without becoming a victim of them.

As coaches we often find that coachees who notice and correctly discern what is truly helping appear to be more aware of the dynamics of the systemic patterns and traps they face and what it takes to change or escape them. They also appear to bring a quality of candidness that others find energising and enabling.

Pointing to what is not working is what every “victim” does. Noticing and building on what is working and finding new ways of making it work better is what the self aware and empowered do.

3. In what ways can we best connect with others that can help? – More often than not, you are not the first person / people to be lost in this place or in this way. Even if you are, others may be aware of and looking out for you. Most leaders and teams have relationships and networks that they can call on for help and assistance.

Entrepreneurs know, for example, that when the going gets tough, some of their best supporters may be the people they least want to reveal their predicament to: their customers or competitors. Yet many will admit that in such situations selectively and strategically connecting with customers, suppliers and even competitors, admitting your predicament and getting their help and advice, may be the beginning of the recovery that they are looking for.

4. What should I / we give our attention or effort to next? – When we are lost and are uncertain about the direction we are heading in, choosing what to do feels like it is critical. By definition though, if you are lost committing yourself to a long term plan of action is nonsensical.

Most probably the only two things you need to commit yourself to are a) What to give your attention to next and b) What you need to do to notice and decide what you need to give your attention to after that.

In other words what you need is a process and a practice; not a plan.

In uncertainty, the “solution” emerges as you give the attention and effort required and not before. The first challenge is to use your collective skills, experience, intuition, knowledge and courage to design non-hazardous experiments that will connect you to new possibilities and pathways. The second challenge is to use the experiments to learn quickly from experimental failures as well as successes.

If you have survived, built on what is working, got the help and support you can muster, and started taking new steps through experimentation and learning,  then it is possibly time to start re-engaging and re-framing your purpose. The fifth question focuses on this task

5. What am I / are we here for? As leaders often what we do flows from what we see as our purpose. Purpose is more often than not connected to essence (who we are – what we contribute – what role we pay in the bigger picture – why we matter). If purpose changes, most probably function and activity follows. If not we get feel or get lost. Leaders and teams that are active and relevant repeatedly ask themselves this question: What are we here for? In so doing the question forces us to face up to additional critical questions such as: – Has as it changed? Should it change? Can it change? Is it needed? Do we still have a meaningful purpose?

These 5 questions may or may not resonate with you in your situation. If they do not, we hope that they at least cause you to ask yourself what your 5 powerful “I’m lost” questions are. What might you as a leader or team find most helpful to ask yourself when you have an episode or situation characterised by actual or metaphorical “lostness”.

As Rudyard Kipling noted, asking the right questions may for a while at least be the only true compass available to us that we can trust to teach us all what we need to attend to.

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