My favourite Clean Language question

We describe our coaching game 15-minute FOTO [1] as “Clean Language-inspired”, and as shown on the cue card (below) it makes use of a small subset of the Clean Language questions, a subset particularly suited to exploring or modelling (ie building a model of) a landscape of obstacles and (especially) outcomes.

The objective of the game and its function in Agendashift is to generate a good number of outcomes that can then be organised in various interesting ways. Through subsequent exercises we facilitate agreement on outcomes, thereby helping to co-create the basis for organisational change. Those goals aren’t quite the same as those of Clean Language, and through my favourite Clean Language question I hope to say a bit about the latter.

Here’s the 15-minute FOTO cue card, an essential piece of equipment for the game. Notice that the X‘s (and in one question a Y), placeholders which the coach replaces with the client’s own words (coach and client are roles in the game; participants take turns in different roles):

15-minute-foto-cue-card-2018-01-29

Given the game’s objectives, the two most important questions on the card are these:

  1. “What would you like to have happen?”, which tends to “flip” obstacles into outcomes, moving from the negative to the positive, quickly identifying the outcome that might be found hiding behind the obstacle (figuratively speaking).
  2. “And when X, then what happens?”, which when the X is an outcome, generates another, and sometimes several. Asked a few times, a surprisingly long chain of outcomes can be generated with the minimum of prompting from the coach.

However, my favourite question on the card is a different one, namely “What kind of X?”. Functionally, it’s a clarifying question, one we use in preference to questions such as “What do you mean by X?”, and “Can you be more specific?”. In the aspiring Lean-Agile context typical of an Agendashift workshop, examples might include:

  • “What kind of Agile?” (instead of “What do you mean by Agile?”)
  • “What kind of collaboration?” (instead of “Can you be more specific about the kind of collaboration you’re talking about?”)

(Aside: see [2] for my answer to the first of those)

Let me further illustrate the “What kind of X?” (WKO) question with an everyday scenario that I frequently find helpful as an example. You have just told me that you’ll be on holiday next week. How do I respond?

Some possible responses politely close the conversation before it gets started: “That’s nice!”, “I hope you have a lovely time!”, and so on.

I might show some interest with a question: “Where are you going?”. Unfortunately, this well-intentioned question is not entirely without risk. Suppose your answer is “I’m not going anywhere, I’m staying at home”.  Awkward! Have I embarrassed you?

To be clear, “Where are you going?” isn’t a terrible question. It is at least an open question, a question to which might be given a wide range of possible answers. This is in contrast with binary questions that expect mainly yes/no answers or leading questions which are mostly about the questioner’s own agenda (in the Agendashift book [3] I describe the latter as not genuine).

The possible flaw in the question “Where are you going?” is that it makes an assumption that might not be valid in this context, the assumption that you’re going somewhere. “What kind of holiday?” removes that assumption – in fact it is about as stripped of assumption as a question can get. As a result, it is much more likely to lead to an interesting answer, one that I can’t easily predict.

This is what Clean Language is all about. It’s not about the killer question, a trick that like the world’s funniest joke soon gets old. It’s about putting the coach’s assumptions to one side, because what’s in the mind of the client is far more valuable. As well as heightening curiosity it improves listening, because we can’t fill in those X‘s if we’re not paying attention. And although there is some skill in choosing the question (a skill that we begin to develop by playing the game), it’s not about leading the client on the strength of the coach’s domain knowledge – there’s a time and place for that, but not yet. Instead, it’s about facilitating a process, one that helps navigate what may be complex issues, often helping the client arrive at some real insights.

15-minute FOTO is carefully framed as a game: it works within clear constraints and with clear goals. It’s not therapy, and never pretends to be. But for some it has been the gateway to the Clean Language body of knowledge with its generous community and has kindled interest in a deeper kind of coaching. And that’s wonderful!

References

[1] 15-minute FOTO
[2] My kind of Agile
[3] Agendashift: Outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation; Clean Language is introduced with 15-minute FOTO in chapters 1 and 2. See also its recommended reading page, in particular (these Clean Language-related books):

  • The Five Minute Coach: Improve Performance Rapidly
    Lynne Cooper & Mariette Castellino (2012, Crown House Publishing)
  • Clean Language: Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds
    Wendy Sullivan & Judy Rees (2008, Crown House Publishing)
  • From Contempt to Curiosity: Creating the Conditions for Groups to Collaborate Using Clean Language and Systemic Modelling
    Caitlin Walker (2014, Clean Publishing)

Acknowledgements: I’m grateful to Johan Nordin, Steve Williams, and Mike Haber for feedback on earlier drafts of this post.


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We are champions and enablers of outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation. Building from agreement on outcomes, Agendashift facilitates rapid, experiment-based emergence of process, practice, and organisation. Instead of Lean and Agile by imposition – contradictory and ultimately self-defeating – we help you keep your business vision and transformation strategy aligned with and energised by a culture of meaningful participation. More…

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