Posts Tagged ‘questions’

A Blinding Blizzard

March 23, 2015


Blinded by the data blizzard?

In 2014, this volume of data was produced, each minute:

  • 204 million email messages were sent
  • Google received more than 4 million search queries
  • 2.46 million pieces of content were shared on Facebook
  • 277,000 tweets were sent, along with 48,000 apps downloaded
  • 26,380 reviews were posted on Yelp! and 216,000 photos posted on Instagram
  • 3,472 images were pinned to Pinterest, and
  • 72 hours of new video were uploaded to YouTube

In Digital Destiny, Shawn DuBravac, PhD, reminds us there’s no need to remember these figures. They are obsolete. The quantities are far greater today. However, these facts show something very important: the huge scale and speed of data production.

Data is everywhere in your organization, community, home and life. Managing effectively depends on measuring accurately. The careful use of data sets strategy, creates programs, provides feedback, shows potential for improvement and displays  outcomes.

With increasing frequency, we see metrics, indicators and findings mis-used. To support a conclusion or point of view, some people consciously (and unconsciously) will generate or select data to suit their purpose. It’s a strong way to market any message.

There’s no public or private “regulator” that practically sorts this for you. The volume and quality of data used across many contexts presents tremendous challenges for those with little measurement experience or awareness.

Professionals who handle data routinely know and practice ethical standards for data use. What can you do? Here’s a start: listen to skeptics; trust your intuition; ask hard questions to challenge assumptions, methods and sources; read more about metrics; understand limitations in findings; secure an independent review by an ethical evaluator.

Data can be very powerful in the right hands, heads and hearts. Because of this, every manager-leader needs data literacy.  Sorting out the signals from the noise is a vital skill in demonstrating value, for learning and creating change.

Lisa Wyatt, Ed.D. is chief strategy officer and partner in Phillips Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See:

Courageous Colleagues and Best Bosses

June 24, 2014


I’ve had the chance to work with and learn from some really amazing people. I bet you have, too. Some of those who come to mind were bosses, some clients and others are valued colleagues.

Here are a few signs from those that make my “best” list and why:

1. He holds people accountable for bad behavior.

There are rules of engagement, reinforcement and enforcement. This person sets and carries culture. On his team and in their workplace “anything goes” isn’t allowed. He isn’t afraid to be the police, an example or the coach.

2. She is consistent in messaging, whether or not people want to hear the content.

This person will not whisper tailored private messages to curry favor. She acts in a way that unites and encourages. She is intentional about challenging the status quo because it will yield progress.

3. He never makes negative comments about others in conversation.

In contrast, he makes a point of finding ways to teach. He cites good examples and praises others. He is self-aware and confident so it’s not necessary to put others down.

4. She sometimes shares personal items about herself.

She is humble and able to make personal connections with people. She isn’t hiding who she is…She is genuine.

5. He is consistently honest.

While embellishing or comments framed a particular way to save feelings are common, people who serve their colleagues and teams create trust through reliable, candid, active communications.

6. She is accessible and has face-to-face meetings to resolve conflicts.

She manages priorities but dictates no hierarchy in getting her audience. Her intentions and actions have integrity. She’s willing to acknowledge differences and work with multiple perspectives.

7. He makes a decision and protects his people in public if it fails to work.

Someone you can trust has confidence and takes reasoned risks. This person will not send other’s into harm’s way. He is willing to own choices and consequences.

8. She actively seeks excellence and develops others.

Envy isn’t part of her playbook. She motivates others by engaging people’s talent, knowledge and experience. She finds ways for them to mature and supports transitions. She manages across and down. Her sole focus isn’t self and her own boss.

9. He keeps commitments.

Follow through is vital for credibility and he knows it. There’s no waffling or excuses. He does what he says he will do.

10. She asks lots of questions and spends time listening.

A learning leader is curious and inquires often. She believes others have a contribution to make. And, she knows understanding context is relevant to being effective.

These 10 examples profile behavior that indicate character – most reflect courage. It is the willingness to be afraid but to act anyway. Like you, my life has provided me with the chance to observe hundreds of people over many years. These days I can generally rely on a brief experience and some intuition to identify a brave leader.

Make courage your first virtue – it will serve you, others and your organization’s mission well.

Lisa Wyatt, Ed.D. is chief strategy officer and partner in Phillips Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See:

Climb The Ladder

November 11, 2013


Don’t do or say anything that you’re not willing to see on the front page. It’s a dated maxim since few people read newspapers. Mostly, people read screens instead. But the  warning remains a current imperative for performance: accountability.

Years ago, I saw a model that work-culture experts used in their training. My version of it appears here. In your mind, picture personal accountability as a ladder with rungs on it. Those on the upper rungs show accountable behaviors. Those avoiding it are on the bottom rungs.


A few questions can get you and colleagues engaged in important reflection. Which part of the ladder do you spend most of your time? Where do you often see others? Why are there patterns of behavior? What would encourage a higher rung for yourself? For staff, for senior executives and others?

Responsible people make hard choices every day. When faced with a tough one: think about your behavior showing up in high definition on the screen of those who most matter to your work and your life. Professionals embrace accountability. It is a huge factor in any organizations’ success. Step up to the top rungs of the ladder every day!

Lisa Wyatt, Ed.D. is chief strategy officer and partner in Phillips Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See:

In Pursuit of Ignorance

September 11, 2012

Charles Darwin, 1881

“Knowledge is a big subject. Ignorance is bigger…and it is more interesting,” says Columbia University neuroscientist Stuart Firestein. He claims exploring the unknown is the true engine of science. Ignorance, he says, helps scientists concentrate their research.

Firestein’s book, “Ignorance: How It Drives Science” argues that what we don’t know is more valuable than building on what we do know. He believes ignorance follows knowledge. Knowledge enables scientists to propose and pursue interesting questions. Rather than big tangles like the “How was the Universe formed?” Firestein favors the more specific. In the social and private sectors, this perspective has enormous merit for both routines and innovation.

Great Questions

Inquiry can catalyze learning and support change. In a recent proposal to an influential funder, we posed work with colleagues as applied research. The primary question: What early childhood learning investment works best with which kids? Why? This raises others:

  • When is the best time to provide intervention and enrichment?
  • How many opportunities are available in each intervention and enrichment opportunity?
  • What gains are made at what cost?
  • What proportion of 4-year olds are most at risk?
  • How are children distributed along a continuum of need? 

Thoughtful Ignorance

According to Firestein, “Thoughtful ignorance looks at gaps in a community’s understanding and seeks to resolve them.” A historic example underscores this opinion. Deeply religious Victorian society in the late 1800s was shocked by Darwin’s suggestion that humans and animals shared common ancestry. His “non-religious biology” asked some vital questions about the origin of the species and revealed  new, big ideas. Apparently, Charles Darwin was a prescient forecaster for Firestein. Long ago Darwin said: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

Identify what you don’t know. Be willing to ask great questions; vigorously pursue discovery. These attitudes and practices yield improvements and change.  

Lisa Wyatt, Ed. D. is chief strategy officer and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See :

New: The Logic  Model Guidebook (2013) just published by SAGE.

Lessons From The Bread Guy

August 12, 2012

Whole grain or white ?

If you don’t eat there – it’s likely you’ve seen the Panera Bread name. Ron Shaich is the founder, chairman and co-CEO. He’s running an immensely popular chain of bakery-cafes. It’s a growing business and trend-setter in “quick casual” dining. I think he’s a fascinating manager-leader with lessons to share.


People: The Weighted Factor

While his first and early interest was profit — his primary one, now, is people. He believes how they are organized and work together mean everything to organization performance. This guy tells applicants in interviews they have a shared objective: value.  How can the individual and the employer provide mutual value to each other? He considers the interview an important chance to relax traditional exchanges and identify the intersection of an individual’s skills with their potential to make a contribution.

Key to the Panera Bread culture is a rule: no jerks.  Shaich says that his “no jerk” rule started out as a more precise anatomical reference but has been sanitized. As important, he focuses his team on  tangled, tough work with optimism and mastery. He welcomes complex challenges because tackling them yields a competitive advantage. He reasons:  if the work is simple, then any other organization can do it well, too.

Delivery & Discovery Muscles

In a recent New York Times interview, Shaich offers insights on an effective organization.  He says how work gets done is the “delivery muscle.’” Shaich calls improvement and innovation efforts the “discovery muscle.” While the delivery muscle is feels safe, analytic and rational, he believes it frequently overwhelms strategies and related decisions. He thinks this muscle can encourage disconnected roles and functions internally.

He believes companies and other organizations often err because the discovery muscle is under-developed . The discovery muscle sees new patterns and approaches. It represents getting ahead of current thinking and leaps of faith that trust instinct and pursue risk. The discovery muscle forces focus on the whole organization and responsive action with a forward view.

Learning Requires Inquiry

Shaich considers his style a combination of both directed and adaptive. He is consistently reflective. In his own words: “I am constantly asking about everything – what works and what doesn’t.”  The Panera recipe is successful. In short, it looks like this: great talent, mastery, lots of questions, and balanced muscles.

This leader is a learner who discovers and delivers.

Lisa Wyatt, Ed. D. is chief strategy officer and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See :

Quality Cognition: Fast and Slow

March 5, 2012

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation invested $1.7 billion in the creation of small schools in recent years. Intuitively, it’s easy to make the case why a small school can provide superior education. You could conclude lower staff-to-student ratios with personal attention and encouragement are a better alternative to the context of a large school.

The foregoing might describe a logical relationship but it’s not accurate.

In fact, according to studies, large schools tend to produce better results. When a variety of curriculum options are available, especially in higher grades, large schools yield greater student success. Some important details were overlooked in the initial conclusion of “small is better.” In planning work, a survey of more than 1600 schools was used. The survey sample had an over representation of small schools. Both a pattern and logic contributed to a preliminary error.

Pursue Good Questions

Had questions been asked about the characteristics of the worst schools – it may have been discovered that those, too, were small. Ultimately statisticians demonstrated that small schools are more variable in student success. In effect, student achievement in small schools can be both very good and very bad. Regardless, the variability and scale in small schools may be a far better context for improvement. (We’ve had the privilege of experience with the Gates Foundation. No doubt: their small school funding has had substantial social benefit.)

 Fast and Slow

Humans think in both fast and slow modes. Daniel Kahneman refers to these modes as System 1 and 2. The thoughtful, careful analysis you used to review the Gates story, cited in  Kahneman’s book, uses System  2. Through precise and deliberate effort you considered the descriptive narrative.

In contrast, System 1 is nearly instant. For example, it helps you quickly respond to a loud noise or simple, verbal sentence. It is most simply understood as a reaction. Often, this is based on impulse. We all need to make quality decisions and plans – whether instantly or over time.

Patterns, Chance and Humility

Because humans are predisposed to causal thinking, we look for patterns and associated explanations first. We can easily make mistakes. Our mind prefers perceptions of an ordered, coherent world. But, these can be cognitive illusions.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman urges us to recognize “many facts are due to chance.” The definition of chance is humbling because it means random events cannot be explained. It’s important to look for patterns and cause while we also acknowledge chance.

Deliberate Quality

The implications of this reality has influence on the potential for our effectiveness. It may be important to: listen better, do enough diligent discovery, understand key factors, and explore alternative hypotheses. It is essential that we review data more carefully for validity and reliability.

Fast and slow thinking are both important to our complex work environments. Consider meta-cognition a quality check. Think about your own thinking and that of others. Be careful enough you sidestep either a foregone or logical conclusion which may be wrong.

 –Lisa Wyatt, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See :

Great Questions – Better Strategy

September 18, 2011

Asking great questions is a powerful technique for many reasons.

Because strategy is a fundamental issue in any organization’s performance – asking the right questions can be critical in assessing strengths, confusion and inefficiencies.

Seven Strategy Questions

Harvard professor Charles Williams wrote Seven Strategy Questions: A Simple Approach for Better Execution. Here, I’ve adapted his questions to address multiple sectors.

 1. Who is your organization’s target audience – the primary beneficiary of the value you seek to create?

2. How do organization values influence prioritization of stakeholders?

3. Which performance variables are most influential and are they carefully monitored?

4. What do you signal is in or out with the choices you make?

5. How are you ensuring connections inside your organization with external realities?

6. Is employee commitment to help each other robust?

7. What difficult uncertainties cause persistent, sleepless anxiety for leadership?


If you and others answer these questions – the same – your strategy will be better and shared. Ask them often, as needed, change the answers. Williams has advice about how to ask questions. He suggests questions are:

Posed face-to-face to encourage authentic engagement.

Asked throughout the organization, not just at the top.

Essential tools for functional leaders since they are central to performance.

A vital way to debate what is right, not who is right.

A prompt for new actions.

Question  Avoidance

When it’s not safe or appropriate to ask questions openly, performance suffers. Symptoms can include poor coordination, confusion, redundancy, and low achievement. Communities, organizations and people unwilling or unable to ask questions pose special challenges. This often indicates a lack of accountability. Performance doesn’t matter enough.

We spend lots of time generating questions, thinking about them, seeking answers to them with and for others. They’re central to our enterprise. Questions about strategy are an important feature of a high-performance culture. They can provoke thinking, decisions and action. Welcome them. Learn from them.

Lisa Wyatt Knowlton, Ed. D. is a partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. She is also an author and  W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. For more, see :

Sainthood and The Devil’s Advocate

May 8, 2011


St. Paul


What’s a weighted indicator of great talent? It  is something savvy employers seek and education systems are challenged to teach: critical thinking.

 Observation, Reflection, Reason

When a parent suggests a child consider the kindness of strangers may not be what it first appears – they teach critical thinking. Prompts that help to question assumptions about a nice man who needs “help” to find a lost puppy launches a new way of interpreting cues and context. The disciplined process of actively evaluating information gathered by observation, reflection and reason is critical thinking.

It happens when: 

  • There’s an urgent need to discover why cheese melts on a processing belt,
  • A complex social issue like teen pregnancy  resists intervention, and
  • An educator puzzles over why a student isn’t grasping a new concept. 

People use critical thinking skills to conceptualize, analyze, synthesize and apply alternative remedies to solve problems. An important part of critical thinking is considering the significance of claims. This raises questions like: What explanations are there for this? What else do we need to know? Recognizing unstated values, examining relationships between propositions and pattern detection are also features of critical thinking.

Discard Rote

In a knowledge economy, rote responses are often inadequate. BP Group Chief Executive John Browne, who resigned in the wake of serious criticism about ruthless cost-cutting that may have compromised safety after the Texas City Refinery explosion, said “We need to ask more disagreeable questions.”

“Intellectual disobedience” or critical thinking offers better access to and vital participation in the highly dynamic world we live in now. It is essential to innovation and development. When a person judges, decides, reflects, discerns or assesses conclusions they employ a fluid intelligence.

Don’t confuse critical thinking with criticism. The qualifier of critical as it precedes thinking means importance, central or crucial. Its origin is the ancient Greek, kriterion, which means standards. When understood in the context of a skill or approach, “critical” doesn’t mean disapproval or negative. Critical thinking, in fact, has many very positive and important uses.

Green Light, Red Light

Some cultures promote and foster it far better than others. In a safe work place, critical thinking can happen without penalty. In fact, it is aggressively sought and highly prized in many settings. Critical thinking advances the chance of securing an intended result by taking the initiative to review options.  It’s key to adaptation. 

But, if “pleasing” is de rigeur and “challenge” is not safe, independent thought is often squelched to secure approval. People, organizations, and cultures that focus on a single “right” answer limit knowledge. They also teach a form of obedience that better serves social cohesion (think Stepford Wives).  In contrast, the process of searching can deeply engage the human mind and spirit. 

Quality Assurance

The Catholic Church employs critical thinking. During canonization, the Vatican appoints someone to ensure thorough review of proposed candidates. It was the job of the  Devil’s Advocate to ask hard questions in the process of selecting a new saint. The current reference for the Devil’s Advocate is now Promoter of Justice. Importantly, the questions raised are a quality assurance method!

The capacity to intellectually imagine and explore different ways of thinking and acting is vital to growth. It is essential to manage and lead change.  How can civil society, enterprise, our environment or our world improve without thoughtful reflection or questioning “authority”?

Lisa Wyatt, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. She is also an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See :

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