By Jacqueline Wong

I once heard a parable being told by senior leader in the civil service in a leadership forum.  You might have heard of it, it’s called “Chicken in Sinai”.   The story has it that a Prime Minister once visited the Sinai desert project – it was an exciting experiment on how the Sinai desert could be turned into a place to rear poultry and grow vegetables.  The PM commended the host of the project after visiting the place, saying “This is great, when you succeed, you can bring the people here”, as in they can then populate the place and have enough food produce to sustain people.  The host, however, gave answer that surprised the visitor, he said “No Sir, with all due respect, you are wrong.  When we bring the people here, we will succeed.”

The Sinai project leader knew something subtle but important: if they had begun by asking the question “How do we succeed” in the first place, they might never get there.   Instead, they needed to ask “Who will share this vision, care enough about it, and would choose to do it?”, success will come as a natural by-product.  [private]

Behind any seemingly impossible pursuit that was eventually realized in history, we would find a story of faith, goodwill and hard work of the people involved.   However, first of all, it required the willingness to tolerate the ambiguity of not knowing how it could be done and whether results would be measurable or predictable in the first place.

“When we bring the people here, we will succeed.”

How? is the Wrong Question

“There is a depth in the question “How do I do this?” that is worth exploring.  The question is a defense against the action.  It is a leap past the question of purpose, past the question of intentions, and past the drama of responsibility.  The question “How?” – more than any other question – looks for the answer outside of us.  It is an indirect expression of our doubts….”  “Choosing Freedom, Service, and Adventure,” Peter Block, Stewardship (p. 234)

The questions we ask would determine the results we get.  Peter Block in his book, “The Answer to How is Yes” brings to light the importance of getting the question right in the first place.  His premise is that we as members of a performance oriented culture, have yielded too easily to what is doable and practical and popular, and in the process, we have sacrificed the pursuit of what is in our hearts.

We often avoid the question of whether something is worth doing by going straight to the question “How do we do it?”.   He adds that in fact, when we believe that something is definitely not worth doing, we are particularly eager to start asking How?

Raised and educated in a culture that is well known for valuing what is practical and doable, we know this intimately – first hand.   Those of us who are bosses have to bear part of the blame in perpetuating a culture that values answers over  questions. After all, we all recall a time when we were told by our bosses “Don’t just tell me what is the problem, give me the solution!”

This is not to dismiss the value of pragmatism and of giving priority to what works.  Rather it is a warning that by moving too quickly into the how (ie. What we know today to be practicable), we might be setting limits on ourselves.  We limit ourselves by not applying our hearts and minds to clarify what truly matters and staying long enough with what we might not have an answer to in the first place.

No matter how we phrase it, the “Big Assumption” behind any “How?” question is the belief that we can find the right answer, and that it is probably out there somewhere.   What we lack is the one right tool, the one right methodology. We are mechanics who cannot find the right wrench and it must be out there somewhere and we’re just not looking hard enough!    The value we place on utility is so strong that our identity, as a culture, and self-worth as a human being, is fundamentally about “getting things done”.

“If something has no immediate utility, if it does not work, we consider that a limitation.  In fact, talk, dreams, reflections, feelings and other aspects of who we are as humans are considered lost production in many organizations.”

A Chase of the Latest Fads

As a result, people are constantly in a frenetic search for the next best initiative, the next best “tool”, the next best management fad that might just be the antidote to all our problems.  The addiction to the tool, rather than the purpose, lulls people into what Timothy Gallwey in his book “The Inner Game of Work” calls a temporary state of “performance momentum” a tunnel of action and reaction, or a sense of comfort that “we are at least doing something."

As a somewhat futile attempt to change old habits, I once had a colleague with a sign on his desk that said “Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There!”

“If we could agree that for six months we would not ask How?, something in our lives, our institutions, and our culture might shift for the better.  It would force us to engage in conversations about why we do what we do, as individuals and as institutions.  It would create the space for longer discussions about purpose, about what is worth doing.  It would refocus our attention on deciding what is the right question, rather than what is the right answer.”

When you ask people why they are pursuing the latest initiative, you would often hear that the goal is to get the award, to meet a target, to achieve zero statistical errors…or worse still – because “they” want it done.  Yet at the core of it, when we catch people in the right places, right times and safe environment where they will not be jeered by their peers for sticking out, they would tell you that they are doing everything in service of the success and survival of future generations, to create a better organization, to serve, to defend the country.

When our intrinsic desires get suppressed long enough, winning becomes more important than knowing why we were in the game in the first place. Externally imposed targets (and rewards) eventually replace the innate desires of people in institutions to create, contribute and add value.   

“Each time we try to act on an answer to the question How?, we will fail because, first, the question wasn’t the right question, and second, the answer usually is a product of someone else’s experience or past experiences, not our own.  It is difficult to act our another person’s answers, regardless of the amount of goodwill with which it is offered.”

What Matters Most?

If asking “How” is not getting us the result we desire, perhaps it is time to start asking some different questions.   “Yes!” questions are questions that helps us get to the core of our purpose, and brings us closer to the possibility of more meaningful and sustainable change.  The alternative to asking “How?” is saying “Yes!”.  Appended here is a series of How? Questions transformed into Yes! Questions adapted from the book and I added a couple more:



How do you do it? What refusal have I been postponing?Do I know how to say “No” to what is not core instead of saying yes to everything and going straight into action
How long will it take? What commitment am I willing to make?
How much does it cost? What is the price I am willing to pay?
How do you get those people to change? What is my contribution to the problem I am concerned with?Rather than seeing the “enemy is out there”, how might I be contributing to it in some ways, or even colluding with it silently by not surfacing my concerns?
How do we measure it? What is the crossroad at which I find myself in my life/ work?” We pursue what matters independently of how well we can measure it.  The crossroad question makes us pause to reconsider what matters most to us.  Many things, especially vision, new ventures, even reality, cannot be “proven” in the beginning before we begin our journey in exploring and experimenting.  It would have been futile trying to demonstrate that the world is round at the time of Aristotle.
How have other people done it successfully? What do we want to create together?
How to attract the right  people to join our organization? What would make this an organization that is truly worthy of people’s commitment?

Adapted from Chapter 2, Yes is the right question, Page 27 – 39.

Let’s Get Real

Only when people can reach out to speak to each other about what really matters can real change happen.  In workshops, we often get this question from well-meaning participants – “How do we transfer this back in the 'real world?'"  We sometimes return the question by asking “How many of you feel you have been more real here in the workshop than you are back at work?”.

On the average, seven out of ten would feel they are much more prepared to surface their innermost thoughts, concerns and discuss the “undiscussables” in the workshops.  Think about the loss this must translate to for the organization!    What impact do we have, as leaders, on whether people perceive it as safe (or not safe) to share what they believe are most important?

“The challenge is not that we do not know what matters to us; it is that sustaining our actions becomes unbearably burdensome….Often we become clearer about what matters to us when we are in a protected learning or spiritual environment: a retreat, a sanctuary, a vacation conversation, a workshop, or a coaching experience.   In a moment of clear thinking and feeling about what matters to us, we are determined to act on our insight. However, once we get back to work, the temptation of expediency, speed and what’s practical takes precedence.”

Reclaiming the Desire to Do what is Purposeful

Peter’s book calls our attention to the tradeoffs we’ve made in the name of practicality and expediency, and offers a way for us to redirect our way of life to be motivated by not what works, but by things that truly matter.  He advocated for the reclaiming of three qualities - idealism, intimacy, depth and engagement.

Fixation with what works has relegated idealism to a cold room.  Yet we know that “nothing much happens without a dream. Though it takes more than a dream to make it happen, but the dream must be there first.” (Greenleaf, The Servant Leader)

There is also very little room for intimacy, depth and engagement in modern organizations. Electronic communication has been used conveniently as an escape route for us to avoid intimacy and engagement with others. In exchange for the promise of greater efficiency and time, we succumbed to the great benefits technology has offered us, but subconsciously, we’ve also traded off our most primal means of connecting with people. Nowadays it is not uncommon for cubical mates to communicate to each other across the wall via email or text phone messages!

Intimacy means reaching out to others in the most fundamental way, not because of the position they hold and what we need from them, but for their true worth.

After awhile, colleagues are people we perform day-to-day trans-actions with, sometimes we even forget that they have families, children, identities beyond the title given to them by the institution.

One of the best illustrations of these qualities in action comes from an example that was cited by Robert Quinn in his book Deep Change,  

“I remember one executive with a large company that had never downsized. Suddenly, the company announced the need for such a reduction.  This man was asked to inform number of people, his close associates and friends, that they no longer had jobs.  This painful task was barely completed when it was announced that another downsizing was necessary, and the process was repeated.  This was followed by a third reduction.  The psychological impact was overwhelming, and the surviving staff members were nearly immobilized.  This man described his own terror when we went home at night, looked at his children, and wondered what it would mean if he could not pay for their education or if he could not maintain his home.  He wondered about his own market value.  He had started out as an engineer, but now he was a manager – a specialist in the bureaucratic culture of his own particular company.  Ina world where many mid-level people were eliminated, he feared he was useless.  He felt betrayed and angry.  He, like his colleagues, could now barely function at work.  As a result, the company’s performance fell, accelerating the entire vicious cycle.

After months of gut-wrenching agony, this man could take no more.  He began to ask himself who he really was and what he really value.  He talked to his wife about these issues.  Did he have an identity separate from the organization?  Could they live on half his income if he switched jobs?  He was surprised and delighted to discover that the answer to both questions was yes.

Answering these questions had a freeing effect.  He felt personally empowered.  He stopped worrying about the dangers of change and how he was being seen by the organization.  He began to ask himself what was needed in the present.  He saw his immobilized colleagues and realized that he needed to do something to empower them.   He designed a new role for himself.  He carefully selected people and invited them into meetings and asked them what they wanted the company to look like in ten years. 

Initially they were startled by his question, but gradually they joined in the process of designing the company’s future.  His sense of empowerment spread to others.  Gradually, things began to improve. 

In reflecting on the entire experience, the man told me he had an entirely new outlook on the concept of leadership.  He talked about a paradox.  He claimed that although he now acted much more independently, he cared more about the organisation and was therefore twice as valuable. 

This man had successfully negotiated the process of deep change.  Because he was more internally driven, he was able to take part in the creation of his external world.  He was no longer an externally determined response to his environment.  He became more empowered and empowering.  He was more capable of leading under conditions of continuous change.  He was a more organic employee.”

Deep Change – Discovering the Leader Within, Robert Quinn (Pg 7)

To bring deep change, people have to “suffer” the risks.  And to bring about deep change in others, people have to reinvent themselves.  Real change can only happen if we are prepared, to be the change we want to see in others, not just be doing it, but by being it.

Final Words

Finally, I would like to leave you with a poem that had inspired me in watching change activists move mountains in organizations – they seemed to all share in  one common belief that deep change starts from within.  I hope you’ll find this a source of inspiration too.  Enjoy the journey.


When I was young and free

and my imagination  had no limits,

I dreamed of changing the world.

As I grew older and wiser,

I discovered the world would not change,

so I shortened my sights somewhat

and decided to change only my country.

But it, too, seemed immovable.

As I grew into my twilight years,

in one last desperate attempt,  I settled for changing

only my family, those closest to me,

but alas, they would have none of it.

And now as I lie on my deathbed,

I suddenly realize:  If I had only changed my self first,

then by example I would have changed my family.

From their inspiration and encouragement,

I would then have been able to better my country,

and who knows, I may have even

changed the world.

Anonymous - These words were written on the tomb of an Anglican Bishop in the Crypts of the Westminister Abbey

Jacqueline Wong, Sequoia Consulting

…creating organizations that are worthy of people’s commitment