When I was in military staff college, we always used to say “Don’t fight the whites.” The “whites” were the instruction sheets we would get that would describe the particular planning or tactical problem we had to resolve for that day’s assignment. The white sheets contained assumptions and a situation. Many of the students at staff college would then proceed to “fight the whites,” meaning they would try to get the instructor to dispense them from the hard part of the problem or the most constraining assumptions. I can distinctly remember trying to do this myself, although with no success. Presumably I did so in the hope that the problem would then be easier to solve.

But here’s the real lesson: hard questions are good. They force us to consider fundamental issues that we normally wouldn’t even sniff at, simply because we think they are too intractable. I was recently facilitating a brainstorming session with a group of corporate directors and executives. As they went off in their respective teams to consider the questions my colleague and I had posed, the most common initial response was “We don’t like these questions.” This is astonishing, considering the fact that these people were convened specifically to answer this type of hard questions.

Many of the teams reluctantly ploughed on with the exercise, only to discover after about 15 minutes that our searching questions were exactly what they needed to be considering for the future of the organization. Others “fought the whites” for the whole time alloted for discussion, which was admittedly very limited. Perhaps predictably, the teams that actually tried to answer the questions, despite their initial discomfort at doing so, produced the best feedback for our brainstorming. Those that chose to do it their own way or to put in their own questions produced input of dubious quality and usefulness.

Another lesson learned: If everyone likes the questions, then they mustn’t be truly revelatory.

© 2011 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted for non-commercial purposes with full and proper attribution.

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