Building Bridges through Curiosity

This blog post is inspired by two case studies, one using ethnography and one using Clean Language – both to improve company resilience and success over time.

An international company (Tesco) recently used an innovative ‘ethnography’ approach to help turn around poor financial results. Their goal was to infuse diversity of thinking by having managers at international locations become ethnographic observers outside their own country at other Tesco locations.  This would help the observers and observed become more aware of their own local cultures by exposure. It spread ideas that worked and helped to meld the culture. You can read about it here.

That Tesco project posited that positive change can come from these steps: perceive what happens in another other work environment, uncover restrictive assumptions through questions, and explore both the new and home environments in new ways. The primary questions used were: What’s familiar? What’s surprising? What do I want to learn more about?  Training folks to be curious by enlivening their senses, taking them out of their environment and teaching them questioning skills can indeed be useful in building bridges.

While reading this story, I made immediate associations with the Clean Language group work that Caitlin Walker and Nancy Doyle, from Training Attention, have undertaken to improve interpersonal understanding in teams and groups. I recommend you read about this adaptation of Clean Language for organizations here.  Similar to the ethnography study, Clean Language and Systemic Modeling for organizations use questions to surface the way people operate and think of their life/work/environment. The Tesco experiment involved moving people to new environments to stimulate new thinking. The Clean Language work more simply involves only exposing internal thought processes and intentions to one another within a team or organizational structure. In both cases, the goal is to help folks learn how to reveal information which isn’t readily available or in their field of awareness. This increases the communication bandwidth for mutual understanding and reduces conflict.  In addition, with Clean Language Systemic Modeling the goal is that peers co-coach each other and fold Clean Questions into everyday work, conversations and meetings. Long term, there is no dependence on the Clean Language trainer. The process promotes new relationships and emergent knowledge within the organization.

That sounds great in theory, right? But where has it actually worked? I learned recently about a case study of a small software development company that Caitlin trained 10 years ago. This company provides tablet solutions to pharma labs to track their lab/research work. For ten years, this company has required its employees to learn and use Clean Language and Systemic Modeling. You can learn more about it here. It has had stellar results in bridging all kinds of communication gaps. Communication between marketing and developers is vastly improved. The marketing staff, now widely using Clean Language questions, make sense (inquire more deeply) about a complex and changing market and learn much more about their potential customers before ever proposing solutions. These bridges have in turn enabled the company to rise above its competitors in what was then a crowded field, all while keeping a relatively small corporate footprint.  There are many other domains in which Caitlin and others  applied Clean Language and Systemic Modeling, including: Police, Health Care, University students, troubled youth, to name a few.

Does this spark your curiosity?

Clean Language and Systemic modeling build understanding and rapport via respectful listening and inquiry. Clean questions are particularly good at focusing attention on the words and thoughts of the person being questioned. This is because the questions do not promote advice or content on the part of the questioner. They are ‘clean’ in that sense. Here are a few of the basic questions:

  • What would you like to have happen? (intention)
  • What else is there about X? (probing for more info)
  • What kind of X? (probing for metaphors)
  • X (or that)  is like what? (probing for metaphors)

In these questions, X is the exact word or phrase used by your interlocutor. There are an additional 6 questions that inquire about location and time/space.  Extending this into organizational work, the Systemic Modeling techniques involve selective use of what Caitlin calls ‘Clean Setup’ , ‘Clean Feedback’, ‘Modeling Time’, ‘Diversity of Perception’, ‘Modeling Positive (or Negative) States’ among others. While I won’t go into detail here, these Systemic Modeling questioning tools are used in conjunction with Clean Language in groups.

As someone posted in one of the Clean Language groups I participate in, Clean Language is  also ‘simple’, ‘accessible’ and ‘sustainable’. If you want to read books, or other blogs about Clean Language and Systemic Modeling, you can learn about them via resources (books, blogs, DVDs) that I have collated here.

Why did the case study about Clean Language affect me viscerally? The case study caused me to reflect on my own past, in particular a collective team failure (losing a contract re-compete). For years, we had had our heads buried in our ‘own’ analysis, our narrow context and our problem solving work for our customer.  We did good work, not excellent work. But looking back, I see that we were all missing a sense of curiosity about ourselves and about the way the environment evolved (or stagnated) both internally and in the competitor/customer ecosystem. Knowledge work is not just a reflection of the work processes and structures we put in place – this can lull us into a sense of ‘having things covered’. Knowledge work is deeply rooted in and affected by the way people think and how broadly they think and enquire about the world around them. To change from status quo or to ensure survival, we may need to become aware of how it is that we think first. We need to pull from what may be subconscious current thought processes, make them explicit (exposing assumptions and contradictions), ask for new outcomes and then re-structure our models based on what we want (our intent). This can be done – internally and sustainably – with the help of Clean Language questioning and modeling via coaching and training.

Promoting a culture of inquiry as a way to ensure long term corporate resilience is nothing new. But Clean Language and Systemic Modelling as a tool is very new and quite intriguing.

Finally, curiosity and questions that work well are driven by a fair amount of ‘intentionality’. Here are some examples of intentionality that I have developed:

1) I have an intention to learn; therefore I may request that someone  ask me ‘cleanly’ about what I am like when I am learning at my best. And as they help me develop my conceptual landscape using Clean Language questions, they will help me increase my self awareness while also learning what works for me.

2.) I have intention to support the work done by my team; therefore if someone disagrees on some matter, they have some information that I don’t, and I want to find out  what else there is about that view that I may be missing. I then ask them ‘clean questions’ to reveal their thinking.  This enables them to be heard and understood and contrasts with normal arguments and discussions that might ensue when I reassert my own views. Instead, I learn (my intention is to learn after all) an alternate view, which then may help expand my own thinking.

3.) I have the intention to be aware about things evolving outside of my immediate work and home life – to stay curious; therefore I will inquire and ask more outside my normal channels using clean questions. This might be markets, customers, peers at other companies, former colleagues, neighbors, chance encounters in public places.

The nice thing is that no matter where I would like to exhibit this curiosity, the same Clean Language questions and Symbollic Modelling techniques can be used. In brief, these techniques are few and simple, though not easy.  Learning to use them, honing your listening, being aware of your intent and  faithful to your curiosity take time and practice. The reward is in the discovery of new landscapes of possibilities! For organizations, the reward is growth, awareness, and better flow of communication.

Explore posts in the same categories: Clean Language, Listening, Organizational Change, Teams

One Comment on “Building Bridges through Curiosity”


  1. Reblogged this on Inspiring Capability and commented:
    This is a lovely blog from Andrea Chiou, congruent with it’s title and content – it’s informative and personal – a lovely read


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: