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Inquiring into Inquiry: What is dynamic inquiry?

Many of us imagine that we understand inquiry. After all, we make about 35,000 choices per day, many of which are linked to asking ourselves questions. Yet is that inquiry? In this paper we explore the way dynamic inquiry can advance the vision of your company in surprising ways.


Business leaders are adept at data gathering. We ask questions such as, “What are our metrics?” Or, “How did we do last quarter?” This kind of data gathering is often restricted to the short term and for the short term. Certainly, this information is important, yet if these data are grounded in the short term, this information will have a limited predictive value for long term vision.


Dynamic inquiry is different; it is reflective in nature. A powerful tool to build awareness, it operates on the premise that there can be different answers to a particular question. As a result, the questions become larger. Here’s an example: “Why am I here in this company? A related question could be, “What does that call me to do?” And a third, “Who does that call me to be?” These answers can be both wide-ranging and deeply personal, widening the lens for the leader to understand more deeply his or her functioning within the business.


When we follow up one question with another related question, sometimes we experience resistance. “Why is that?” the leader may ask. Tentative answers, with more than one possibility, create a thread, which deepens and expands the questions and the questioner. At its most effective, dynamic inquiry is a means of transforming self-identity, situating the self in a much larger context. Given this new, enlarged awareness, the leader is now positioned to take bolder, more comprehensive action. Time and again we have seen this process of inquiry open up into an alignment with a life-affirming direction and enhance the value of the company.


One of the business world’s most managed companies is Amazon. Yet, one fourth of its annual profit during the pandemic was lost due to employee turnover. Now, after the isolation of the pandemic, employees are seeking greater engagement and work that is meaningful to them. The usual hyper focus on time management and efficiency is not enough. Dynamic inquiry is both a way to foster a high level of engagement for an employee within a company, and a way forward for team building, using different parameters rather than relying on short term goals.

Through inquiry, in which each team member asks themselves how to develop their unique signature in alignment with the company, the team becomes genuinely participatory in the fulness of all the views. This allows for a more supple and wide-ranging contribution on the part of each member to their team, creating a sense of community, especially important to workers in the post-pandemic world. It also enlarges the pool of ideas from short term to long term strategies.


Sometimes inquiry can begin as an observation. For example, if a national brand comes in, elbowing out a local product, this will often make unfavorable inroads on the local economy. A percentage of the profit earned by the national brand leaves the community. In a team meeting, someone might begin with the observation that a national brand is arriving. A team member may well pose the question, “How can we support the local economy?” In a business involving food, for example, the chefs, the marketing team, and the CEO together pursue the threads in that question. Some threads might include, “What is the need?” “How does it relate to our business?” “What can we do together to prosper?” These related questions guide the decision-making in new and fruitful ways.

Here’s an example. During the pandemic, a local farmer had a surplus of mint. When the team at Burgerville, a quick-service restaurant company, asked how we could support him, the farmer offered us mint for sale; consequently, we created recipes for chocolate mint milkshakes. The farmer later told us that the steady purchase of mint kept him going during the pandemic. Another mutual benefit from working with the local economy was that we didn’t have supply chain issues, which plagued many companies. Our farmers were dedicated to making sure we had product. We experienced first-hand that it’s possible to co-create with the community and that dynamic inquiry can support that.


Perhaps it’s surprising to think of “best practice” as a trap. What served as best practice even recently is not necessarily what leaders are being called to do right now, because best practice is a reference to the past. Business leader Tom Peters says this about business practice: “If it worked for you last year, you should probably stop doing that.” This is a high bar for flexibility. Even when we set “best practice” aside, the pressing question remains: “How do we know what to do?” One possibility is to reframe the question from, “What now?” to a question whose answer will lead us forward, such as asking, “What are we being called to do to align with life’s best practice?” By combining an allegiance with life and with our business, the questions we formulate will deepen our awareness of what we’re now doing and also what’s possible. This kind of inquiry, by its very nature, will open our horizons.


Inquiry serves us in avoiding the subjective / objective dichotomy, where our direction is either one way or the other. Let’s look at these concepts. Subjectivity has typically been devalued in decision-making. We imagine that subjectivity is too personal, without critiquing the possibility that an objective fact can be misleading. Including the subjective experience of an employee, for example, can contribute to a fuller picture of what’s needed for the company to move forward. How do we handle these seemingly opposite terms? Imagine a triangle with objectivity along one side and subjectivity along the other. Now, at the apex is a term called “transjective” that transcends the either / or. From here, from this super position, both subjectivity and objectivity can play their parts; either one or the other can be emphasized for a particular task; perhaps neither term is useful in looking at a particular problem, or perhaps both are. The “transjective” position allows for a full response, incorporating all the views as one view. Leaders can inquire both into a particular situation, and also into the company’s future direction that has yet to unfold.


Some of us prefer certain answers. But that is not the world we live in now. Reaching after certainty is, in fact, not insisted upon even in one of the most precise of disciplines, mathematics. If you divide a number by zero, for example, the answer is undefined. We might think if we divide by nothing we’d be back where we started. Ah, but that’s what happens when we subtract zero from a number. Likewise, our answers in the domain of business can also transcend the rational mind, moving into the surprising realm of awareness, forging into new territory, and a new way of knowing to help us lead with the future.


Once the awareness of the CEOs or managers shifts to a larger, more encompassing kind of questioning, the CEOs become less certain of their certainties. While these certainties may be the fruit of experience, they may also confirm personal biases, or reinforce a way of working soon to be outmoded, or even continue a way of working, shared across the business spectrum, which is, frankly, ineffective. Think of the unfortunate example of Blockbuster Video, who turned down the offer to buy Netflix for $50 million dollars, laughing in derision at the proposal. Blockbuster’s reliance on physical real estate became a drain on their profit, and likewise when late fees were eliminated, their revenue went down. Netflix, with no overhead and its attendant employee expenditures, created a subscription service instead. Today, Netflix’s market capitalization is valued at 168.6 billion. A sobering reflection on the way that being too certain of one’s certainties can backfire.


Cultivating inquiry allows for a shift to the inner dimension of knowing. It’s a skill to be cultivated rather than a one-time experience. Here’s how to start. Sit comfortably, phone out of reach, and breathe naturally for a few breaths. One question might be, “What’s the highest level of possibility for why I am in this company?” Without trying to figure the answer out with the mind, let it percolate and stay present to whatever presents itself. You may need to try this question a few times to get the hang of staying present. You may find yourself experiencing a whole constellation of possibilities rather than a single answer. You could then pursue some of the possibilities with follow up questions, such as, “What might happen if I followed up on this possibility?” This on-going process will usher in a new way of knowing, a larger perspective, and a more flexible, sure-footed vision.

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