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Quality Remix: A Must-Read

April 16, 2010
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Even before you open the cover to The Answer to How is Yes you realize that you’re in for a new perspective.

Recently I’ve been diving into some fascinating books. Almost none of them have been fiction, which is a departure for me – I like a good story. Moreover, if part of the job of a leader is to understand people, fiction is a great way to explore human nature. My readings have taken me off the beaten track of Outsourcing or The Goal, or whatever the latest hot business book is into some new and interesting territory. I’ve found myself in reading Wendell Berry, Ray Anderson, Barbara Fredrickson, and, most recently, Peter Block. Maybe in future posts I’ll offer reviews of some of these other writers. Today I’d like to share some thoughts on Peter Block and his 2002 book, The Answer to How is Yes.

Even before you open the cover to The Answer to How is Yes you realize that you’re in for a new perspective. The cover sports a photo of three rocks stacked on top of each other in a complete defiance of gravity. You wonder “How did they do that?” and then you remember the title. These photos crop up throughout the book and in the credits you learn they are the work of California-based sculptor Bill Dan. Dan works only with found objects and a uniquely-focused mental state. Looking at these photos one begins to believe that almost anything is possible.

Block’s fundamental premise is that our world jumps too quickly to asking and answering “How” questions. By focusing on How? we invest our energies on what is practical, rather than what is really, no kidding, important. Block doesn’t say we shouldn’t ask or answer How?, but that we should delay those questions as long as possible so we can act on what matters.

Block identifies six fundamental How? questions:
  • How do you do it?
  • How long will it take?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How do you get those people to change?
  • How do we measure it?
  • How have other people done it successfully?

    Sound familiar? I’ll bet that anyone who is reading this post makes their living – indeed has built their life – answering these questions.

    Block turns that upside down. How questions, he argues, “define the debate about the changes we have in mind and thereby create a set of boundaries on how we approach the task. This, in turn, influences how we approach the future and determines the kind of institutions we create and inhabit… When asked too soon and taken too literally [How questions] may actually postpone the future and keep us encased in our present way of thinking.”

    Eventually Block admits that we need to answer those questions, but not before we answer some alternative questions, what he calls the Yes questions:

  • What refusal have I been postponing? (The inverse of this question is “What have I said yes to that I do not really mean?")
  • What commitment am I willing to make?
  • What price am I willing to pay?
  • What is my contribution to the problem I am concerned with?
  • What is the crossroad at which I find myself at this point in my life/work?
  • What do we want to create together?

    And the bonus question:
  • What is the question that, if you had the answer, would set you free? Block explains: “The Yes questions transform our inquiries into a deeper, more intimate discussion of why we do what we do. They bring us to the larger question…: ‘How will the world be different tomorrow as a result of what we do today?’ This kind of question brings our purpose into focus.”

    Actually, these questions go together, as Block explains. When we shift from “How do you do it?" to “What refusal have I been postponing?” we’re forced to face the fact that we can’t take on something new until we stopped doing something old. If we want to engage in change, we have to say no to something.

    The Yes questions are not comfortable. They’re full of ambiguity and anxiety, and they force us to put ourselves on the line. They force us to take responsibility.

    Scary stuff. But Block is relentless: shifting to Yes questions is an act of embracing our freedom, and claiming our responsibility for creating a world that matters. “Freedom is not doing your own thing, but just the opposite. It means we are the authors of our own experience. It means that we are accountable for the well-being of all that is around us.” Yes questions move us into accountability. How questions relieve us of that responsibility.

    Editor's Note: This is part one of a two-part series. Look for more information on Block's book in the next installment.
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