You want to change something—maybe a personal change or an organizational change. You’ve seen the headlines: “proven ways to lose weight!” or, in my context, “proven agile transformation success!” These people claim they have the One Right Way to succeed at something.
They probably have succeeded—maybe even several times. They can explain the journey, from the Foreign Element to the Transforming Idea. But without understanding their Old Status Quo and the results they see in the New Status Quo, the journey doesn’t matter as much.
When people don’t share their context, we can’t learn from them. We can adapt their ideas to our context.
If you’re lucky, you can ask the question at the top of this post. But, too often, people don’t realize they have a specific context. We need more questions. Here are some questions to elicit the context.
Questions to Elicit the Context for Other People’s Success
Let’s start with a work problem, because, in some ways, that’s easier to explain. I ask questions such as:
- What kind of company or organization did you work with and the initial state? This is where they define the Old Status Quo, with who has which problems. Also, add the human and other costs and effects of those problems.
- What happened—what did you try? What succeeded and what didn’t? What turned the corner to success? This is the journey from Foreign Element to Transforming Idea and up to New Status Quo.
- When you stopped working with them, what was their state then? I assume this is the company’s New Status Quo. I ask about the data from the Old Status Quo here.
With any luck, we have a conversation about what they saw, what they did, and the dynamics that led to their results.
Those conversations require specifics. And, too often, these people feel bound by their non-disclosure agreements to avoid offering specifics. That’s when I ask them to write a short piece or experience report about how they succeeded in different contexts, so they—and I—can see what occurred.
Note: This journey is precisely the same as Algis Budrys’ 7-point plot outline for fiction:
- Points 1, 2, 3 are a character, in a setting, with a problem. (All of those are our context.)
- Points 4, 5 are all the try/fail cycles. Even the journey from Transforming Idea to New Status Quo has some small “fails.”
- Point 6, the climax, is the arrival at the New Status Quo
- Point 7, the validation, is about the value of the results they now see.
Now we can assess our contexts to see how similar our situations are.
Assess the Context for Your Situation
Knowing the context matters for your situation.
For example, if someone tells me the One Right Way to lose weight is to run a 5k three or four times a week and eat a lot of carbs, I will politely thank them and ignore them. With my vertigo, I can’t run and I avoid carbs like the plague (also because of my vertigo).
If someone tells me the One Right Way to transform their organization is to train all the teams first, I will ask, “What happens after that?” My experience and context says that training teams might offer substantial value—after managers learn what they need to do. You might not agree with me, and I’m fine with that. We have different contexts.
Context matters for most problem-solving. We can use other people’s successes and adapt them to our needs if we understand the context.
And that’s the question this week: What’s your context for your success in solving this problem?