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  • Oliver Nowak

The Socratic Method - Have you Questioned your culture?

Socrates: “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing”.



I have spoken a lot about culture, but what actually is culture? It’s an intangible societal construct that we all agree is there, and that we agree plays a crucial role in our behaviour, yet at the same time we have no idea how it affects our behaviour. It seems to be an almost immovable force. Examples are everywhere, ranging from the recent exposure of systemic racism built into the very fabric of society, or the 70% failure rate of organisational change projects. So, why does this immovable force exist?


A skeptic? The following famous riddle has been proven to expose how we’re governed by sub-conscious assumptions we don’t even know we’re making: A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the father. The son is badly injured and is rushed to hospital. Just as he is about to go under the knife, the doctor shouts “I can’t operate, that boy is my son”. Who is the doctor?


Research found that only 15% of children aged 7-17 identified the doctor as the mother. Even amongst self-described feminists, only 22% identified the doctor as the mother. Why? - society, right or wrong, has been imprinting our thoughts and behaviour from the day we were born with assumptions. We’re simply exposed to too much information on a daily basis that we have to take shortcuts. If every time we thought of a doctor, every permutation of gender, race or ethnicity ran through our imagination, we’d be overwhelmed. So, even those who consciously stand passionately against gender bias, subconsciously obey this immovable force.


The message? - though a powerful tool in terms of giving us the capacity we need to function, it can be costly when it comes to creating change. We can’t help but picture a white male when we think of a doctor, but when that affects our ability to introduce more diversity into the profession, then we do have a problem. So how can we better understand our thought processes to differentiate between the assumptions that are simplifying our thought processes, and truths that are governing them?


What is the Socratic Method?

Socrates developed a form of questioning designed to stimulate critical thinking that helped separate his pupils from their prejudices. He learned that his students learned much more effectively when they were encouraged to question a topic themselves rather than just receive a lecture on it. In other words, his students understood the topic better when they solved it themselves rather than just being given the answer.


The essence of this approach was to eliminate the assumptions clouding their understanding by using questioning to bore down to the fundamental facts. It is in these fundamental facts that true knowledge lies.


Digital transformation initiatives are designed to achieve large scale change within an organisation. It changes the way we work to such a large extent that the only way we achieve the benefits of that transformation, is by getting the buy-in from our employees to adopt these new ways of work. When I look at the high failure rate of these initiatives and the general lack of buy-in, I see that a large part of the problem is a lack of understanding. Senior managers that are responsible for creating the organisation’s digital transformation strategic vision don’t understand what it takes lower down in the engine room to keep the company operational. And operators looking up don’t understand how the company’s competitive sustainability hinges on being able to pivot in-line with technological advancement.


In my opinion, this lack of understanding comes as a result of key assumptions that are clouding the mindset of both parties, creating enough friction to make a change project of this scale almost unachievable. Operators assume that the company’s senior managers are only interested in digitally transforming the organisation to boost profits so they can line their own pockets. Senior managers assume they know best because they’ve got their high vantage point and have worked so hard to get to where they are. However, if you look at the truths governing their motivations, they actually align. Increasing profits today makes the company more competitive tomorrow meaning not only is Operator A more likely to keep their job but they might even have an opportunity to upskill and move up the ranks. So where’s the disconnect? How can we get to a situation where everyone understands one another’s situation, realising the common purpose at hand?



Barriers to Questioning

The problem is, culturally speaking, there are a lot of barriers to questioning in the typical workplace environment. Asking lots of questions is seen as exposing weakness, you’re expected to be knowledgeable and a lack of knowledge therefore is seen as being sub-par relative to your peers. Instead, we skirt around questions and pretend we know the answer for fear of exposing our lack of knowledge. In other cases, asking someone a lot of questions can be seen as the opposite, a lack of confidence in their knowledge and understanding. As such, they feel threatened and start to behave defensively.


In both of these cases, the irony is that there’s a misunderstanding in the purpose of the questioning. We’re not trying to refute a person’s beliefs or the truths that govern their daily lives, we’re trying to lift the fog of assumptions that is obscuring them. Only then can we truly begin to understand the environment that we are operating in.


To fully understand the areas that our change initiatives need to address going forward, we need to learn more about where we are today. At the moment, the complexity of our present is forcing us down a road of lecturing to our employees rather than guiding them through a process of self-knowledge through questioning. We would rather create a prescriptive digital initiative and lecture our operational staff on how they should adopt it, rather than using questioning to clarify what would truly benefit their day-to-day working lives. The holy grail would be to create an environment where our employees come up with the solution themselves. It makes sense that the individuals who live and breathe an operation on a daily basis should be the one to advise senior management on how to develop it doesn’t it?



The Solution

To put this into practice we need character to rise to the surface that is notoriously hard to come by. Our senior managers become facilitators rather than day-to-day decision makers but this requires an enormous amount of humility. For this to succeed, we need an environment where no one is too important to ask a simple question and no one is too unimportant to ask a difficult question. Each individual is responsible for asking the questions they need to ask to further their own knowledge.


The backbone of a continuously improving and continuously innovating environment is a questioning environment. Regularly posing questions of how can we do things better than before, never saying enough. The truth of the matter is this, no one person has all of the answers. However, the catalyst for self-improvement is the curiosity to discover that which you don’t already know. If the whole team can adopt it, then if all 100 people improve by as little as 1%, the group as a whole is twice as knowledgeable as it was to begin with. Imagine the change an organisation could achieve with just incremental personal development….

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