"The Three Most Powerful Questions You Can Ask in Business"and How They Can Get You Unstuck

It’s the Age of Uncertainty, and organizations everywhere are “stuck” in old habits and old ways of thinking that no longer work. Glenda Eoyang, coauthor of the new book Adaptive Action, explains how asking three simple questions can help you frame seemingly insurmountable problems and get moving in a positive direction.

Joe has always been a successful leader. But recently he’s found that the strategic planning system that once served him well is no longer working. He used to be able to plan on a five-year cycle. Now, even one-year cycles are too long. Regardless of his best-laid plans, other forces in the organization keep overriding his strategies. What’s more, the tricks that have always helped him see what needs to be done and motivate his staff are failing him. Joe is deeply frustrated. It seems so unfair—how can it be that here, at the point in his career when he thought he knew everything he needed to know about his job, each day is such a struggle?

Joe is hardly alone. According to Glenda Eoyang and Royce Holladay, uncertainty and chaos are the “new normal”—and leaders everywhere are forced to rethink the most basic aspects of their work.

“Forget five-year planning cycles: Even five-month planning cycles don’t work,” asserts Eoyang, who along with coauthor Holladay wrote the new book Adaptive Action: Leveraging Uncertainty in Your Organization . “Forget fixing the ‘root cause’ of your challenges in a world where diverse and multiple forces from innumerable sources influence decisions you make and actions you take. Today’s outcomes depend on yesterday’s actions and bring unexpected consequences tomorrow.

“The world is changing at the speed of thought, and it is beyond complex,” she adds. “We have to find new perspectives and tools that help us meet those challenges.”

In the past, Eoyang explains, the world was stable enough to imagine planning for a three-to-five-year horizon. Then, strategic planning often brought people together to explore current realities and future possibilities in shared work. It allowed them to identify measures and activities that gave them a sense of control. But as yesterday’s dreams become tomorrow’s “old hat,” it’s impossible to create strategies you can count on; measures that will hold their meaning; or a stable, unchanging picture of the future.

What happens is, you try working harder,” says Eoyang. “You try reading new leadership books. You try the newest versions of old strategies. But nothing works. You’ve hit the wall, and you see no options for action. You’re stuck…and that’s a terrible feeling.”

So how can we focus our work and move forward in coherent and productive ways? Eoyang and Holladay offer Adaptive Action, an alternative that provides quick feedback in cycles of observation, analysis, and action that can be as short as a heartbeat, as long as a year, and span across a lifetime. It’s accessible enough that anyone in an organization can use it to solve problems, plan for the future, and make more effective decisions as they deal with day-to-day realities and uncertainties along the way.

Adaptive Action allows organizations to see and understand the patterns in the challenges they face, design creative responses that move beyond just treating the symptoms of those challenges, and, finally, act with courage, knowing their actions are supported by insights about what is really going on. At the heart of this process are three deceptively simple questions: What? So what? Now what?

“These questions get people focused and thinking in ways that allow them to break through their paralysis and take intelligent action,” notes Eoyang. “While the process of questioning and planning is natural and intuitive in how we all think about change, Adaptive Action takes you beyond the first level of seeing your system. It enables you to see deep into the dynamics of decisions, interaction, and behavior to help you identify the most productive and best-informed actions.”


In the What? stage, those engaged in problem solving simply describe current reality. What’s happening in the system? What’s happening in the larger world? What is being seen, felt, experienced? In this stage, people name and describe, as thoroughly as they can, the current status, focusing on the challenge they need to address.

The following questions helped Joe and his staff use the What? stage to explore these deeper dynamics of their interactions and communications with their focus on the underlying patterns. The stem of the question is in bold italics and would work for most situations.

• What do I know for sure about what is communicated and how?

• What patterns do I observe in part, whole, greater whole—in the ways people share, gather, and use information at the individual, group, team levels?

• What feelings or reactions do I see among staff as they share information or learn new information?

• What lies on the horizon in terms of need to share information or in terms of the fallout from how communications currently happen?

• What data do I have about information flow; data use; and times, places, and situations where people say they don’t have the information they need?

• What stories have I heard and from whom, recounting difficulties gathering info and/or difficulties getting people to hear and respond?

• What has changed over time, relative to this challenge?

• What are the gaps in what I know about this challenge or seemingly related situations?

QUESTION 2: So what?

In the So what? stage, people ask, “So what does all this mean?” They explore the implications of their work, identifying current rationales, new research, and emergent forces that may be shaping their world. They consider risks and benefits that go along with the uncertainty of the situation and explore the underlying dynamics of the challenges, using human systems dynamics (HSD) tools to understand and to identify new options for action.

Questions asked at this phase might be:

• So what doesn’t fit for me—for us—in terms of how people seek, use, and share information, as opposed to what we expected to see? In terms of what we need to have happening?

• So what is the difference between what I/we want and what I/we have when it comes to sharing and using information?

• So what led us here? Might lead us out? How can we change expectations about seeking and sharing information? How might we change how people step into accountability for knowing what they need to know?

• So what constraints can I observe? What limits/supports effective information flow? What limits/supports information use? What limits/supports accountability for sharing information?

• So what are the most relevant

• Boundaries? Where information flows well? Where it gets blocked? Where it’s received? Where it’s well used?

• Differences? In how people seek and send information? In how they use or ignore information? In what information people want or use?

• Connections? That bring people together? That make meaning of the information they have? That extend into other parts of the organization? To the greater landscape? That are newer? That are older?

• So what are my options for action to shift how people seek, gather, generate, and use the information that is available to them in the organization?

QUESTION 3: Now what?

In the Now what? stage, people take action and then assess the impact on the challenge at hand. Did the situation change? In what ways? What were the unintended consequences that might have emerged? What’s happening now? What am I uncertain about now? If people pay attention, they find themselves back to the next What? stage, describing the patterns as they stand after taking action. That’s the iterative nature of Adaptive Action—people always end up at the start of another cycle.

Based on their new understandings about what was really happening in their department, Joe and his staff began to find ways to reward and recognize effective information flow. They clarified expectations about individual responsibility for gathering and sharing data. They began to model in very public and unambiguous ways what they wanted to see happen among all staff members. And at each stage they took time to check the impact of their actions. They looked for ways to adapt their plan and move toward greater effectiveness, based on what they found about the continuously emerging and shifting patterns.

Here are the kinds of questions to ask at the Now what? phase:

• Now what will I do to help people share, gather, and use data and information that informed their work?

• Now who might I include in action? Who can do what? Who is involved and who needs to be involved?

• Now what will I expect to see as system change? What will be the behaviors that will indicate change? What operational systems and functions might change and in what ways?

• Now what unintended consequences might arise? What should I watch for as people embrace or ignore the actions we take?

• Now what will mark success or failure? How will I know these actions are or are not working? What will I see at the system level? What will I see among my teams? What will I see different among individuals?

• Now what do I need to communicate to others? Who needs to know what about these issues, challenges, and changes?

When you are able to understand a challenge from a new perspective, you have a better chance to figure out new ways to respond,” says Eoyang. “You’re basically saying, ‘Okay, all of this uncertainty isn’t bad. Nor is it good. It just is…and here are a few simple questions that can help me live with it.’ There’s something so liberating about making that shift—and once you do, you’re ready to move forward in ways that lead to sustainable innovation and productivity.”

Dr. Glenda Eoyang and Royce Holladay are coauthors of Adaptive Action: Leveraging Uncertainty in Your Organization (Stanford University Press, 2013).

Glenda works with public and private organizations and communities to help them thrive in the face of overwhelming complexity and uncertainty. She is a pioneer in the field of human systems dynamics (HSD), which she founded. Through Human Systems Dynamics Institute, Glenda helps others see patterns in the chaos that surrounds them, understand the patterns in simple and powerful ways, and take practical steps to shift chaos into order. She shares her practical theories and theory-informed practices as she speaks and teaches around the globe. She speaks about adaptive action wherever it is needed: peace and justice, education, leadership, evaluation, public policy, productivity, sustainability. Her clients include Fraser Health Authority, Merrill Lynch, Cargill, McKnight Foundation, Prevention Institute, social service and high-tech start-ups, as well as local, state, and federal government agencies in the U.S. and abroad.

Royce is a leader among HSD Associates around the world who use Adaptive Action in their work. She serves as a consultant and coach to help individuals, groups, and organizations cope with uncertainty. Well grounded in the theoretical foundations of HSD, she brings a practitioner’s voice to everyday applications. Royce’s deep understanding of the dynamics of human systems has been a springboard for the development of a number of models and methods. She has worked with colleagues to address issues such as school reform, inclusion and social justice, coherent system design, finding and sustaining peaceful solutions, strategic adaptive action, and self-reflection and growth through inquiry.