I love simple questions that have complex and nuanced answers. In a conversation with my dad at the weekend, we came up with three that might for the starting point for a deep dialogue with a group of people about how they work together.

The first one is one I’ve used a fair bit already, and helps to understand people’s perceptions of where work happens:

Where do you work?

The breadth of answers to this question will be proportionate I think to how well “flexible” working practices have been adopted. They will vary from:

  • organisational (“I work at Smiths & Co”, “in the finance team”),
  • to sectoral (“I work in media”),
  • to professional (“I work in accounting”),
  • to specific geography (“London”),
  • to general geography (“The office”, “At home”, “On the train”),
  • to technological (“In Outlook”),
  • to esoteric (“In my head”, “Everywhere”).

The next one is untested:

Who do you work for?

My hunch is that the answers to this question will fall into the following categories:

  • organisational (“I work for Smiths & Co”)
  • sectoral (“I work for the government”, “I work for the police”)
  • managerial (“I work for Bob”, “I work for myself”)

The final question I’ve asked in different context:

Which team do you work in?

The answers to this question are usually quite telling when it comes to whether there is a sense of cohesion. The variance in different people’s answers is usually quite surprising. In the average IT department, for example, there will be myriad responses from “IT” as a generic thing, to subteams like “the helpdesk” to variances on current or previous brands under which the group has operated. I’ve yet to meet a group of people in an IT group who answer this question with a consistent single answer.

The response to this is almost certainly going to be the line management group in which people find themselves. And to an extent, it’s a trick question. In our modern, matrixed organisations at any time we find ourselves in many different teams. The line management team in which we sit structurally will often be little more than a community of common interest (same department, same boss) but not a group of people who actually do work together.

Yeah, yeah, but so what?

The starting point for getting groups of people to work better with one another is to get them talking about how they work today. These questions give a lens onto concepts around which there is probably assumption of consensus but in fact are likely to have huge differences across any group. Unearthing and then discussing those differences helps people to find consensus. These questions are a vehicle for that conversation.

How do I use the questions?

I’d suggest something along the following lines:

  • in a group give people a pen and some things (Artefact Cards, PostIts) on which to write.
  • ask people to answer the following questions with the first thing that comes to mind, and without discussing with others.
  • ask each of the three questions in turn, and allow people the time to write down their answers, one answer per card or PostIt.
  • I’ve found playing “Snap” is a good way to group responses on questions like this quickly – ask someone in the group to lay down their response to the first question, and then anyone else who has exactly the same answer lays down theirs, “Snap!”.
  • work with the group to move the various answers around into what they see as logical groupings (see the categories of answers above for clues).
  • discuss variances and differences of perception. Are those variances important? Do they act as barriers to working with one another?
  • move onto question 2 and repeat, and then the same for question 3.

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