About 20 years ago I was leading a brainstorming session in one of my MBA classes, and it was like wading through oatmeal. We were talking about something that many organizations struggle with: how to build a culture of equality in a male-dominated environment. Though it was an issue the students cared about, they clearly felt uninspired by the ideas they were generating. After a lot of discussion, the energy level in the room was approaching nil. Glancing at the clock, I resolved to at least give us a starting point for the next session.
“Everyone,” I improvised, “let’s forget about finding answers for today and just come up with some new questions we could be asking about this problem. Let’s see how many we can write down in the time we have left.” The students dutifully started to throw out questions, and I scribbled them on a chalkboard, redirecting anybody who started to suggest an answer. To my surprise, the room was quickly energized. At the end of the session, people left talking excitedly about a few of the questions that had emerged—those that challenged basic assumptions we had been making. For instance: Were there grassroots efforts we could support, rather than handing down rules from the top? And: What could we learn from pockets within our own organization that had achieved equality, instead of automatically looking elsewhere for best practices? Suddenly, there was much more to discuss, because we had opened up unexpected pathways to potential solutions.