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Coffee break Bulletin

“Why?” — The process of inquiry

Posted: July 24, 2017

This Coffee Break Bulletin explains why the process of inquiry is essential to solving problems on the job.

If you want to solve a problem on your job, you need to start by asking “why.” The “process of inquiry,” as defined by the famous Greek philosopher Plato, begins with the need to first understand the problem you are facing.

Over the years, many students have been mystified, or perhaps mortified, when assigned to read all or a portion of the great writings of Plato. Plato is not an easy read. He wrote in dialogue-fashion, in order to capture conversations and debates among his many characters. “The Republic,” probably Plato’s most well-known compilation of inquiries, is still, to this day, used as a starting point for philosophical dialogue from politics to life in general.

Seeking to understand is the foundation of leadership.

Inquiry: The key to seeking understanding

Throughout his writings, Plato consistently applied a process of inquiry with variations of the questions “Why?” or “What if … ?” He provided many examples of how the inquiry is key to seeking understanding. Seeking to understand is the foundation of leadership. Leading without understanding is actually not leadership at all.

The process of inquiry is centered on asking basic questions to gain insight into an issue from as many perspectives as possible. One question leads to one answer, that leads to another question to another answer, and so on. Each answer provides an opportunity to ask more questions from different viewpoints. Over time, this is the proverbial peeling of the onion to get to the core. Peeled correctly, there is no tearing up, but rather methodical progress toward the center of the issue.

The question “Why?” is viewed by some as an affront to an idea, action, or perhaps to someone’s authority. It is a powerful question that leaders should ask frequently. However, it is also important for leaders to create and maintain an environment where people feel comfortable and empowered to ask questions. Questions are essential to effective and appropriate choices.

Decisions without inquiry first will most likely end up with undesired consequences. Even on the fireground, decisions must be made through a process of inquiry. It may be as simple as a quick observation of wind direction before applying a tactic, but it is still a process of inquiry. Open a window on the wrong side and the situation may dramatically change. The same occurs with administrative, logistical and political choices. Failure to ask “Why?” or work through multiple “What ifs” may ultimately lead to failure.

Be more than just the person in charge

All leaders should take a moment to read some of Plato’s writings. Read with the intent to understand. Yes, that means you may find yourself reading a passage over and over again and scratching your head. But, that is exactly the point. You are thinking and engaging in inquiry within the privacy of your own mind.

Now, imagine if you took the time to inquire with those around you and allowed them to openly inquire of you before decisions are made. You may hear and see things like never before. You may find out that Plato was really on to something. Perhaps you, too, will be seen as a great philosopher and leader one day, rather than just the person in charge.

Action step to improve executive decision-making

For more information on executive decision-making, review Executive Fire Officer Applied Research Projects written on the topic.

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