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Change Begins with the Healing Question

When Percival, loyal knight of Arthur's round table, first encountered the Holy Grail, he missed his opportunity. According to the story, Percival saw the Grail at a feast in the castle of the Fisher King, who was gravely ill from a terrible wound. But the first time around, Percival failed to ask the question that would have given him the Grail and healed the king. He awoke in an empty castle, and the Grail was gone. He had to wait a long time and learn a few lessons before he got a chance to ask again.

A simple demonstration of empathy has tremendous power. In the story, it had the power to heal a wounded king, and by extension a kingdom. The fact that we're still talking about the Grail and the story of the 'quest' in the 21st century means that the ancestors are trying to tell us something important. It's a thousand years later, and the world is infinitely more complex, but all change still begins with the same healing question: "what ails you?"

When I teach the Lean Six Sigma for Humans, I usually tell would-be-process-improvers to start with questions. Specifically there are 5 questions that project leaders need to ask when improving a complex system:

  1. what's the problem?

  2. how big is this problem?

  3. why does this happen?

  4. what interventions might we try?

  5. how do we keep this from happening again?

Here again, we see that positive change can't happen until the healing question has been asked. This took me a long time to understand. I used to get really enamored with tools and math for plumbing the depths of complex systems, but then I discovered that connecting on a human level is more important than technical mastery. How does it feel to work in a place that's always operating in failure mode? What happens when the system is operating over it's capacity? How does feel to be a customer who has to wait, or deal with contradictory information? These, more than out-of-bounds key performance indicators, turn out to be the real motivations for change.

When I coach, I begin the same way. How is it with you? Can I share an observation? What do you need? What can we try to do differently? Different questions, but same beginning. Change begins with empathy.

It's a new year, so rather than ask about your resolutions, I'm going to begin with a healing question: "What ails you?" You can try this at home if you'd like. There might be a Grail in it for you.

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