Janyce Fadden, Director of Strategic Engagement, Agile Strategy Lab, University of North Alabama

Janyce Fadden is Director of Strategic Engagement at the University of North Alabama Sanders College of Business and Technology’s Agile Strategy Lab, where she is part of a team advancing agile leadership and strategy initiatives. She is a co-author of the award-winning book, “Strategic Doing: Ten Skills for Agile Leadership” and serves as a certified fellow of the Strategic Doing Institute, a breakthrough process for doing more together. Fadden has facilitated many workshops and keynote talks about strategy development and implementation. In her previous role as President at the Rockford Area Economic Development Council, she created and implemented innovative approaches to economic development. She also served in various capacities as President, Vice President, and General Manager for major multinational corporations, including Honeywell, General Signal, Applied Power, Pacific Scientific, and Danaher. Fadden earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering and Management from Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, and her Master of Business Administration degree from Northern Illinois University.


Imagine you are at the baggage claim area where you are waiting. You just got off the flight. You flew economy and are waiting for your baggage, and waiting, and waiting…and then finally is right there! Right after you see your bag, the baggage handler throws up a sign that says, “last bag.” That is when it hits you “somebody’s bag is going to be last” … every time. This is your time for your bag to be last.  There is really nothing you can do about it when you fly economy, your bag is going to come out when it is going to come out.

Think about what could be different if you did not want your bag to be the last one off the carousel. How could you have a situation where you could control the outcome?  When you could not control the situation what would you do? Ideally it would be good to have a predictable outcome. But then there can be so many variables. Maybe you took statistics and enjoyed it or not, but statistics are all around us because variables are all around us. Some variables we can control and some we cannot.

Powerful management tools

In my corporate job I learned that quality control is the top priority. Without quality we would lose all our customers. Quality is about creating a predictable way to achieve the desired product design. To do that we needed to understand what we could control and what we could not. Then we could ask questions on how to improve outcomes.

In fact, that led me to the most powerful management tool which is to ask questions. It is not to have the right answer. As a leader, it is basically your only tool because oftentimes what you are doing is asking others to do something through questioning. Here is a skill in which you can always improve.

Changing your view

If you can think about questions in a new way, you might be able to think differently and behave differently and do differently. At my corporate job we were implementing lean management techniques which is a very popular methodology to increase customer results through continuously improving your process by engaging your team. One of my first teachers in this area taught me that you cannot improve what you cannot see. Learning to see is the first lesson of Lean Management. I now see almost everything as a process. There are process steps everywhere that move from one to another to the finish. Our job is to control the variation in the steps to reach our desired outcome by continuously improving.

Types of questions

Questions can either be labeled as either technical or adaptive. Knowing and identifying the difference affects how you approach the solution.

A technical question is solved by employing an expert to solve the problem. Perhaps when you are on the airplane and the pilot announces that we are a little bit delayed because there is a broken seat, and the mechanic is coming to fix it. That is a technical expert coming to fix something that is a specific problem. Sometimes you have the capability to do that technical response yourself but many times you will call on an expert to handle the technical question and that is usually straightforward.

What is not straightforward is an adaptive question. Adaptive questions are questions that do not have an easy answer, have many answers, and the solution usually is deployed by the people who develop the answers to the question. That is where you may be in a group with others and talk about what should happen or could happen to improve a situation. But imagine you want to talk about the problem from a standpoint of taking action and not at a bunch of ideas about what others can do. You want solutions that this team can implement starting now. Imagine you convene a team that talks about solving the question with what they control. Then you find you are on the path to getting to solutions faster. Individually sometimes you often jump to solutions about what others should do but shift it to a situation about what you should do about the baggage and not thinking about what they should do. Then you can begin to imagine ways that answer the question “Imagine my bag isn’t last. What would that look like?”

Looking forward

What happens when you ask questions about any adaptive situation is that you become a part of the solution. You can activate at least one solution that moves the team and you to the desired future state. When this happens, the team and you get this sense of accomplishment because you took steps and began producing results. The next time that you are in a situation like I was with baggage claim take some time to first formulate the question “what would it look like if ….?” You can think about what you can do, how you can change your behavior and what you will then do.  This new way of thinking, behaving, and doing can change your results more quickly and with higher satisfaction.

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