Recently I’’ve been diving into some fascinating books. Almost none of them have been fiction. (Which is a departure for me – I like a good story. Moreover, if part of the job of a leader is to understand people, fiction is a great way to explore human nature.) My readings have taken me off the beaten track of “Outsourcing” or “The e-Mythl”, or whatever the latest hot business book is into some new and interesting territory. I’’ve found myself in reading Wendell Berry, Ray Anderson, Barbara Fredrickson, and, most recently, Peter Block. Maybe in future posts I’ll offer reviews of some of these other writers. Today I’d like to share some thoughts on Peter Block and his 2002 book: “The Answer to How is Yes.”


Even before you open the cover to “The Answer to How is Yes” you realize that you’re in for a new perspective. The cover sports a photo of three rocks stacked on top of each other in a complete defiance of gravity. You wonder “How did they do that?” and then you remember the title. These photos crop up throughout the book and in the credits you learn they are the work of  California-based sculptor Bill Dan. Dan works only with found objects and a uniquely-focused mental state. Looking at these photos one begins to believe that almost anything is possible.

Block’s fundamental premise is that our world jumps too quickly to asking and answering “How” questions. By focusing on How? we invest our energies on what is practical, rather than what is really, no kidding, important. Block doesn’t say we shouldn’t ask or answer How?, but that we should delay those questions as long as possible so we can act on what matters.

Block identifies six fundamental How? questions:

  • How do you do it?
  • How long will it take?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How do you get those people to change?
  • How do we measure it?
  • How have other people done it successfully?

Sound familiar? I’ll bet that anyone who is reading this post makes their living – indeed has built their life – answering these questions.

Block turns that upside down. How questions, he argues,

“define the debate about the changes we have in mind and thereby create a set of boundaries on how we approach the task. This, in turn, influences how we approach the future and determines the kind of institutions we create and inhabit… When asked too soon and taken too literally [How questions] may actually postpone the future and keep us encased in our present way of thinking.”

Eventually Block admits that we need to answer those questions, but not before we answer some alternative questions, what he calls the Yes questions:

  • What refusal have I been postponing? (The inverse of this question is “What have I said yes to that I do not really mean?)
  • What commitment am I willing to make?
  • What price am I willing to pay?
  • What is my contribution to the problem I am concerned with?
  • What is the crossroad at which I find myself at this point in my life/work?
  • What do we want to create together?

And the bonus question:

  • What is the question that, if you had the answer, would set you free?

Block explains:

“The Yes questions transform our inquiries into a deeper, more intimate discussion of why we do what we do. They bring us to the larger question…: ‘How will the world be different tomorrow as a result of what we do today?’ This kind of question brings our purpose into focus.”

Actually, these questions go together, as Block explains. When we shift from “How do you do it? to “What refusal have I been postponing?” we’re forced to face the fact that we can’t take on something new until we stopped doing something old. If we want to engage in change, we have to say no to something.

The Yes questions are not comfortable. They’re full of ambiguity and anxiety, and they force us to put ourselves on the line. They force us to take responsibility.

Scary stuff. But Block is relentless: shifting to Yes questions is an act of embracing our freedom, and claiming our responsibility for creating a world that matters. “Freedom is not doing your own thing, but just the opposite. It means we are the authors of our own experience. It means that we are accountable for the well-being of all that is around us.” Yes questions move us into accountability. How questions relieve us of that responsibility.

In Part 2, Block claims that we need to develop a foundation of three qualities to make full use of the Yes questions. These three qualities are reawakening our idealism, cultivating our ability to become more intimate with our environment, and our willingness to choose depth in the face of an ever-quickening pace of modern life. Block argues that we have “forsaken idealism for cynicism, forgone intimacy for consumption and virtual experience… and in an effort to go fast, we sacrifice depth.” And I love this statement: “When we lose idealism, intimacy, and depth, we function at a cosmetic level, pushed along by fashion, our of touch with our center, and we react as if we are the effect of the culture, rather that its cause.”

I wonder how many times I’ve heard a speaker at some business conference decry the difficulty of transforming organizational culture. Perhaps Block is onto something important here. Perhaps we have misunderstood our relationship with culture. What if we are the cause of culture, rather than its effect?

The last half of the book, Parts 3 and 4, explore the full implications of what it means to claim full citizenship in the world. By full citizenship, Block is not talking about citizenship in a nation or other political entity. He is talking about stepping up to full responsibility for the well-being of our world.

“We must act as if our institutions are ours to create, our learning is ours to define, the leadership we seek is ours to become.” With chapter titles like “Home School Yourself” and “Oh, by the Way… You Have to Give Up Your Ambition”, and (my personal favorite) “Your Boss Doesn’t Have What You Want”, don’t be surprised to find you’re on a wild ride. This section will shake up your view of the old command-and-control paradigm. Oddly I found the message more inspirational than threatening. I say ‘Oddly’ because as I’m well-practiced in the world of command-and-control. Instead, I find myself wanting to hand the book out to friends, family, colleagues, and customers.

Block concludes by developing portraits of four archetypes that we find in business today. Engineers and Economists dominate our current business environment. Engineers and economists have much to contribute to our world. But, Block argues, their values act to constrain our future, rather than create it. Under the guidance of engineers and economists, the future is much like the past, only more efficient. “Instead of creating a future, the economist and the engineer focus on predicting and controlling it.”

Against these archetypes, Block introduces the Artist. The artist archetype is least compatible with the business world because the artist thrives on surprise and emotion. The artist is, by design, a permanent outsider, and views commerce with suspicion. You can’t get much further polarized than the Engineer/Economist and the Artist.

Block’s fourth archetype is the one he sees as the model for leadership: the Architect.  The architect forms a bridge between the poles of Engineer/Economist and Artist. Architects bring the best of all worlds together: the aesthetic and ultilitarian; the subjective and the practical. The business leader as architect is a role for bosses and employees. The business leader as architect makes space for what matters, names the questions, initiates new conversations for learning, and designs strategies for empowerment, consent, and local choice.

You may feel the earth shake under your feet when you read “The Answer to How is Yes”. That’s a good sign that you’re paying attention.

What about you? Have you read “The Answer…” or any other Block books? What are your thoughts on his arguments (or at least how I’ve interpreted them?) Do you have any suggestions for “must-read” books?  Use the ShareThis button below to mark this page, leave a comment, tweet me, schedule a conversation, or call 800-958-2709.