Edgar Schein and Humble Inquiry

Big Takeaway: Let your curiosity and desire to help drive the relationship.

Editor’s note: This post is one in a series authored by ALP’s Katy Fodchuk entitled Change Leadership: Helping, Mastery, and Appreciative Inquiry, in which she revisits the work of her “guru guides” whose practices and research in numerous organizations have been key drivers in her approach to educational leadership consulting.

Edgar Schein (2016) reminded me of a consultant’s most important question, “How I can provide real help to this person who has sought my guidance?”

Schein, an emeritus professor at MIT Sloan School of Management and expert on organizational culture and team processes, recently aggregated his wealth of knowledge in a new model of consulting called “Humble Inquiry” (Schein, 2013). Humble Inquiry is more about communication, learning, critical questions, and building personalized and respectful relationships than it is about diagnosing organizational problems and proposing change interventions. It is about letting one’s intrigue and curiosity for the client and that client’s passions and dilemmas drive a collaborative change approach. Humble Inquiry is as simple as asking someone “What are your working on?” and complex as understanding how status and role boundaries can inhibit meaningful change work.

Schein also emphasizes the dilemma of the presenting problem. Presenting problems often entail perspective on the problem’s source, e.g. a certain team, and individual, attitudes, or the general culture. For example, as the “father of organizational culture,” Schein is often sought out by large companies that seek deep change. Schein offers one such example of a new CEO who can’t motivate change in the stagnant workforce he is leading. This CEO wanted Schein to diagnose the culture and develop a program for change. Spurred by his own deep curiosity and in a few masterfully strategic yet surprisingly simple questions, Schein guides the CEO to think more deeply about the problem, his response to it, and openly reflect and process deeper systemic issues.

Because my organization, among other services, helps school districts integrate large-scale change around technology and innovative learning systems, the presenting problem is often a request for a catalog of courses or trainings on instructional technology. It is the approach of other educational consulting firms and may be the solution to a specific problem, but we find that more often the change process entails a deeper shift in attitudes, process, and mindsets (i.e., beyond what an in-service training can provide). By letting curiosity and a desire to help drive our approach, I am often in awe of my team’s ability to help educational leaders quickly identify the deeper need and move beyond the presenting problem.

This is critical to the work of effective leadership consulting and why I often find it is difficult to explain ALP’s work in a brief elevator speech. Indeed, we worked with a marketing consultant to try and narrow down our message and came up with, “To empower educators to be the change their community needs.” Part of our elevator speech challenge rests in the fact that what we do depends on the unique and complex context of our educational partners. We have worked with leaders who are navigating organizational restructuring, integration of new learning models, negotiating with school boards, policy change, building and shaping a new team’s culture, and large-scale technology and innovation integration (to name a few!).

Grounding our services in helping makes our consulting approaches as unique as our clients. That said, we bring a level of expertise to education systems and organizational development practices, but our clients match us by providing their unique expertise and organizational insights. From each collaboration we learn and endeavor to share that learning when we form a new partnership.


Shein, E. H. (2013). Humble inquiry: The art of asking instead of telling. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Kohler Publishers, Inc.

Schein, E. H. (2016). Humble Consulting: The gentle art of asking instead of telling. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Kohler Publishers, Inc.

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