The Dandelion Question

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The Dandelion Question

Posted originally on Leading with Questions. Reposted with kind permission from Bob Tiede.

It all started with a dandelion in an alley in Calgary. A weed in the wrong place, it became the impetus for discovery that may eliminate much petroleum-based pollution.  The wonder is in the question that led to innovation.

Most of us might merely pluck such an offending plant.  Some might plot a means to permanently eliminate such occurrences.  Kelcie Miller-Anderson, 15 at the time, simply wondered:

“How it is that dandelions thrive where other plants do not?”

Starting with her reframed question, Kelcie, now 22 and in college, has found answers that may remediate thousands of square miles of soil ruined by oil production in Calgary.  Some think her work may become a billion-dollar industry. Kelcie wants to make an impact on the world.

A summary of her work begins in the lab she created in the basement of her home.  Kelcie found that a particular fungus attaches to the dandelion roots. That fungus “eats” petroleum, releasing sugars that the dandelion feeds upon to not just survive, but thrive.  Attaching the fungus to soybeans was thought to offer a solution to a broader need for food, and without all the dandelions.  Then, on to oyster mushrooms that can handle Canadian winters better. Ultimately, she is focusing primarily on the fungus. It just gets simpler as she goes along.

What might we learn from Kelcie’s experience to apply elsewhere?

There are now about 1,000 references to this young lady on the internet.  From oil industry trade magazines to a TED talk and many awards, people appreciate her ingenuity, drive and results.

  • Kelcie was not informed, educated, or limited to more typical research and problem-solving approaches. What may seem to be the best methods to one person may be viewed as a high-walled maze for others who can simply walk to the solution.
  • Along the way, Kelcie was encouraged by a teacher who did not understand the technology but understood how to learn and how to encourage learners.
  • Her solution is natural and straightforward rather than exotic. She quotes Einstein that “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

There are lessons in how we approach the dandelions

  • Kelcie looked for what was already working well, then imagined how that could be used in other situations.
  • Moving between dandelions to tar sands required an openness to cross the boundaries of disciplines.
  • Kelcie’s question demonstrates an appreciative inquiry approach compared with more common problem solving and planning techniques. “What are the strong forces that we may harness for good? ”focuses on the dandelion’s success. That is a different view than “How do we get rid of it to maintain or improve what we have? ”Google “appreciative inquiry” to see the difference.

An Application Example

Rules-oriented people have a reputation of digging their heels in at any suggestion of change in policy or process.  They may not handle nuanced suggestions that the “rules” could be slightly revised, altered in interpretation, or ignored, because it is anathema to values of compliance and authority they hold dearly.  Are these people just dandelions that should be plucked and tossed?

These fine people can provide the greatest support for new processes or directions.  With a well-defined new direction or process as a new rule, and the clear termination of the old rule, they will rush to be in compliance.  They will not allow others to undermine or subvert the new direction. They may be some of the greatest supporters of clear and distinct change; less so for slow, vague, or nuanced change.  Find out how people around you accommodate change and pave that pathway, leading them their way.

To Ponder

  • What is the dandelion question in your leadership and work? Instead of trying to minimize the points of pain within the present plan, how might you reframe the issue to gain new insights and innovation, focusing instead on what is working well?
  • That which continues to cause unwanted or unintended problems in your work and life must be powerful. How might you redirect that power to some greater good?
  • Where might you find innovative answers outside of your area of knowledge and experience?
  • How might you engage others to bring their different knowledge and experience to the table?
  • Will you encourage the Kelcie’s in your life to learn and grow to their potential?
  • Can you imagine how you could provide opportunities for others to experiment, learn and grow, apart from the “high-walled maze” of current processes and best practices?

dandelionABOUT THE AUTHOR: Robert Hodge coaches leaders, emerging leaders and boards to their preferred future.  He especially focuses on collaborative initiatives between organizations.  You can connect with him on his website:

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