A steady diet of outrage and despair doesn’t just darken our mood; it diminishes our capacity to think.
I’ve been absorbing reports of the barbarism we’re witnessing in the Middle East. If you believe that people can only be oppressors or victims, you’re not just mistaken; you’ve been hoodwinked. Believing that conflicts are defined solely by the positions people take means you’re unwittingly participating in the wrong game.
Like a toddler’s tantrum, entertaining and sharing angry thoughts can temporarily dampen our fury. However, that doesn’t make these thoughts legitimate. Our brains prefer, and perhaps even need, ways to simplify reality. For our primitive ancestors, the brain’s job was akin to taking a daily multiple-choice exam about the world:
Which of the following is true about what I’m noticing?
A) It’s food; I should eat it.
B) It thinks I’m food; I should run.
C) It smells nice; I should have sex with it.
D) None of the above; I’ll take a nap.
Today, our world requires us to get comfortable with thinking about things that are not simple. Our situations are more akin to answering essay questions. Faced with a complex, ambiguous prompt, we’re required to create a well-reasoned response.
If your mind is getting flabby, here are a few simple exercises to build stamina for complexity and uncertainty:
When it comes to the calamities buffeting our attention, I’m not worried about which side is right. I’m worried about our impoverished ability to think things through. If we insist on oversimplifying the world, we’ll eventually view everyone as either a winner or a loser, an ‘us’ or a ‘them.’
(AI generated the image above with the prompt: A photographic image of a work team of people sarcastically giving a thumbs up. I love the creepy smiles and extra arms!)
When leaders want something from their teams, they often call a meeting. The hope is that through a successful meeting, the team will reach an agreement that creates commitment, which, in turn, leads to action and ultimately makes an impact. That’s the dream.
However, during these meetings, leaders have a limited toolkit to gain alignment. They might use their authority, hint at a quid pro quo, or mediate conflicting opinions to reach a compromise. In the end, leaders are often left interpreting comments and body language to determine whether the appearance of agreement in the meeting will translate into actual implementation of the agreement afterward. That’s the reality.
Head nods or raised thumb emojis are meant to signal agreement, but they could, in fact, mean any number of things:
“This is a good plan. I’m ready to make it happen.”
“I can live with this proposal, but don’t expect me to make it a priority.”
“This will never work, but I’m not going to damage my career by appearing uncooperative.”
“Let’s all look like we agree so we can end the meeting.”
What can a team leader do to increase the odds that agreement, or the appearance of agreement, turns into actionable commitment? Enter CADA.
CADA is a four-step alignment-building process designed to facilitate productive group discussions about a proposed course of action. By the end of a CADA discussion, a leader will know where the team stands and can feel confident that agreements will lead to action.
The four-step CADA process:
1) Be Curious
During the first part of the discussion, the team agrees to set aside their initial reactions and judgments about the proposal. Instead, they ask questions about the basis for the proposal and the implications of acting on it. For example:
What current situation are we addressing with the proposal? Or what desired future are we hoping to achieve by acting on the proposal?
What information sources were used to shape the proposal?
Who will be impacted by adopting the proposal? How might they react?
How will we know it’s working?
2) Be Analytical
In the second part of the discussion, the team makes distinctions between facts and opinions about the proposal. They ask questions about the risks and benefits of the proposal, and they apply criteria for assessing it. For example:
What are the pros and cons of the proposal?
What options were rejected? Why were they rejected?
What criteria should we be using to assess the proposal? Based on the criteria, how does the proposal measure up versus alternatives?
Given the risks, are we better off doing nothing? If we move forward, what other priorities will be impacted?
3) Be Decisive
The team reaches a conclusion. During Step 3, the team also clarifies whether they are authorized to act on the agreement or are simply making a recommendation for approval. They ask questions about their level of commitment. For example:
Based on our analysis, what modifications are required to get full team alignment?
Who else will need to weigh in before we can act on this decision? What do they need before they can approve the decision?
How will we talk about the decision to stakeholders?
What do each of us need to feel better about any aspect of the proposal that concerns us?
4) Be Accountable
The team comes to trust that each member will make good on their commitments. They ask questions about dealing with next steps and obstacles. For example:
What will each of us do next to move things along?
What barriers to successful implementation do we anticipate, and how will we deal with them?
How will we share information with each other about what’s working and what we’ve learned?
How will progress be monitored?
The key to using CADA is ensuring that everyone is in the same conversation at the same time. In other words, don’t allow people to get analytical or decisive when the focus is on being curious.
Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, tells the story of Odysseus’ journey home after the fall of Troy. Odysseus and his crew spent ten years at sea. Some of their encounters along the way were fortuitous, others were fatal.
While organizational transformation is less perilous, it can feel just as daunting. It is unrealistic and possibly counterproductive to expect smooth sailing if the goal is to undergo a transformation. By paying attention to four hidden forces of organizational transformation You can, however, improve your chances of a successful journey.
To remember the four forces, we use the acronym SCAN, which stands for Structures, Context, Assumptions, and Needs.
Keep an eye out for entrenched STRUCTURES
I worked for a restaurant chain that was looking to improve its customer service. Because the company did a lot of delivery and take-out business, the main customer interactions occurred during the phone call to place an order (this was in the 1990s, before online ordering).
After the training programs and updated processes failed to improve service ratings, we decided to investigate. We discovered that restaurant managers were instructing their team members to ignore the phone if the restaurant was getting overwhelmed with orders.
The managers received bonuses for getting food out quickly. The point-of-sale system tracked how long it took from an order being placed until the order was plated or packaged. If too many orders came in, things backed up in the kitchen, and the managers’ bonuses suffered. If you don’t want orders backing up, don’t answer the phone.
Before initiating an organizational transformation, spend some time identifying systems, habits, and routines which will preserve status quo priorities and behaviors.
Pay attention to CONTEXT
On paper organizational transformation provides an illusion of control. Leaders imagine that clear goals and a well-designed plan will create the reality they envision. In the same way that weather matters to the success of an outdoor wedding, an organization’s business context matters to a change effort. The best laid plans are still subject to unpredictable and uncontrollable conditions.
Given the relentless headlines about the lingering impacts of the pandemic, disruptive technological innovation, and deteriorating trust in institutions and governments, context has become hard to ignore. Still, you may want to give some thought to contextual factors closer to your organization’s operating environment. If it’s outside your control and could have an influence on the success of your transformation efforts, it’s worth your attention.
Consider, for example, the potent combination of social trends and demographics. Baby boomer executives are retiring. Millennial and Gen Z workers are less interested in staying put and moving up the corporate ladder to fill the vacancies. HR leaders would be well-served by keeping these generational shifts in mind as they develop new talent strategies.
As you think about transforming the business, how will you keep an eye out for changing environmental factors that might become sources of both opportunities and threats?
Challenge out-of-date ASSUMPTIONS
After decades of decline, the Eastman Kodak company filed for bankruptcy in 2012. In 1976, Kodak had an 80% market share in camera sales and a 90% market share in film and film processing. It would be tempting to conclude that the company failed to notice the emergence of digital photography.
Kodak knew about digital photography. In 1975, it was a Kodak engineer who invented the digital camera. People unfamiliar with the company’s history are surprised to learn that The Eastman Kodak company held the first patent for digital cameras.
Kodak executives couldn’t recognize the significance of their changing context because they were blinded by their assumptions about the business. Digital imagery wasn’t simply a novel version of photography, it redefined the way people share the stories of their lives.
In the 1990’s IBM’s bread and butter, the mainframe computer, was being threatened by the rise of personal computers and the introduction of the client-server model. In 1992, IBM posted a $8.1 billion loss. In 1993, IBM brought on a new CEO, Louis V. Gerstner Jr., to return the company to profitability.
Lou Gerstner was able to challenge assumptions about IBM’s business in a way that the Kodak executive team could not. Gerstner was not blinded by an emotional attachment to IBM’s business model, products, or culture.
Before you transform the business, undertake a clear-eyed assessment of the deeply held assumptions being challenged by your vision of the future. How will you help people adapt?
Prioritize people’s NEEDS
In 1985, Coca-Cola introduced a new formula for its flagship soda, which was widely known as “New Coke.” The company spent $4 million on market research and taste tests, which suggested that consumers preferred the taste of New Coke over the original formula.
However, the introduction of New Coke was met with widespread backlash from consumers, who had a strong emotional attachment to the original formula. The company was unprepared for the negative reaction, and sales plummeted. The company received thousands of letters and calls from angry customers, and some even boycotted the brand.
Needs are manifestations of emotions. Leaders often underestimate the role of emotion in the success of an organizational transformation. Understanding needs requires empathy, not survey data.
Think about the people who matter most to the success of your transformation. What matters to them? Think about the people who are most often excluded from the conversations about an organizational transformation, what can you learn from their lived experience that would never have occurred to you?
Any significant organizational transformation with bump up against fixed structures, unpredictable context, embedded assumptions, and unmet needs. Conducting a periodic SCAN will help leaders navigate the uncharted waters during the voyage from current realities to a desired future.
The state of the economy is unstable and tumultuous. Do you know what is steady and predictable? Demographics. The Pew Research Center estimates that since 2011, the number of Baby Boomers retiring has been growing year-over-year by about 2 million, and that number is on the rise. In 2020, over 29 million Boomers left the workforce.
Organizations are frantically searching for competent executives to replace the retiring Boomers. Finding replacements for senior executives seems to be the area where the need is most pressing. If you need an illustration, think about who is in charge of the Senate and the White House right now.
A lot of senior executives are retiring or should be retiring. As a result, HR professionals responsible for talent planning must pull off a magic act. They must find a way to conjure 20 years of experience out of 10 years of experience. Consequently, many of our clients are asking us to help them accelerate the readiness of high potentials to take on bigger roles.
You could make a case by taking the glass-half-full perspective. Less seasoned leaders can bring fresh ideas and structural change to our organizations. Yet according to a recent McKinsey analysis, 50% of the CEOs in the study are seen by others as having failed in their early tenure, and 90% of the CEOs wish they had handled their transition better.
Take a moment to consider how framing the issue as a need to “accelerate readiness” directs our efforts. When I hear the phrase “accelerate readiness,” I picture using a microwave instead of an oven to prepare food. The hidden presumption is that there exists some outcome called “readiness.” Ding, now you’re ready.
Just ask any new parent – you can’t ready someone for a transition that changes their life. We can prepare, but what new leaders really need is structural support, a social network, and coaching.
We shouldn’t simply plug a new executive into the void created by a tenured leader’s departure. The previous leader had undoubtedly shaped the routines, processes, and norms to serve their personal needs and style. New leaders should consider their preferred involvement strategies. They should be clear about how they like to communicate. They should understand their preferred methods for analyzing and synthesizing information. Knowing what it takes for new leaders to do their best work, makes it easier to establish new structures to help them perform at their best.
Both inside and outside the organization, new leaders need to establish trusted relationships. They may need to reassess their existing relationships in light of their new role. The bigger the role, the more difficult it becomes to obtain unfiltered information. New leaders will benefit greatly from cross-boundary relationships with other new leaders. Think of it as a networking club for any senior leader in their first year on the job. For small and medium-sized businesses, it might mean joining an external networking group.
Many executives get coaches. Typically, coaches get pulled in only when a perceived problem is undermining the executive’s effectiveness. A leadership transition coach understands the unique demands of stepping into a more challenging role. Especially when people have gotten used to the way the previous leader operated in the role. A transition coach can provide objective guidance untainted by political agendas. Most organizations don’t want freshly promoted executives to broadcast their doubts and vulnerabilities. A transition coach can lend a sympathetic ear.
Maybe we’ve been asking the wrong question, or perhaps an inadequate question. It makes sense to prepare people for bigger challenges and larger roles. We should frequently review the effectiveness of our training and development efforts. At the same time, let’s think about preparing the organization not just the incoming leader. While we figure out how to accelerate the readiness of our high potentials, we should also consider how to accelerate the readiness of our organizations to support their success.
Which college should I attend? Which job offer should I accept? Should we fix up our house or sell it and move?
Harvard psychology professor and best selling author Dan Gilbert argues that our approach to thinking through choices with significant future consequences is flawed. Gilbert has shown that we mistakenly assume our future selves will feel the same way about things as our current selves. In other words, when evaluating choices, we project our current mindsets and priorities onto the people we will become after the decision has been enacted. If the decision is consequential, we won’t be the same.
A couple may be discussing when and if they want to start a family. If you interview the couple to learn about their thought process, you’ll hear a lot about how they imagine kids will change their lives. The big assumption hiding in their deliberations is that they can rationally compare their current lives to their future lives.
Let’s say that in the current, pre-kids life the couple enjoys a weekly round of golf with another couple. It’s an important ritual that they prioritize in planning their weekly activities and commitments. The couple assumes that starting a family will spell the end of the weekly golf outings. Gilbert’s point is that when thinking through the decision, the couple can’t really weigh the pros and cons of playing golf against the pros and cons of caring for a child because they don’t have the lived experience of caring for a child to place on one side of the scale. They’re making a comparison between real feelings about their current lives against imagined feelings they can only guess at. We can’t feel the feelings of our future selves.
An alternative for thinking through consequential decisions
Step One: Stop asking, what should i do?
When faced with a decision to make, we have the unfortunate habit of asking, what should I do? The question tricks us into evaluating our options too soon. First, according to Gilbert, we should be skeptical of our ability to assess the options. Secondly, once we start comparing options, we stop imagining new, perhaps more creative possibilities.
Instead of thinking about what to do, anticipate the consequences of your options.
When people struggle with decision making, what they really want is a way to predict the future. It’s not the decision, but rather the outcomes after implementing the decision that matter. By shifting the focus from the choices to the consequences of the choices, we improve our ability to imagine the future. In other words, when I detach myself from the emotions present-me feels about my choices, I can consider how my options will feel to future-me.
… when I detach myself from the emotions present-me feels about my choices, I can consider how my options will feel to future-me.
Step Two: SCAN the consequences
The Unstuck Minds Blog introduced the SCAN framework a few years ago. In our work with organizations, we teach and apply the framework as a thinking tool to develop attention agility. Each of the four elements of SCAN (Structures, Context, Assumptions, and Needs) provide a view into different and overlooked aspects of our situations. Recently, we’ve considered how the framework might support an individual making a consequential decision.
It’s challenging to shift focus from your current choices to possible future consequences. Your current choices are defined and finite. Future consequences are vague, unpredictable, and infinite. The SCAN framework provides a systematic way to explore uncertainty and complexity.
Better questions to ask about a consequential decision
Let’s say that you want to exercise more regularly in the coming year. You are trying to decide between joining a health club, purchasing a Peloton, or hiring a personal trainer. Even though it’s a made-up situation, when you read the last sentence, it’s likely that opinions and feelings about each choice came to mind. Set aside early judgments and imagine asking the following questions instead:
Structures (how things get done in my life)
How will my current routines have to adapt to each option? What will it be like to integrate future routines into life with each option?
Context (the environmental influences of things I don’t control)
What might change in my environment that will influence how I think about the benefits and risks of each option? What might happen that don’t I control, which could change how I will feel about the decision I made?
Assumptions (my unchallenged beliefs)
What must be true in the future for each option to work out the way I want it to? What impressions will people have about me when they find out what I chose?
Needs (what matters to the people who matter)
How might my satisfaction with each option change as my needs change? How might each option impact the people who matter to me?
Step Three: Focus on adjusting to the future as it unfolds
We tend to think of decisions about the future as guessing games, like picking the cup that the pebble is under. We can be right, or we can be wrong. In reality, most of the consequential decisions we face provide a set of questions with no obvious right answer.
When you imagine consequences rather than dwell on how you currently feel about your options, you’re less likely to think of a choice as being “right” or “the best.” You’ll notice the overlapping benefits and tradeoffs of each option. You may even discover an option you hadn’t considered. When you take action to implement the decision, the future will unfold. The more consideration you give to future consequences, the more prepared you will be to adjust to whatever emerges.
In a recent podcast interview with Ezra Klein, the writer George Saunders talked about the power of literature. We feel about SCAN the way Saunders described great literature. “In the end,” he said, “you don’t have an answer, but you have new respect for the question.”
SCAN stands for Structures, Context, Assumptions, and Needs. Each SCAN dimension represents a hidden influence. Structures are the habits, rules, systems, and processes we follow. Context is comprised of the external, uncontrollable factors that represent both opportunities and threats. Assumptions are the unchallenged beliefs that determine our mindsets and our culture. Needs are what motivates the people we care about, the people we should include in our thinking and planning.
SCAN helps us notice the important information we’re not looking for, important information that might help us get unstuck. While considering new ways to teach the SCAN framework, we’ve started thinking metaphorically about the four dimensions of the model. Each metaphor clarifies the nature of the dimension and why paying attention to it matters. Each metaphor captures the relationship between our experiences and the causal influences that often escape our attention.
Structures: The Flowers and the Soil
Structures are like the soil in which the flowers grow. Flowers thrive and grow in well-tended soil. The flowers become rooted in the soil. A lot goes on below the surface that determines the success of the flowers, which flowers do better than others, and whether weeds will also flourish.
Working with structures to get unstuck is like analyzing the soil instead of repeatedly pulling weeds.
Context: The Notes and the Melody
Context is like a melody formed by musical notes. The melody is a gestalt of notes in a particular arrangement. We make sense of the arrangement by detecting a pattern. When the notes are distinctive and the intervals between them seem random, it becomes difficult to discern a melody. When we detect a melody, we understand how to interpret and anticipate the notes.
Working with context to get unstuck is like learning to dance to new music before you appear out of step.
Assumptions: The Acorn and the Oak
Assumptions are like the acorn which grows into an oak tree. When the oak matures, the acorn essentially disappears. Still, the nature of the oak has been largely determined by the genetics of the acorn. If we want to understand the oak and predict how it will grow, we need to trace its development back to the seed from which it emerged.
Working with assumption to get unstuck is like acknowledging and perhaps reframing the characteristics that shape our reality.
NEEDS: MOTION AND GRAVITY
Needs are like the force of gravity influencing how things move. We notice action and motion. We can only infer the pushes and pulls influencing how someone behaves. Wants are expressed. A need, like gravity, is an unseen, yet ever-present force.
Working with needs is like deeply understanding what makes the apple fall.
We recently led a series of breakout sessions at an annual conference. The conference was put on by a fast-growing bakery franchise. In attendance were bakery owners and corporate support staff. During the breakout sessions we taught the bakery owners how to use the SCAN Framework (Structures, Context, Assumptions, and Needs) to tackle challenging problems.
Most people using SCAN have an intuitive grasp of the structures, the context, and the needs influencing their situation. Assumptions are harder to access. Shared beliefs and mindsets form our operating systems, but like a computer’s operating system, most of us don’t know what it’s doing or how it works until something goes wrong or it’s time for a big change.
The company’s bakeries are known for their unique, high-quality, hand-crafted cakes. They think about the purpose of their business as bringing joy. They promote their cakes as the centerpiece of celebrations. They have a cult-like following of people who rave about experiencing their first bite of cake.
To help the bakery owners become more aware of their assumptions, I asked them to react to a terrible idea. I suggested that they box up their most popular recipes in cake-mix form and put them on grocery store shelves next to the Betty Crocker cake mixes. Lucky for me, I prepared them to be offended by the idea. When I asked them to explain what makes the idea terrible, we started to hear more about their assumptions:
People count on us for a consistent, fresh-baked product.
Our guests love the variety of choices we offer.
Only high-quality ingredients prepared by hand and using our methods will produce the cake. You can’t do it at home.
Visiting our bakeries is a joyful experience and essential to our brand.
The purpose of the exercise is not to abandon assumptions. The purpose is to become more aware of our assumptions. When you’re aware of your assumptions, you can have more productive discussions about controversial ideas. Controversial ideas are provocative precisely because they challenge our assumptions. Adopting a provocative idea often means letting go of something predictable and comforting.
In our experience, organizations don’t suffer from a lack good ideas. In organizational settings, good ideas face two common obstacles. First, the best ideas may never get in front of the people with the authority to enact them. Secondly, new ideas rarely survive their first encounter with the status quo. Assumptions and mindsets protect the status quo.
Becoming aware of shared organizational assumptions will help you anticipate the change-management implications of adopting a provocative idea. For example, to support the growth of the bakery company, there will inevitably be pressure to streamline operations. At some point, an idea to increase efficiency will bump up against the assumption: Only high-quality ingredients prepared by hand and using our methods will produce the cake.
How to use a Terrible Idea to Uncover Hidden Assumptions
Let’s say you feel stuck. The ideas you have look great on paper and you’ve been given the green light to implement them. And yet, you repeatedly experience setbacks as you try to turn your ideas into meaningful change.
Set aside the good ideas and bring together a team.
invite them to brainstorm terrible ideas. Ideas that are guaranteed to produce a visceral, negative reaction from your stakeholders. By the way, your team will find it liberating and fun to produce a list of dangerous ideas.
Rank the ideas to find the best of the worst. When prioritizing the list of ideas, the most useful, terrible ideas will be the ones that are plausible, but feel unsettling. For example, imagine recommending to the senior team of Disney’s Theme Parks that they open a Disney casino in Las Vegas. Useful terrible ideas will take the organization in a new direction, not just offer a bad change to an existing way of doing business. For example, suggesting that McDonald’s become a wireless network operator is a more useful terrible idea than suggesting that McDonald’s serve their food on fine China.
Finally, facilitate a discussion about why the most terrible ideas evoke an emotional reaction.
Once you clarify the hidden assumptions that seem to create a gravitational field that holds things in place, you’ll have a better understanding of why your new ideas won’t take. You may also uncover some ancient assumptions that are somehow still in play, but no longer feel relevant.
Of course, Unstuck Minds has a point of view about abortion rights and the role of governments. Lots of people have points of view. Sadly, we’ve moved beyond reconciling our viewpoints. Now we’re stuck with a fight.
Disagreements are not Battle Lines
When we hold deeply entrenched opinions, we become susceptible to the dangerous belief that the people we disagree with are our enemy. Yes, we’re worried about the loss of freedoms, rights, and democratic ideals. We are even more worried about losing our ability and willingness to solve big problems together.
Let’s keep in mind that when we bring an issue into a court of law in the United States, we’re no longer seeking a solution. We’re seeking a ruling. Our country has adopted an adversarial system of law to settle disputes. Lawyers are trained to avoid nuance, complexity, and overlapping interests in favor of unassailable arguments. Once we give up on a negotiated or collaborative settlement, there’s no incentive to seek common ground.
By framing an issue as a choice between two opposing alternatives, we’re stuck devoting our energy to getting our way. If we can’t make a strong enough case for the outcome we want, we cunningly destroy the legitimacy of our adversary’s case. We no longer seek new insights and options. We simply define the battle line and pick a side. We end up with winners and losers. The losers will be expected to accept defeat and abide by the outcome they fought against.
In the wake of the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, many of us feel the sting of defeat. We feel powerless and excluded. Something vital has been lost, something we took for granted has been taken away. We’re afraid that it won’t stop with reproductive rights. We fear a cherished way of life is being systematically dismantled.
Taking a more expansive and detached perspective reveals a pattern.
In 2016, rural, religious voters felt mocked by urban elitists. They felt that they were losing their country. They rallied behind the battle cry, “Make America Great Again.” They villainized people they believed were destroying their way of life. A resentful, disenfranchised plurality of citizens put Donald Trump in office and paved the way for Trump to reshape the Supreme Court.
When we care more about consolidating power than seeking solutions, we doom ourselves to an endless battle. We give up on creativity and compassion and instead work to put our people in charge of writing the rules and refereeing the game. Why bother fixing a problem if we can manipulate the outcome to get our way?
Overreliance on Authority Figures
We will continue to face calamities like pandemics and natural disasters that require swift, expert, autocratic responses. When responding to an emergency, we want our elected leaders to gather input and make efficient, smart decisions. But not all complex issues pose existential threats. As societies advance, as citizens become more educated and capable, we should see fewer and fewer disagreements that can only be settled by empowered authorities.
We shouldn’t, for example, need the Supreme Court to dictate which books can be found on the shelves of our public-school libraries.
It’s dangerous to disengage from problem-solving and put all controversial decisions in the hands of people with power. First, we become less capable of finding a way forward together. Secondly, who we put in charge becomes more important than improving the institutions enshrining our values. For example, we stop working on the effectiveness of our public-school boards and instead focus on electing a board that will do our bidding.
It doesn’t take any special skills of prognostication to see the makings of a vicious campaign season ahead of us. Here, in a nutshell, is every campaign ad we’ll be seeing this year:
Vote for me because I’m like you. The other candidate works for them. They want to enact laws designed to harm you. I won’t let them.
If a message like that doesn’t feel insulting, you’ve given up on thinking for yourself.
Complex problems deserve nuanced solutions. But improving how we think and connect is not easy. When we avoid thinking together in favor of letting courts and lawmakers decide, we lose faith in our ability to cooperate. How might we start?
Think better by distinguishing between inferences and observations
Develop a habit of discerning how people make the case for their opinions. Ask yourself when listening to an argument or advocacy, am I hearing inferences or observations? An inference is a conclusion. An observation is a comment on something noticed.
Many of the January 6th rioters wanted to hang Mike Pence is an inference. The word “wanted” is what turns the statement into an inference rather than a fact. Many of the January 6th rioters chanted, “Hang Mike Pence” is an observation. It’s natural to reach a conclusion about what the rioters wanted based on what they said, but when working towards a solution it’s best to build on what everyone can agree to.
Connect better by letting it RAIN
RAIN stands for Recognize, Allow, Investigate, and Nurture (mindfulness teacher Michele McDonald, who is credited with developing RAIN, uses the N to stand for non-Identification). Psychologist and author Tara Brach has popularized the four-step meditation in numerous articles, videos, and in her book, Radical Compassion. In a brief overview of the tool, Brach describes RAIN as four steps for becoming more mindful when feeling anxious or stuck. We believe RAIN can also help when feeling upset by a confrontation or triggered by a distressing situation.
Recognize what is going on. Consciously acknowledge the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors affecting us.
Allow the experience to be there. Just as it is. Try not to fix or avoid what is happening and simply accept the reality of the experience.
Investigate with interest and care. Become curious, in a non-judgmental way about what you’re experiencing.
Nurture with self-compassion. Recognize that you’re in distress and be kind to yourself.
When you learn to be kind to yourself in moments of stress, you’ll develop the inner resources needed to be kind to others.
At Unstuck Minds, we believe that when we think better and connect better, the world becomes more creative and compassionate. Connecting better requires a belief in human dignity and a practice of empathy. Thinking better requires curiosity and a willingness to change your mind.
Team leaders want meetings to end with agreements that lead to concerted action. Much of the advice on team meetings is about how to create alignment. The assumption being, if we agree in the meeting then we’ll act on our agreements after the meeting.
What Really Happens
We know from experience that the vigorous head nods at the end of a discussion don’t always produce the outcomes we appeared to want. In fact, we’re often so relieved to see the head nods, we don’t bother to confirm what people are really thinking when they seem to agree. Here are few possible interpretations of a nodding head:
This is a good plan. I’m ready to make it happen.
I can live with this idea, but don’t expect me to make it a priority.
This will never work, but I’m not going to derail the meeting.
If we all nod, the meeting will end.
What can a team leader do to increase the odds that apparent agreement will turn into productive activity?
The CADA Framework describes four distinct team conversations once a proposed course of action has been presented or developed. In each conversation, the team adopts a specific attitude.
The team agrees to set aside its reactions and judgments about the proposal. The team asks questions about the basis for the proposal and the implications of acting on the proposal. For example:
What information sources were used to shape the proposal?
Who will be impacted by adopting the proposal? How might they react?
How will we know it’s working?
The team makes distinctions between facts and opinions about the proposal. The team asks questions about the risks and benefits of the proposal. For example:
What are the pros and cons of the proposal?
What options were rejected? Why were they rejected?
Given the risks, are we better off doing nothing? If we move forward, how will determine the most appropriate implementation timing?
The team reaches a conclusion based on their role in making the final decision. The team asks questions about their level of commitment. For example:
Who else will need to weigh in before we can act on this decision? What are their thoughts?
How will we talk about the decision to stakeholders?
What do each of us need to feel better about any aspect of the proposal we have doubts about?
The team comes to trust that we will each make good on our commitments. The team asks questions about dealing with next steps and obstacles. For example:
What will we do next to move things along?
What barriers to successful implementation do we anticipate and how will we deal with them?
How will we share with each other information about what’s working and what we’ve learned?
The key to using the CADA Framework successfully is ensuring that everyone is in the same conversation at the same time. For example, don’t allow people to get analytical when giving the team time and space to be curious.
We feel relieved when we align on something. Sometimes we feel worn out by the effort required to find consensus. When possible, you may want to follow up an alignment meeting with a separate CADA session when people are fresh, and they have been able to reflect on their conclusions before discussing implementation.
Last July I was hiking with my family in Southern California. At one point, the trail took us along the edge of a creek bed. Normally, the creek would be flowing but due to drought conditions, the creek had dwindled to a muddy trickle. As we continued down the trail, we came upon the trunk of an uprooted tree that had fallen across the creek bed to form a bridge. We didn’t need to cross the creek to stay on the trail. Despite protests from my wife Katherine, I couldn’t resist the urge to test my balance.
Katherine and I tell different versions of what happened next. What’s indisputable is that I tumbled off the tree trunk, down the side of the creek bed, and into the mud. I landed on something hard because when I jumped to my feet to reassure my family, I felt a sharp pain in my left shoulder. What’s also indisputable is that I will no longer take risky detours when hiking… with my wife.
Three weeks later, a shoulder specialist showed me an x-ray. I had fractured my greater tuberosity. I love the name of that bone. I think it sounds badass when I tell people I broke my greater tuberosity.
It’s been eight months since the fall. The fracture has healed, but my arm stubbornly resists certain movements. For example, I wouldn’t be able to do the chicken dance at the next Oktoberfest. Even though I have no intention of attending an Oktoberfest, I decided to consult my doctor about getting physical therapy.
Wait…Isn’t Efficiency a good thing?
My family doctor recommended a therapist who goes by the name AJ. When he told me that AJ makes house calls, I was sold. AJ, originally from Northern India, is passionate about proper body mechanics. He’s a wealth of information and eager to share it. AJ has an uncanny ability to discern structural anomalies simply by watching you stand or walk. When I took off my mask during a recent visit, AJ looked at my face from across the room and informed me that roof of my mouth was not symmetrical.
When AJ observes me trying an exercise that he’s just taught me, he often tells me to slow down. At one point, while watching me use an exercise band he said, “don’t be efficient.” Ever since that day, I’ve been reflecting on being advised against being efficient.
Would you pay more for an efficient massage?
Throughout my adult working life, I’ve been praised for my efficiency. I’m good at getting sh*t done. I’ve always been rewarded for being efficient. By the way, the reward for efficiently getting work done is getting more work.
The therapeutic benefits of physical therapy depend on slowly reorienting the parts of your body that have been damaged or weakened from disuse. It’s not like hammering a bent piece of metal straight again. Speed, when doing certain physical therapy exercises is counterproductive. Finishing the exercise might feel desirable, but it’s not the goal.
If like me, you’ve made efficiency a calling card, you may find it difficult to break the habit. You know you’re a productivity junkie if you rush through things that are meant to be taken slowly. I love to read. Yet I sometimes find myself speeding through pages of gorgeously written prose so I can get to the next book I’m eager to start. Do I really believe that by adopting this strategy I’ll get to all the books I want to read?
When reading a book or a poem, when visiting an art museum, don’t be efficient.
The Productivity Trap
Oliver Burkeman diagnoses our neurotic relationship to getting things done in his revelatory 2021 book, Four Thousand Weeks; Time Management for Mortals. The title refers to the shockingly few weeks available to us based on our average lifespan. From the title, you might assume that Burkeman is offering a strategy for time management. He’s not. When it comes to managing our time, Burkeman’s advice is simple, don’t bother.
Burkeman believes “Our troubled relationship with time arises largely from [an] effort to avoid the painful constraints of reality. And most of our strategies for becoming more productive make things worse, because they’re really just ways of furthering the avoidance.”
Burkeman’s perspective may sound depressing and fatalistic. I find it liberating. Once you accept that your life’s work is not to get everything done, you can reframe your attitude toward your inbox and your planner. Changing your attitude is a start, but if you’re a hardcore task-list checker, you’ll also need to break some habits. For me, AJ’s coaching rings in my ear like a three-word mantra: Don’t be efficient.
When going for a walk, don’t be efficient
When sitting down to enjoy a meal with friends or family, don’t be efficient
When interrupted by someone who wants your attention, don’t be efficient