Practicing Uncertainty

Are you pro-life or pro-choice? Should governments regulate social media companies? Who is our ally and who is our enemy in the Middle East?

When you read each question above, did you think about your answer or did you think about your reaction to the question? All three questions have one thing in common: they are all terrible questions.

At Unstuck Minds, we call questions like the ones above, quicksand questions. Instead of encouraging productive dialogue, quicksand questions limit the conversation, misdirect our attention, encourage us to seek blame, and preserve the status quo. In short, quicksand questions keep us stuck.

We ask quicksand questions because we like simple answers. Complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity make our brains hurt. The technical term for the impact of imposing too much information on our working memories is cognitive load. We have two strategies available to us for dealing with the cognitive load we experience when dealing with an increasingly complex and uncertain world. We can oversimplify our challenges or we can develop our capacity for processing un-simple information.

Here’s a workout routine for teams that helps them stretch their capacity for uncertainty before taking on a complex challenge.

The Ethicist column appears weekly in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. The current “Ethicist,” Kwame Anthony Appiah continues the tradition started by Randy Cohen, who wrote the column for twelve years. People submit thorny, modern, every-day dilemmas that raise questions about the right thing to do. The Ethicist provides perspective on the issue and renders a conclusion. Cohen collected some of his favorite questions and responses in a book called, “Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything.” Here’s a sample question from one of Cohen’s columns:

My mother wants to hire someone to clean house and handle the laundry. To assure herself of this person’s integrity, she plans to leave loose money around as “bait” during the house cleaner’s first few days of work. Here in Brazil, those stray bills can constitute a significant percentage of a house cleaner’s wages. My mother sees this “trap” as a perfectly ethical precaution. Do you?

Inviting a team to discuss ethics questions not only gives team members a chance to hear how others think, it gives everyone a chance to develop their ability to play with questions that don’t have easy answers (you can find Cohen’s response here).

Considering how to respond to an ethics question requires a different capacity for problem solving than the skillset most organizational leaders feel comfortable using to analyze a problem. One key difference between responding to ethics questions and analytical problem solving is the role of ambiguity and variability. Like ethics questions, complex strategic questions require a high degree of tolerance for ambiguity and variability. Analytical problem solving on the other hand views ambiguity and variability as the enemy of the search for an effective and efficient solution.

Like learning to use an atrophied muscle, teams working on complex challenges may need to warm up their tolerance for variability and ambiguity. When we are unprepared to brave the tensions inherent in uncertainty, we get drawn into the status-quo quicksand.

Who Gets to Pose the Question?

Last week, my friend and colleague Michael Reidy shared a powerful insight with me. I had just completed an overview of the Unstuck Minds Method at an Interaction Associates gathering. During the overview I showed a slide contrasting questions asked by leaders before applying the Unstuck Minds method (left-hand column in the table below) and the corresponding reframed questions developed during various workshops over the last couple of years (right-hand column in the table below).

The left hand column lists questions the leaders started with, questions about situations where the leaders felt stuck. The premise behind the Unstuck Minds Method is that leaders, teams and organizations can get stuck simply by pursuing a flawed question. We refer to such questions as “Quicksand Questions.” By contrast, the questions in the right-hand column help us move forward in ways we haven’t considered. We call questions that allow for novel options, “Unstuck Minds Questions.”

Before I share with you what Michael saw, what do you notice about the difference between the Quicksand Questions and the Unstuck Minds Questions?

Michael pointed out that the questions on the left are asked from a position of power and authority. The people asking the questions on the left see progress as possible only when others are persuaded to change. By contrast, the questions on the right support the needs of those who lack formal authority, but without whom we can’t make sustainable progress.

Michael’s insight got me thinking about the role of power and control when it comes to posing questions. You need only watch a congressional hearing to see how status differences play out between the questioners and the questioned. It’s not just formal or political inquiry that introduces a power dynamic. Even the most innocent and sincere questioner can intentionally or unintentionally direct an interaction’s focus. Consider for example, the insatiable curiosity of young children.

Four-year-olds (and occasional precocious three-year-olds) ask a lot of questions. We talk about the power of the “beginner’s mind” or the curiosity of children who often pose the most interesting questions because they haven’t learned to limit their thinking by what makes sense (Have a look at the clip, “How Does Life Live?”).

We assume that the questions of children are motivated by pure curiosity. I’ve begun to wonder whether something else might also be going on. Imagine how empowering it must feel to suddenly be controlling interactions with adults. The four-year-olds who have been in the role of responders even before they had language suddenly have adults following their lead. The child poses a barrage of questions and the adults comply with responses.

The questions people ask about the situations they want to change reveal a lot about what they are thinking and feeling. Asking better questions may not simply improve the quality of our thinking. Asking better questions may reveal and diminish the hidden power dynamics keeping us stuck.

Have a D.I.E.T (Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity Talk)

Download a free D.I.E.T. Deck at Unstuck Minds/ D.I.E.T. Deck

I’m a 60-year old, white, heterosexual, cisgender male. I’m not apologizing; that’s just how it has turned out for me.

I mention the circumstances of my existence and identity because I want to offer something useful to promote diversity, inclusion and equity on our teams and in our workplaces. I make this offer in spite of my identity and circumstances (or maybe because of my identity and circumstance).

I’m experimenting with a card deck of questions that you can download for free at Unstuck Minds. I’m imagining that a facilitator or team leader would bring people together, shuffle the cards and place them face down on a table. A group of people who want to better understand and appreciate one another would take turns picking a card and reading the question out loud. Any member of the group with a personal experience to share in response to the question speaks up with an answer and/or an example. The leader or facilitator closes out the session by asking for insights.

I have listed the questions below if you’d rather not bother downloading and printing off the questions in the form of cards. I would love to hear what you think of the questions and how you use them. I will happily update the deck based on new questions that people submit or revise questions based on suggested edits. Bookmark this blog post so you can submit new questions in the comments section. Indicate whether you like or dislike the questions so we can decide which new questions get included in an updated deck.

D.I.E.T. Deck Questions

  • What do you believe is among the first things people you meet at work notice about you? What would you rather they notice about you?
  • In what retail store do you feel most at ease? Why?
  • You’re walking into your first meeting with a team of people you’ve never met. The others have been working together for a year. What do you most want the team leader to do to help you feel like you belong?
  • What do your co-workers not get about you… that you wish they did?
  • What language was spoken in the home you grew up in that is not spoken at work?
  • What did a memorable teacher do to make it easier for you to learn when you struggled with a subject or topic?
  • Which of your colleagues is worn out by a non-stop series of interactions? How do you know?
  • When you board public transportation and walk down an aisle to find a seat, what do you assume the people who are seated think when they notice you?
  • What do you wish recent college graduates understood about what it takes to be successful?
  • What do you wish people who will be retiring in the next 15-20 years understood about people just entering the workforce?
  • How would you feel about being forced to use a bathroom designated for a different gender?
  • How important is it for a cafeteria at school or work to accommodate dietary restrictions (e.g. allergies to the presence of certain foods, religious dietary laws, diets based on health or ethics, etc.)?
  • What assumptions grant you an unearned advantage over others (e.g. “Tall people are good at basketball,” so you get chosen to play based on your height – Thank you for this example, @Stephanie Walton)?
  • What do you need to use that is designed badly for someone like you?
  • What do you have in common with someone at work who is very different than you, something you were surprised to discover?
  • What’s an example of something in our organization that is rigged against people like you?
  • What’s an example of language or jargon used by a group at work that seems designed to exclude others?
  • What do you “just deal with” at work, even though it puts you at a disadvantage?
  • Bonus Question: What’s the name of the person who cleans the toilets at your workplace? What else do you know about them?

China, Black Holes, and Trump Supporters

As I write this post I’m sitting in my Beijing hotel room, the haze outside my window as impenetrable as the language. I arrived in China a few days ago to work with a group of leaders on the topic of adaptability and agility. It’s only now occurring to me that the participants in the program weren’t the only ones developing their adaptability and agility.

Speaking of “impenetrable,” this week astronomers using a global network of radio telescopes captured an image of a black hole. Heretofore, the black hole only existed hypothetically. Einstein’s equations predicted black holes and astronomers have detected indirect evidence of their existence. Now they’ve captured a glimpse of one, or more accurately captured a glimpse of the event horizon surrounding a black hole. The event horizon is the boundary, beyond which nothing, not even light can escape. It marks the border between our familiar universe and a place where all physical laws break down.

And speaking of a breakdown of laws, we are now in the second half of the Trump administration. Even as we become inured to the word, “unprecedented,” Trump continues to enjoy the support of millions of Americans. More and more it seems we are drawing geopolitical event horizons around groups of people; we cannot escape our event horizons and the rules we play by operate differently on either side.

I continue to feel disoriented by the state of our politics. The current White House seems like a black hole, except that information occasionally leaks out and we get a look at a place where the laws of decorum and maybe the laws of justice are breaking down. This week I also felt disoriented as I attempted to make my way around the Wangjing Sub-district of Beijing.

Interestingly, as I reflected on my own challenges with adaptability, I started to understand something about support for Trump that has eluded me.

I’ll explain what I mean with a slightly embarrassing story about what happened when I arrived.

Let me start by saying that I travel nearly every week for work and I’ve taken dozens of trips overseas. This week was my fourth visit to China. The difference is that in the past I’ve been pampered. Generally, when I visit Asia I’m part of an International group hosted by one of my clients. I’m greeted at the airport, transported to my hotel and there is always a helpful person nearby to translate and offer guidance. This week, I had to make my own way.

Being an experienced traveller and a neurotic human being, I planned meticulously. I downloaded useful Apps; I printed all my destinations in Chinese characters to show taxi drivers, I made sure that my phone and credit cards would all work. Still, I felt anxious and used up a lot of mental energy imagining what might go wrong. 

I landed at Beijing International airport and found my way to the taxi stand. I stood in a long queue of people; I looked like I didn’t belong and I felt like I didn’t belong (a useful experience for a white male Baby Boomer American who travelled to China to teach something about adaptability). A guy approached me and in broken English explained that he would take me to my hotel. I was well aware that this was an attempt to take advantage of me and yet in my jet-lagged, anxious state of mind, I agreed. I asked about the price and he kept saying, “meter price.” When we arrived at the hotel, he showed me a card with a price on it (the meter was never turned on). When I objected to the price, his English got worse. In the end, I paid ten times the appropriate taxi fare. My driver was an opportunist who made me an offer that I would never have accepted if I hadn’t been stressed out and disoriented. In a situation where nothing was making sense, I went with something that made sense; even while knowing it wasn’t good for me.

We make bad decisions when we experience stress and being disoriented is a particular kind of stress. I anticipated feeling disoriented because I chose to travel to a place where many of the norms I take for granted don’t apply. I was prepared to feel out-of-place and I still let someone take advantage of me.

Imagine feeling disoriented not because you chose to travel to a foreign land, but because your home no longer felt familiar. You look around and suddenly notice that the rules have changed; the most popular and influential people don’t share your values. The people in positions of power make fun of people like you. It’s as if you are standing in a line and suddenly feel unsure that waiting in the line will get you what you want. Someone appears who has learned to speak enough of your language that you feel a bit more in control. At some level you understand that he’s only looking out for himself, but at least the situation makes sense to you.

I realize now that the appeal of preserving our routines and our priorities is not simply about conservatism. Sometimes when you’re worn out and worried, even a huckster can feel like a port in a storm.

Influence Aikido

Aikido is a Japanese martial art form with spiritual roots that can be traced back to Shintoism. Aikido emphasizes harmony and unity. Aikido practitioners learn to defend themselves while simultaneously protecting their attacker from injury.

Consider the difference between aikido and boxing. The purpose of Aikido is to reconcile disharmony. The purpose of boxing is to overpower your opponent. Which practice most closely matches your assumptions about influence?

In The West, we tend to think of influence as persuasion. When we equate influence with persuasion, we seek out techniques designed to make an impression and overcome objections. We develop our ability to verbally spar by learning how to jab and when to counterpunch. Advanced techniques include lowering your guard by pretending to listen when in fact you’re simply inviting your opponents to expose the weakness in their arguments.

In theory, we don’t have opponents at work; we have colleagues. In some cases, we want to influence our colleagues because we hold incompatible opinions about something. Most often, we want to influence our colleagues by being included in their thought processes. The lawyer wants to consult with decision makers before they sign a contract. The engineer wants their concerns about safety or quality to be taken seriously before promises are made to a customer. The HR business partner wants a leader to consider the implications of an organizational change on employee engagement, capability, and trust before setting the change in motion.

Setting aside structural or cultural explanations for why someone with authority might not seek out or even welcome input from an expert, what will it take for your input to become influential? If you frame your goal as persuasion, you’ll adopt techniques for packaging your point of view. If you frame your goal as reconciling disharmony, you’ll approach interactions with curiosity and empathy. I have written about “collaborative influence” in a white paper called, “How to Change a Mind; Yours and Others.” I have also proposed a thought framework that differentiates forms of influence in a blog post.

To get you started, here are three questions you can consider before attempting to influence someone at work:

  1. Under what conditions are you most open to changing your mind?
  2. Under what conditions are the people you hope to influence most open to changing their minds?
  3. How might you create the conditions everyone needs that makes mind changing easier?

Who Needs What?

In October of 1962, through a series of backchannel negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Cuban Missile Crisis came to an end when Attorney General Robert Kennedy met with Soviet Ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin to broker a deal involving the removal of US missiles in Turkey. The US had planned to decommission the missiles in Turkey anyway, but including the removal of the missiles as part of the settlement allowed Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev to privately claim to officials in the Kremlin that he had won a concession from the US. The solution worked because it satisfied a web of needs and interests.

In my last blog post I described distinctions among three groups of stakeholders that we often consider as having homogeneous needs and interests: the consumer, the client and the customer. I defined consumers as the group who ultimately adopts a solution, the client as the individual requesting a solution, and the customer as the individual or group who authorizes or pays for the solution. I suggested that those of us in the business of designing solutions would be well served by paying attention to the distinctions.

Since presenting the distinctions at a community forum for learning and development leaders, I’ve had several conversations about the differences among customers, consumers, and clients, all of which suggest to me broader applicability of the concept. For example, in the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis, The Kennedy brothers and their advisors crafted a solution. The solution worked because the customer, Khrushchev (who authorized the solution) needed the consumers of the solution (The Kremlin officials including Khrushchev) to get something they needed (a demonstration of their sovereignty). The client, Dobrynin acting on behalf of the customer, requested and helped shape the solution.

Human centered design, but which humans?

For the last several years organizations have focused attention on helping their leaders become more innovative. Design thinking has been the methodology of choice for teaching leaders how to spur innovation. Design thinking is founded on the premise that innovative solutions depend on insights about people and their needs. Until an interesting idea or new invention gets adopted by people who see it as a way to get their needs met, you may have a novel creation, but you don’t have an innovation.

I now see that one of the challenges I have encountered in translating design thinking for organizational leaders has been assuming that the customer, the client, and the consumer all want the same thing. If you’re designing a consumer product for, say a packaged goods company, the client (who asked for your help) and the customer (the functional leader whose budget will pay for your help) want you to focus on the needs of the consumer. For the most part the interests of the client, customer, and consumer are shared.

If you’re designing a new manufacturing process, the needs of the client (my boss put me in charge of this project), the needs of the customer (my bonus depends on increasing throughput by 10%) and the needs of the consumer (The company is changing the way I do my job) may create a misalignment of interests.

Design thinking means starting with people and their needs, but it’s not always obvious which people to start with. When tensions exist between needs, whose needs take priority?

Three Examples

An HR business partner asks you to coach a leader

In this case, your client is the HR business partner. The consumer is the leader getting coached. The customer may not be obvious. Maybe the leader’s manager came to the HR business partner asking for help. On the other hand, someone responsible for talent development may have identified the leader as ready for promotion and sees coaching as a tool to prepare the leader for new challenges. If you don’t consider the needs of the person authorizing the coaching request, you may be missing important context for your coaching conversations.

A leader requests a training program for her team

In this case your client and your customer are the same person. The consumers are the team members being asked to attend a training program. If you develop a training solution by assuming that the needs of the customer are aligned with the needs of the consumers, your well-crafted instructional design may fall on deaf ears.

An executive team asks for an update on a project you’re leading

Your manager requested that you put together a few slides on the project and present at the next executive team staff meeting. The manager is your client. The executive team is both customer and consumer. They authorized the solution (your presentation) and they will use (as consumers) the information you present. It would be easy in this case to ignore the needs of your manager. After all, your manager reports to one of the executives you’ll be presenting to.  On the other hand, your manager reports to one of the executive you’ll be presenting to! What are the consequences of ignoring your managers unexpressed needs when designing your presentation? In what ways does the presentation represent an opportunity for you and your manager?

Consider a challenge you’re currently working on. Who asked you to take on the challenge? Who, ultimately will authorize and/or pay for your recommended solution? Who will need to alter their behavior in order to adopt your solution? To what extent are three stakeholder groups’ needs aligned?

A Customer, a Client, and a Consumer Walk into a Bar…

The consumer said to the customer, “I could really use a cognac.” The customer told the client, “I can only afford a beer.” The client asked the bartender, “What do you have that tastes like a cognac for the price of a beer?”

If, like the bartender you sell solutions (sorry), some off-the-shelf and some customized, you would be well served (again, my apologies) to recognize the difference between the needs of a client, a customer and a consumer. In the case of an actual bar, the three roles reside most often in a single thirsty person with money. When it comes to pitching organizational solutions, the roles are spread out and sometimes obscure.

Let me stop belaboring the metaphor and define my terms. I will use the example of selling learning solutions, but the same distinctions apply whether you design and deliver technology solutions, organizational change solutions or solutions in the form of expert advice.

Consumer (of a learning solution): The learner or participant in a learning process

Customer (of a learning solution): The person(s) who will fund the design and delivery of the learning solution sometimes called, “the sponsor.” By “fund” I mean they are literally paying for the solution or have decision-making authority to direct resources to the design and delivery of the solution.

Client (of a learning solution): The person authorized by the customer to identify solution providers and work with solution providers to get the solution designed and delivered.

When responding to requests for learning solutions, we often presume that the client and customer have equivalent or at least aligned needs and interests. We also presume that chief among their interests are meeting the learning needs of the consumer.

Often, and especially in larger organizations, neither the client nor the customer will receive the learning solution. Furthermore, the client is often more beholden to the customer than the consumer even though they are making design decisions on behalf of the consumer. If you want to increase the odds of having your solutions see the light of day, you’ll want to identify who is listening to your proposals as a client, who is listening as a customer and who is listening as a consumer.

Here are some questions you can pose to better understand the needs of each role:

Questions for the Customer

  • How will successful implementation of the solution support your priorities and commitments?
  • What do you most fear could go wrong if we miss something important when designing or delivering the solution?

Questions for the Client

  • How does getting this solution implemented relate to your organizational responsibilities?
  • Who in the organization is approving resources for (paying for) this solution? How will they decide if you have served them well?

Questions for the Consumer

  • How do you experience the problem we’ve been asked to solve?
  • Describe the type of solutions you find most helpful and easiest to adopt?

Ideally the needs of the customer, the client and the consumer of your solutions overlap. If not, you may need to dig deeper to find areas of shared interest. Otherwise, the consumer will be served something they don’t want, the customer will only focus on the budget and the client will give you mixed signals as you try to concoct a suitable solution.