Don’t Be Efficient

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.

Before

After

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

How to Apologize

Last week I had a conversation with my friend and colleague, Ford Hatamiya about a leadership development program he’s designing. We talked about practical ways to help organizational leaders behave more empathetically. One idea that didn’t make the cut was to teach leaders how to apologize.

There’s a scene about people’s pent-up need to hear an apology in one of my all-time favorite movies. A Thousand Clowns (1965) stars Jason Robards playing Murray, an iconoclastic comedy writer living in Manhattan. Murray risks losing custody of his nephew if continues to live his unconventional lifestyle. When Murray falls in love with Sandy (Barbara Harris), one of the social workers assigned to his case, he promises her that he’ll get his act together and find a steady job. He interviews for several jobs but can’t bring himself to accept any of them.

Knowing that he will have to explain why he turned down the offers to Sandy, he thinks about how he’ll break the news. When Sandy arrives at Murray’s apartment to cook dinner for him and his nephew, Murray offers Sandy an apology. The apology (1:26) is heartwarming, funny, and creative, but it ultimately misses the mark. In the end, Murray says the words, but doesn’t feel the feelings.

Apologies are not about what happened

Apologies are not about what you did. That’s what explanations are for. Apologies exist to repair damage and reduce harm. Admitting that you made a mistake is helpful. Demonstrating that you understand and feel remorse about the impact of that mistake is transformational.

An apology has the power to shift a relationship. A great apology creates space for generosity and compassion. Apologies bring attention to our vulnerabilities. We are altered by the offer of a heartfelt apology. The expression of the apology invites those we’ve harmed to connect with us more deeply.

Some apologies are designed to quickly reestablish a temporary imbalance. If I step on someone’s toes, the body language and tone of voice accompanying, “I’m sorry,” restores the status quo. The quick, rebalancing apology is the stuff of social norms. Like the how-are-you-I-am-fine exchange, saying “sorry” can feel more like a reflex than a concerted effort to reduce harm.

What the world needs now is More Harm Reduction

A proper apology requires virtuosic empathy. I must sit with my own feelings long enough to distill out extraneous emotions that will undermine the apology. I might feel angry that someone triggered my regrettable behavior. I might feel embarrassed by how I acted. I might feel afraid to acknowledge that I have needs I’m not proud of. All these emotions are useful to reflect on and none of them are about the impact your behavior had on others.

When we refuse to acknowledge our impact on others, shared societal challenges metastasize into uncontainable crises.

Apologies don’t require you to change your core values or deeply held beliefs. You only need to accept that we should avoid causing unnecessary harm. When we refuse to acknowledge our impact on others, shared societal challenges metastasize into uncontainable crises. Consider David Brook’s ominously titled opinion piece for the New York Times, America is Falling Apart at the Seams (July 13, 2022). In the article, Brooks catalogues the evidence for the headline’s pessimistic claim.

An Example

Let’s say I was raised to believe, like many who grew up in the Southern United States, that it’s a sign of respect to refer to people as “sir” or “ma’am.” One day I say, “Thank you, ma’am” to a stranger who holds the elevator door for me. Instead of a smile, I’m met with an icy stare. Maybe the person who held the door takes advantage of our private time in the elevator to tell me, “I’m sure you didn’t intend this, but when you refer to me as ma’am, I feel uncomfortable because I don’t identify as female.”

In the heat of the moment, a dizzying array of feelings might overwhelm me. At best, I might be able to mumble “I apologize,” as I stare at the floor indicator light, silently willing the elevator to speed up. But what happens when I encounter the same person in the elevator the following day?

Should I explain my views on gender identity? Should I minimize the incident by saying that it was just an unconscious reflex, and I didn’t mean anything by it? Should I offer helpful feedback about trying to be less sensitive? No, no, and Hell no.

When I shift my focus from my perspective to the perspective of the person who felt uncomfortable, I create the possibility for learning. I stop seeing the person as wrong and I start seeing the person as different. Again, I’m welcome to hold on to my beliefs about gender and etiquette. But to craft a real apology means legitimizing (not agreeing with) other worldviews. I’m not apologizing to keep the peace with someone I disagree with. I’m apologizing to repair harm. The person held the elevator door for me. I can reciprocate with an apology that opens the door to a new way of relating.

Here’s one version of what I might say the next time we meet:

I thought about what you said when I called you, “ma’am.” I tried to imagine what it would be like to have people invalidate me by relating to me as something I’m not. I’m sorry I did that the other day. It must have been especially maddening since you had just done me a favor. For what it’s worth, you’ve given me a lot to think about.

Too much? Maybe. Also, maybe not enough. All you need to do is find words that make things better for anyone hurt by what happened.

I started this post suggesting that crafting apologies might work as an exercise for leadership development. Even if you don’t say you’re sorry, there are benefits to simply preparing the apology. When you force yourself to articulate someone else’s perspective, you enlarge the boundaries of your tolerance.

Here’s a quick, practical, 4-step guide to apologizing from U.C. Berkeley’s Greater Good in Action Website.

Now, let’s all get out there and start apologizing!

This Instead of That; Sticking to Something New Requires Getting Unstuck

It’s goal-setting season. When calendars reset, we consider what we want to improve and then formalize our intention by creating goals or resolutions. We also know from experience that we often fall short of achieving our goals or making good on our resolutions.

What we fail to appreciate when setting a goal is that the goal can’t be achieved without something changing. We focus on the resources or behaviors we’ll need to achieve the goal. We ignore the impact that working on the goal will have on what’s already in place.

In the Unstuck Mind’s SCAN framework, the S stands for Structures

Structures are the hidden habits, routines, and systems that order our lives and choices. Structures provide predictability and comfort. Structures also stabilize things. Structures fade into the background once they become part of our lives. Structures are the invisible, uncontested way things work. Because we don’t pay attention to them, we neglect to factor structures into our plans for achieving our goals.

Altering our routines is not like adding a newly purchased article of clothing to your closet. Altering our routines is more like accommodating a new roommate.

Altering our routines is not like adding a newly purchased article of clothing to your closet. Altering our routines is more like accommodating a new roommate.

A simple idea that will improve the odds of achieving a goal or sticking with a resolution.

After identifying the goal, think through the times and places when progress on your goal will bump up against an existing structure. Once you’ve identified a habit, routine, or system that will interact with the change you want to make, fill in the blanks on the following statement:

Instead of (this)______________, (that)________________.

The first blank represents the existing structural element. The second blank represents a specific and easy-to-incorporate alternative that will move you toward your goal. The thinking framework forces us to consider both what we want and what will have to change on the road to getting what we want.

Some Examples

Goal: Lose 15 pounds by summertime

Instead of This, That

Instead of grabbing an unhealthy snack, I’ll pause to ask myself whether I’m hungry or just bored.

Instead of buying a six pack of sodas when I go to the grocery story, I’ll buy a two-liter bottle of soda so I can better control portions.

Goal: Increase input from my team during meetings

Instead of This, That

Instead of starting a discussion by stating my opinion, I’ll ask others what they think and thank them for sharing their perspectives.

Instead of asking for comments, I’ll pose a more specific question like, “if we adopt this proposal, what will it mean for each of your teams?”

Depending on the goal and your timeline, you might want to imagine a single, high-impact replacement behavior or several. Even just considering the structural elements you will need to drop or alter, will improve your chances of getting unstuck so you can achieve your goals and stick to your resolutions.

The Most Important Leadership Skill No One Has Heard of…Yet

You can’t survey people on the importance of a leadership skill they’ve never heard of. It would be like asking marketing executives in the 1990s to rate the importance of search engine optimization.

Today, empathy is topping the surveys of in-demand leadership skills. It’s not surprising that in chaotic times people want leaders who care. I for one, hope that the popularity of empathy as a leadership skill gives rise to kinder, more inclusive organizations. I don’t expect empathy to go out of fashion. Still, those of us who help leaders and organizations prepare for the future need to think about skills that might not be on anyone’s radar screen.

I want to nominate a skill that I believe will become indispensable for tomorrow’s leaders. Like empathy, It’s the type of skill that starts with self-awareness. Developing this skill will require us to learn how to notice and interrupt counterproductive habits of perception.

Allow me to introduce, attention agility.

What is attention agility?

Attention agility is the skill of quickly and easily regulating how you take in information. Like mindfulness, attention agility brings awareness to what most often goes unnoticed. Also like mindfulness, attention agility demands that we become aware of how we pay attention, and that we learn to sense when we may be focused on the wrong things.

With the advent of the internet, the ubiquity of smartphones, and the rise of social media, the topic of attention has gotten, well, a lot of attention. A Google Scholar search of articles and books written in the early days of the internet (1990 – 1993) using the search term “attention” came back with 432,000 results. Conducting a search across the same number of years, 2004 – 2007 (roughly, from the introduction of Facebook to the introduction of the first iPhone) generated 4.5 million results!

Attention Matters

Distracted driving is a serious hazard which caused over 3,000 deaths in the U.S. during 2019. We have been experiencing a global spike in attention-deficit disorder diagnoses. Psychologists and neuroscientists have demonstrated the stunning phenomenon known as inattentional blindness, in which we fail to notice fully visible objects because our attention was engaged elsewhere.

The deluge of information feels inescapable. Many have described our current times as the post-truth era. Somehow objective facts have become less influential than appeals to our emotions and beliefs. It’s not that we value objective reality less, it’s that our personal search engines, our attention apparatus, is optimized for threats and outrage.

When we develop our attention agility, we’ll know when we’re breathing in the stale air of our echo chambers. We’ll sense when it’s time to open a window and let in fresh ideas.  

When we develop our attention agility, we’ll be more discerning consumers of information and influence. When we develop our attention agility, we’ll know when we’re breathing in the stale air of our echo chambers. We’ll sense when it’s time to open a window and let in fresh ideas.  

Modes of attention

In 1890, American psychologist, William James devoted a chapter of his classic, The Principles of Psychology to the topic of attention. James made a distinction between passive attention and voluntary attention.

Passive attention is aimless, it floats like a butterfly. Voluntary attention targets and locks on, it stings like a bee. William James as interpreted by Muhammed Ali.

Imagine a walk in a beautiful, natural landscape. You suddenly become aware of the smell of an unusual flower alongside the trail (passive). You pull out your phone to look up the name of the flower (voluntary). You put the phone away and allow the environment to present itself to you (passive). This back-and-forth between focusing and unfocusing is what it feels like to regulate your attention. When you learn to switch modes easily and intentionally in a variety of situations, you’ve developed attention agility.

Why is attention agility important?

First, we have never had more information competing for our attention. Secondly, our brains have evolved to narrow our attention in times of stress and anxiety. As our information-rich world imposes itself on our overtaxed brains, we lose the ability to assess the validity of what we notice. Furthermore, it’s hard to appreciate the opportunity cost of what we don’t notice.

What William James called voluntary attention has always been prized by our teachers and our managers. We reward the ability to concentrate. We consider distraction a deficiency. We admire decision makers who create mental boundaries so they can include the relevant variables without the burden of extraneous thoughts or emotions. It makes perfect sense to value the ability to stay on task, but only if we’re working on the right task.

When we know what we want to accomplish, voluntary attention helps us focus. When we feel stuck, when our situation is changing quickly, and the future feels completely unpredictable, voluntary attention could point our focus in the wrong direction.

Consider the challenge many organizational leaders are facing today as they try to figure out how and where people will work when the pandemic no longer dictates the rules for convening. What should leaders pay attention to: Real estate costs? Worker productivity? Technology? Morale? Probably, all the above and more. Solving for the future of workspaces calls for a blend of voluntary attention and passive attention. Aimless, butterfly-like attention may surface hidden insights and creative options that suggest a way forward. Once you see a way forward, engaging your voluntary attention will help you implement a plan of action.

The Ascendance of Passive Attention

You know who is great at staying on task? Machines.

We don’t want to reduce the amount of information available to us. We’re already developing artificial intelligence (AI) to help us sort and package information so we can digest it. Machine learning makes AI more intelligent as it processes information and gets feedback about the utility of its outputs. So far, machine learning is a goal-seeking activity. Computer programs apply voluntary attention to data.

Would an artificially intelligent android pause while hiking to smell a flower? We pause because we have a passive attention mode that is not goal oriented. Passive attention gives us pause. The pause may give us something beneficial that we weren’t looking for.

Maybe there will come a day when a machine notices something it wasn’t looking for. For now, serendipity belongs exclusively to humans. We have plenty of strategies, tools, dietary supplements, and smartphone apps to build up our voluntary attention capacity. What we lack is a way to productively distract ourselves when the glare of our voluntary-attention high-beams blinds us to interesting information and insightful ideas alongside the trail.

You’re not required to have an opinion on everything

A new study shows that people who identify as democratic socialists report higher levels of satisfaction with their lives than those who identify as free-market capitalists.

If you have an itchy twitter finger (and depending on your politics) you might feel an urge to post one of the following:

The results are in… socialism is the key to a happier life

No surprises from recent study… capitalists expect more out of life than socialists

If you’re actually tempted to spread the news, I should confess that I made up the study and its conclusion.

Importantly, the fact that the statement is a fabrication probably did not prevent you from having an opinion about it.

Opinions help brains avoid uncertainty

Our brains have a variety of strategies to help us avoid feeling uncertain. We don’t like uncertainty because our brains aren’t designed to thrive in uncertain times. One of the brain’s main jobs is to make sense of what’s happening so that we can anticipate the future. One of the main ways we make sense of what’s happening is by connecting new information to what we take as already settled.

When the brain is uncertain about how to label or categorize a new piece of information, we become anxious. Imagine if butterflies escaped from the place you expected to see fruit when you peeled your morning banana. You might feel scared. You might feel delighted. Either way, your brain would start working hard to reorient itself to a newly uncertain set of conditions.

Opinions are not mindless reactions

If you eat something that disagrees with you, you don’t have much control over how your body reacts. But the brain has more options than the stomach. If you take in a disagreeable idea, you can pause and reflect before responding. Rather than belching up a reaction to an indigestible idea, chew it over in your mind.

The idea is for you to form your opinions. If you mindlessly react to information, you’re allowing your opinions to form you.

Try this

When you notice an internal reaction welling up in you to something you’ve heard or seen, consider replacing your external reaction with one of these statements:

  • I see it differently, what am I missing?
  • We could do that. How would it help us?
  • Help me understand what led you to that conclusion.
  • I can tell you feel strongly about that. What about it is important to you?
  • Before we respond, what’s another way to look at this?
  • What would happen if we adopted a different solution? What if we did nothing?
  • Whose perspective is missing from this discussion? What would they say?

social media platforms are in no hurry to protect us from poisonous information

Sure, it would be great if Facebook’s algorithm optimized for joyful connection over addictive engagement. Maybe market forces and/or regulation will remind Facebook to look after human flourishing. With great power comes great responsibility!

Meanwhile, let’s work on our own programming. Just before the eye-roll, withdrawal, snark, or unsolicited advice, take a moment, embrace uncertainty, and choose curiosity.

Preventing the Spread of Infectious Beliefs

I have some beliefs about drivers in Dallas, Texas.

My wife and I moved to Dallas over 30 years ago from Los Angeles. I learned to drive in LA. People who live in Southern California spend a lot of time in their cars, it’s a significant part of their lives. In Dallas, you might arrive somewhere and mention the weather because quick, extreme changes in weather are not unusual. In LA, when you arrive somewhere the first question is often, “How did you get here?” The appropriate response includes a list of freeway numbers, “I took the 10 to the 405 to the 134, but going back I’m taking the 110.” Your response might prompt a respectful nod or incite an argument.

Drivers in LA do a lot of merging and lane changing, maybe that’s why they’re more disciplined about using their turn signals. Drivers in Dallas switch lanes without signaling and often don’t bother to indicate a turn. I shared this observation with a North Texas native once. He bragged, “signaling a lane change is a sign of weakness.”

From Turn Signals to Tooth Fairies

We’ll come back to my beliefs about Dallas drivers in a moment. First, I want to discuss the Tooth Fairy.

For years, our three daughters accepted as fact that a kindly, winged fairy visited in the night to exchange money for teeth, but only if the tooth was tucked under their pillow. Somewhere, I still have a note to the Tooth Fairy written by one of my daughters. She politely requested that the fairy leave the tooth and the money. I have it on good authority that the Tooth Fairy acceded to her wishes.

Richard Dawkins, the author, evolutionary biologist, and secularist famously compared belief in the Tooth Fairy to religious faith. In his 1991 essay Viruses of the Mind, Dawkins compared delusional beliefs to mental infections. Children, he argued are susceptible to misinformation in the same way that immune-deficient patients cannot protect themselves from viruses.

Mental Immunity

We are living in a time when comparisons to epidemiology and contagion are particularly, you’ll excuse the expression, germane. The philosopher Andy Norman has taken the idea-as-virus metaphor one step further. In his new book, Mental Immunity, Norman levels up the status of the metaphor arguing that ideologies are not like infections, they are infections – infections of the mind. If Norman gets his way, the next Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-6) will include something like infectious misinformation as a legitimate disease state. He has a point.

I can easily imagine the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention devoting resources to what Norman has dubbed, “Cognitive Immunology.” Even if they don’t, there’s little doubt that bad ideologies harm public health. Consider the societal “morbidities” associated with the following beliefs:

  • I will be rewarded in the afterlife if I blow myself up while murdering civilians in public
  • The 2020 U.S. presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump
  • The government is putting microchips in the Covid-19 vaccines

I’m persuaded by Norman’s argument. Whether he’s torturing a metaphor or opening a line of scientific inquiry may not matter. It feels different, and more useful to think of people harboring destructive beliefs as infected rather than insane.

It feels different, and more useful to think of people harboring destructive beliefs as infected rather than insane.

Not all infections of the body are equally detrimental. Covid-19 might land you in the hospital, but the common cold won’t. Similarly, not all infectious beliefs threaten civil society. You could argue that children enthralled by the idea of a tooth fairy inspire us with their innocence. At worst, I get irritable trying to guess the motives of drivers speeding up or slowing down around me. My belief that my fellow North Texans won’t signal their intentions with their blinkers doesn’t seem particularly virulent.

A Symptom of Being Infected with a Belief

I’m aware of the bodily symptoms associated with the common cold. What symptoms are associated with being infected by a common misconception? I can think of one. Let’s look more closely at my belief that drivers in Dallas don’t use their turn signals.

Thanks to confirmation bias, when I drive around Dallas, I see countless examples of people changing lanes without signaling. Interestingly, when I drive with my wife or daughters, they’re fond of pointing out counterexamples. “Look,” a helpful, back-seat daughter once gleefully announced, “that green car is signaling.”

Here’s how I know that I’ve been infected with a bad belief. When someone points out contrary evidence, my first instinct is not to reconsider my belief. When my daughter points out a driver dutifully using their blinker, without missing a beat I’m likely to counter, “They’re not from Dallas.” I’d rather reinterpret the facts than let go of my questionable belief.

There are innumerable practices and prescriptions for strengthening the physical body’s immune system. Norman’s book offers cognitive fitness advice for boosting our mental immunity. One idea he offers is to treat your favorite beliefs like houseguests.

Once caught, an infectious belief, like a virus makes itself at home. Over time, it’s hard to distinguish your identity from your cherished beliefs. You know you’ve become infected by a belief when you become loyal to it. Instead of you having the belief, the belief has you. Treating beliefs like a houseguest is to recognize them as temporary, always at risk of overstaying their welcome.

Take the Evidence Test

Here’s an exercise to try. Pick a belief you hold that guides your priorities or connects you to a welcoming community. What would you accept as evidence that your belief is misguided or flat out wrong? If you can’t imagine any reasons or facts that would separate you from the belief, your mental immune system has been compromised. It’s no longer something you simply believe. The belief has altered your mind’s structure. The houseguest has taken up residence and redecorated the place.

Finding Scarce Insights in Abundant Information

Data and information are essential to solving problems well. Data and information are abundant these days. So why do we feel less able to figure things out and less confident about knowing what to do?

Too Much of a Good Thing

Part of the problem is that we have too much of a good thing. At all times and in all places, Information and data are effortlessly accessible. We are conditioned to prioritize incoming alerts and breaking news. We are awash in information, most of it unsatisfying. It’s hard to quench your thirst if you’re trying to drink from a firehose.

First, a working definition to help us differentiate data from information. Think of data as the unorganized facts and figures we detect with our various tools and measuring devices. Information is what you get when someone processes, structures, organizes, or otherwise interprets the data. 75248 is a number, it is data. When 75248 is recognized as a Zip Code, the data becomes information.

A Better Solution

One solution to the too-much-of-a-good-thing problem is to collect less data. A better solution is to learn how to transform abundant data into insightful information. Insights help you solve problems, but insights are hidden. Insightful information is better than obvious information in the same way that an x-ray image of a painful shoulder is better than a visual examination of a painful shoulder.

Better, more insightful information helps in four ways

  • It helps you avoid solving the wrong problem
  • It reduces the risk of missing something important
  • It generates unconventional options
  • It ensures that previously excluded perspectives are seen, heard, and valued

Solving problems is about changing situations. If you want to change a dissatisfying situation, you can think of your challenge as a tug-of-war between the forces holding things in place and the forces motivating change. Kurt Lewin first developed this way of thinking about problem-solving in the 1940s; he called it, “Force-field analysis.”

SCAN for Insights

At Unstuck Minds, we think of our SCAN model as a simplified version of Lewin’s force-field analysis. SCAN stands for Structures, Context, Assumptions, and Needs. Structures can be thought of as the ways we currently do things. Context can be thought of as what’s going on in the external environment. Assumptions can be thought of as our unquestioned beliefs. Needs can be thought of as the desires, concerns, and perspectives of people we should include.

To make it easier to identify the Lewin’s force-field elements, SCAN is made up of two dimensions that focus on restraining forces and two dimensions that focus on driving forces. Structures and Assumptions on the left side of the model tend to keep things stable and preserve the status quo. Context and Needs, on the right side of the model tend to introduce destabilizing changes.

How to Uncover Insights

Let’s say you’re an executive who has formed a team to tackle a thorny organizational problem. You fear that after the team has spent a lot of time researching and organizing their findings, you’ll be left with voluminous information, very few insights, and no clear point-of-view or recommended path forward.

Instead of waiting to see what the team comes up with, request that they organize their presentation based on the SCAN framework:

  1. Structures: What are we currently doing that will make it hard for us to implement an improvement?
  2. Context: What is changing in the environment that requires a response or provides an opportunity?
  3. Assumptions: What unquestioned beliefs about our situation are worth challenging?
  4. Needs: Who should we include in our thinking and planning; what matters to them and what do they think?
  5. Now What?: What insights and options emerged from your work and where should we focus our resources and efforts?

It seems counterintuitive to seek more information as a solution to the problem of information overload. But learning to form insights helps us manage the data and control the aperture of our attention. With practice, SCAN helps us see past the uninvited information to the hidden insights and options unavailable to the overwhelmed mind.

SCAN: How to Notice What you’re NOT Looking For

Do you remember the Magic Eye books? The books popularized something called an autostereogram. Autostereograms are two-dimensional illustrations whose pattern obscures a hidden three-dimensional image or scene. You can watch a short video about Magic Eye books and learn how to see the image. Click here to reveal the image hidden in the autostereogram above.

seeing the hidden image requires un-focusing rather than focusing

Focusing is useful if you know what you’re looking for. In a turbulent and uncertain world, it’s what you’re not looking for that might become the source of a breakthrough. Herein lies one of the biggest challenges for today’s organizational leaders. When we focus on one thing, we lose the ability to notice what we’re not focused on. Psychologists refer to this as inattentional blindness. If you haven’t seen the original video from Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris that illustrates the phenomena, check it out here.

Our cognitive equipment is designed to help us focus on what we deem important. When we feel stuck or overwhelmed, it might be because we’re mistaken about what’s important. The world changes, but our priorities stay the same. We employ artificial intelligence and data science to help us isolate the insights in the noise. However, the breakthrough might be less like finding a needle in a haystack and more like allowing opportunities to emerge by changing how we pay attention.

To quote Louis Pasteur, in the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.

Spotlights versus Lanterns

Alison Gopnik studies, teaches, and writes about how children come to know the world around them. Gopnik is a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley. In her recent book, The Philosophical Baby, Gopnik employs a helpful analogy to describe the difference between the consciousness of an infant and the consciousness of an adult.

According to Gopnik, babies notice the world around them as if it were illuminated by a lantern. A lantern indiscriminately lights its surroundings. Adults notice the world as though it were illuminated by a spotlight. We learn to avoid distraction and prioritize available information in order to complete tasks efficiently.

If you feel stuck or overwhelmed, shining a spotlight on familiar choices might actually blind you to the insights and options you need.

If you feel stuck or overwhelmed, shining a spotlight on familiar choices might actually blind you to the insights and options you need.

Four hidden aspects of situations we want to change

As I’ve described in a previous post, SCAN is a framework for discovering insights and options when you feel stuck or need a way to set direction. SCAN stands for: Structures, Context, Assumptions, and Needs.

Illuminating Structures helps us notice the norms, habits, systems, and processes that create stability and consistency.

Illuminating Context helps us notice factors and trends in the external environment that signal disruptions and opportunities.

Illuminating Assumptions helps us notice the beliefs, values, and world-views that orient our attention, judgments, and priorities.

Illuminating Needs helps us notice the desires, fears, preferences, and social processes that motivate behaviors.

SCAN elements are consistently overlooked

Structures organize how we operate, but once they become routine, we take them for granted. Context establishes the meaning and purpose of our activities. In our busyness, we focus on the activities and fail to notice changes in what the world considers important. Assumptions form our identity and our worldview. We rarely notice how our deeply held beliefs orient our attention and judgments. Moreover, questioning our deeply held beliefs can feel threatening. Lastly, we pay lip service to the needs of others, but we don’t stay in touch with those we serve, and we overlook the needs and perspectives of people from other communities or backgrounds.

If we want to change our situations, we need to un-focus the way we pay attention to the status quo and light a lantern to help us see what we we’re not looking for.

SCAN questions that will illuminate what you may be overlooking

To notice STRUCTURES, ask yourself: Which processes or routines no longer serve their intended purpose, have diminished impact, or have turned counterproductive?

To notice CONTEXT, ask yourself: What factors outside our control might change how people experience what we offer?

To notice ASSUMPTIONS, ask yourself: What beliefs about our purpose, goals, and approach should no longer govern our priorities?

To notice NEEDS, ask yourself: What has changed about those we serve or could be serving? Whose perspectives are underrepresented or missing?

Uncertainty is Not the Problem

We experience uncertainty in two ways. First, there’s informational uncertainty. We experience informational uncertainty when we lack facts and data to help us predict and control our environment. Secondly, there is emotional uncertainty. Emotional uncertainty is the subjective feeling associated with our information gap. Simply put, uncertainty is both what we don’t know and how we feel about not knowing it.

We’re accustomed to equating uncertainty and uncertain times with negative emotions. Most of the time, an inability to predict and control creates stress. When we experience negative emotions caused by a lack of information, we are motivated to reduce uncertainty.

There is, however, an important difference between reducing informational uncertainty and reducing the negative emotions associated with uncertainty. You can only reduce informational uncertainty by acquiring missing facts and data. You can reduce emotional uncertainty by reaching a conclusion or taking action. You may need to settle for a disappointing outcome, but at least things feel resolved. There’s another way to reduce uncertainty, but it may strike you as counterintuitive. You could learn to get comfortable feeling uncertain.

There’s another way to reduce uncertainty, but it may strike you as counterintuitive. You could learn to get comfortable feeling uncertain.

Sometimes Uncertainty Feels Thrilling

One key to getting comfortable with uncertainty is to recognize that informational uncertainty does not always create negative emotions. We have all experienced the thrill of being surprised. We frequently put ourselves in situations designed to be unpredictable. Mystery novels and cliff-hanger season finales would not be entertaining if uncertainty about what happens next created negative emotions. We lack information. We cannot predict. We cannot control, yet we feel entertained and engaged rather than desperate and paralyzed.

Of course, the difference in how uncertainty makes us feel has everything to do with what’s at risk. I can enjoy the suspense of a naïve character on the screen reaching for a door that they’ll soon regret opening. If only they could hear the pulsating music accompanying the scene the way I hear it, they’d think twice about turning that doorknob. I enjoy the scene because I’m not walking through the door. The doomed character and I have the same informational uncertainty, but very different emotional uncertainty. The problem is not about the information we lack!

High Stakes Plus Lack of Control

Maybe you’re thinking that because I won’t experience the consequences of making an uninformed choice, I’m not feeling stressed out by the uncertainty. It’s not quite that simple. Even when I need to deal with an informationally uncertain situation, I can still find joy in not knowing.

I once went to a fancy chef-run restaurant. One of the options on the menu was to let the chef decide what I would be served. The server checked for any dietary restrictions or strong preferences and then delivered one interesting and enjoyable course after another. I could not predict. I could not control. The anticipation and mystery enhanced the experience.

What’s the difference between situations of informational uncertainty that stress us out and those that don’t?

One difference, as mentioned before, has to do with a combination of what’s at risk and how much influence we have over the situation. We feel anxious when we cannot influence a situation that might negatively affect us. Anybody waiting for the resolution of an impending reorganization or merger understands that not knowing can feel scary.

Taking a Beat Between Thinking and Action

But what if we do have some control or authority to decide how to proceed when things are uncertain? When we are responsible for making a choice or taking action, we tend to think of informational uncertainty as an obstacle and a source of stress. We don’t know enough about the environment. We need to make a move and so we feel anxious.

It turns out that the more captured we become by the negative emotions associated with informational uncertainty, the harder it becomes to reduce the uncertainty. When we feel motivated to alleviate the stress of uncertainty, we are more likely to seize on a premature conclusion. Furthermore, when feeling stressed out by uncertainty, we are more likely to narrow our attention and miss surprising and potentially useful information.

We create a vicious cycle. A lack of information causes anxiety. Anxiety prevents us from seeking information.

We create a vicious cycle. A lack of information causes anxiety. Anxiety prevents us from seeking information.

I have written elsewhere about the SCAN model for finding hidden opportunities when you feel trapped by uncertainty. Before applying a framework to surface insights and options, you may need to check your attitude about uncertainty.

If taking a beat between thinking and action creates stress, you’ll resolve your uncertainty simply to feel settled. Feeling settled is not the same thing as making a good decision. If you can get comfortable pausing to explore the uncertainty, you may discover creative and compassionate solutions hiding in plain sight. We miss the surprises along the side of the road when we make a habit of rushing toward our destination. Times of uncertainty invite us to consider that we may be rushing toward a place we no longer want to be.