Unjust Deserts?

When I started traveling for work, I resented the airlines for creating social hierarchies favoring those who pay more or fly more. Something about the overt unequal treatment of people rubbed me the wrong way. In those days, I would proclaim to my friends and colleagues that if I ever I qualified for a first class seat I would refuse it out of principle. Instead, I would offer it to someone infirmed or perhaps to a parent traveling with an infant. I would gallantly swap my seat for whatever seat the less fortunate traveler had been assigned. I would not become a pawn in the airline’s twisted plot to create addicts of their frequent fliers.

Fast-forward thirty years. I now qualify for American Airline’s top tier status. I get upgraded to first class about 75% of the time. I’m treated deferentially. The more onerous travel becomes for the occasional flier, the more my status distinguishes me. By the way, I have never once given up my first class seat. What’s worse, the resentment I once reserved for the airline sometimes manifests as impatience with people who board too slowly like the infirmed or parents traveling with infants. I’m not proud of abandoning my earlier principled stance. I am, on the other hand astonished by how quickly I got used to the blatant preferential treatment.

I qualify for special treatment by the airline because of my job. A few of us on every commercial flight have an advantage over the planeload of other passengers even though everyone onboard needs to get from point A to point B. Some passengers in first class have paid extra for the comfy seat, free food and deferential treatment. Many of the passengers in first class are road warriors whose company or clients pay about the same fare as everyone else on the plane.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the advantages I enjoy and often take for granted; I’ve been thinking about whether or not I’ve earned all those advantages. For example, I’m just over six feet tall, white and male. It would be impossible to list all the advantages I’ve enjoyed in my lifetime because society favors certain of my traits.

There is a dynamic relationship between “access” and “advantage.” My unearned advantages have made it easier for me to access earned advantages like a good education and promotions at work. Earned advantages afford me preferential treatment when competing with others for access to even more limited and valuable advantages and opportunities. For others, the virtuous cycle becomes a vicious cycle when a lack of advantage prevents access, which in turn puts opportunity for acquiring advantages out of reach.

I got inspired to turn my attention to the topic of earned and unearned advantage after reading an anecdote in Eugenia Cheng’s excellent new book, The Art of Logic in an Illogical World. Early in the book, Cheng shares a story about commuter reactions to the new green markings painted on the platforms of the London Underground. The markings let waiting passengers know where the train doors will open so they won’t stand in the way of people exiting the train. Cheng noted, “Apparently some people were upset that these markings spoilt the ‘competitive edge’ they had gained through years of commuting and studying train doors to learn where they would open.” This story led Cheng to an insight about affirmative action, “…If we give particular help to some previously disadvantaged people, then some of the people who don’t get this help are likely to feel hard done by.”

Helping those who have been previously disadvantaged has been in the news recently owing to a high-profile lawsuit against Harvard University based on their affirmative action practices in admitting students. Putting the politics of affirmative action aside, I tried applying the Unstuck Minds Method to the questions we ask about affirmative action. The Unstuck Minds Method helps people identify thinking traps that prevent them from discovering new options. We generally pose questions about our dilemmas and then focus our energy and attention on generating and debating solutions. The Unstuck Minds Method helps us determine the extent to which a misleading or incomplete question might be responsible for our inability to find a solution.

The practice of affirmative action attempts to correct for a long history of systemic and institutional bias against minority groups and women who seek equal access to limited opportunities. Our questions about affirmative action focus on improving things for those who have been disadvantaged by discrimination. When devising affirmative action practices, we generally ask some version of, “How do we level the playing field for the disadvantaged?” The question is clear and evocative, but it also misses an important aspect of the problem.

While we work to remove barriers that unfairly target minorities and women, we also need to ask some uncomfortable questions about our relationship to our unearned advantages. American Airlines is making an economic decision by establishing tiers of service and rewarding frequent fliers. As a consequence of their system, I become habituated to better treatment. After a few years I start to believe I deserve better treatment. When I start to identify with the treatment I’m getting; that’s when I fall prey to a thinking trap.

When I conflate my unearned advantages with who I am, “leveling the playing field” starts to feel like an existential threat.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we give up on removing institutional discrimination. I am suggesting that until the conversation feels personal, we may not get enough of the people who have the power to enact change to engage in the conversation in any meaningful way. It’s not unlike getting people motivated to work on climate change. We need regulations and we need personal commitment to change our daily habits.

Here is a question I would like to include in our public conversations about affirmative action: How might increased awareness of our unearned advantages spur a call to action?

Tangled up in Q: Questions that limit, misdirect and keep us stuck

I got a Ph.D. in 2015, which means I wrote a really long paper that no one will ever read (except for the people who were paid to read it). Like a lot of doctoral candidates, I conducted a disciplined and comprehensive research study to demonstrate something most people would consider intuitively obvious. Ultimately, my research led to the conclusion: The questions people ask about a situation they want to change reveal a lot about what they’re thinking and feeling.

I know it doesn’t sound like much, but it turns out that paying attention to how people frame their questions provides a window into thinking traps that may be preventing them from getting unstuck.

When leaders pose questions reflexively about situations that are complex and stressful, they can fall prey to the Inquiry Loop. The Inquiry Loop explains how thinking traps can feel like trying to find your way out of a forest only to realize that you’ve been walking in circles.

InquiryLoopGraphicLABELSThe Inquiry Loop suggests that you won’t get any new information if you don’t change your questions. You won’t change your questions if you don’t recognize the influence your assumptions have on what you choose to learn about. Finally, you can’t alter your assumptions without new information.

One way to break free of the inquiry loop is to change the questions you’re asking. Better questions could lead to new information and new information could lead to an insight. An insight has the power to transform our assumptions. The revised assumptions make it possible to listen differently, generate different questions and surface even more information. In short, a better question can turn a vicious cycle that keeps us stuck into a virtuous cycle that opens up options.

Lately, I’ve been working with leaders to help them improve their questions. I have come to recognize distinctive patterns in their questions; patterns that undermine their desire to find comprehensive, novel and widely accepted solutions. Many of the counterproductive questions that all of us tend to ask when we feel stuck fall into one or more recognizable categories. Here are four categories of questions that often lure us into a thinking trap.

1) The lure of the veiled solution

Organizational leaders are expected to have a point of view about any and all situations. Leaders also have a bias for action. We shouldn’t be surprised that when feeling stuck or challenged by a complex situation, leaders quickly form opinions and then set about implementing their conclusions. The urge to fix things often shows up in the way we pose a question about a situation we want to change. For example, when confronted with complaints that support functions feel left out and underutilized, a leader might start with the question:

How do we improve communication between line leaders and their support functions?

The question includes a point of view about how to respond to complaints about feeling left out and underutilized, but is a lack of communication really at the heart of the matter? Maybe line leaders feel overly regulated when they involve support functions so they intentionally work around them. A lot of unproductive work gets generated when people rush off to solve the wrong problem.

2) The lure of the false dichotomy

False dichotomy questions contain “either/or” assumptions. The question gets framed to limit (sometimes intentionally) answers to one of two opposing options. The problem is that real-world options are rarely if ever, mutually exclusive. False dichotomies have rhetorical impact, but almost always contain a logical fallacy. Imagine the politician that declares, “Either vote in favor of this legislation or condemn this country to a future of lawless anarchy.”

Here’s a typical false dichotomy question that could lure us into a thinking trap:

Should we bring in someone from outside the company to head up the marketing department or promote someone from within?

Are those really the only two alternatives? What if we hire someone from the outside to become a chief of staff to an internal hire that runs the department?

3) The get-them-to-change lure

When a situation feels stressful or frustrating, it’s not uncommon to assume outside forces are preventing you from achieving your goals. Sometimes, when we feel stuck and can’t control all the variables influencing our dissatisfying situation, we assign blame. If only our suppliers would lower their prices. If only our employees would act with accountability. If only our sales people would forecast the pipeline more accurately. In some respects the “get-them-to-change lure” is a special case of the lure of the veiled solution. In this case, the solution is for the identified group or individual to change their behavior. As an example…

How do we get our customers to use the tracking feature on our website instead of calling their sales rep when they need information about their orders?

When we accept a “get-them-to-change” framing of a dilemma, we end up thinking of people as automatons. Solving our problem becomes an exercise in figuring out the programming required to alter the behaviors we find troublesome.

4) The lure of the distorted scope

The scope of a question can be too narrow or too broad. When we experience a problem in a specific way, we may arbitrarily narrow our focus. Let’s say our employee engagement survey shows a decline in the scores related to “trust in leadership.” We would be limiting ourselves by asking the too narrow question, “How do we improve our trust scores on the engagement survey?” Alternatively, we could err in the other direction by asking the question, “How do we improve trust around here?”

The first question sends us off to analyze responses to survey items. The second question gives us no place to start.

For help improving question that may be suffering from one or more of the categories described above, take a look at Four Imperatives for Crafting Better Questions and How to Fix a Bad Question

Question your Answers

There is an important difference between getting unstuck and finding the answer.

Remember when you were solving word problems in high school algebra? Do you remember that feeling of being stuck? Going to the back of the textbook for the answer did not help you get unstuck. The goal of getting unstuck is to reorient your relationship to the problem, which makes it possible to find an answer.

Getting unstuck liberates us from our thinking traps and restores momentum. Fundamentally, getting unstuck means learning something new.

To get unstuck, we need one or more of the following

  • New data,
  • New perspectives
  • New insights.

The Unstuck Minds Compass reorients your relationship to your most persistent challenges by equipping you with four strategies for recognizing potential thinking traps and loosening their grip. Taken together, the four strategies provide data, perspectives and insights that change the way you define the problem. A single question headlines each strategy of the Unstuck Minds Compass. Let’s use each question to work an example.

Imagine that you are part of an employee engagement task force sponsored by your organization’s Human Resources (HR) department. The team has concluded that one key to greater employee engagement is frequent, ongoing coaching conversations between direct reports and their managers. The task force has implemented several initiatives to encourage coaching conversations. After each program or training course, employee focus groups report sporadic improvement, but the improvements peter out within weeks. Meanwhile, the employee engagement scores haven’t improved. The task force has defined the problem as an inability to get managers to conduct regular coaching conversations with their employees. The team feels stuck.

The Four Questions of the Unstuck Minds Compass

  1. What is the bigger picture?

Contextual Inquiry encourages us to zoom out and consider what is changing in the environment that we haven’t paid enough attention to. Let’s say that by asking about the bigger picture, we learn that…

  • Lower unemployment rates and aggressive recruiting are making it harder to retain our most talented employees
  • The increasing importance of learning how to adapt to a volatile and complex business environment might mean that mastering tried-and-true practices has become a lower priority for leadership development
  1. What is causing our dissatisfaction with the current situation?

Critical Inquiry directs our attention toward the underlying and hidden systemic issues that might be responsible for the situation we want to change. Let’s say that by asking about the causes of our dissatisfaction, we learn that…

  • Coaching in our organization is perceived as punitive rather than a way to build trust, rapport and capability
  • Our managers don’t care as much about the employee engagement surveys as the leaders of our HR department do
  1. What needs and perspectives are we missing?

Collaborative Inquiry asks us to consider the influences of social networks and diverse life experiences on our challenge. Let’s say that by uncovering needs and seeking out diverse perspectives, we learn that…

  • Millennials and their managers have misaligned priorities and values when it comes to performance expectations and career planning
  • We discover that our highest potential, early career employees view their current role as the place they’ll learn the skills they need for their next role
  1. How else might we define our challenge?

Creative Inquiry challenges us to question our assumptions and consider alternative ways to frame our problems given the data, perspectives and insights we’ve gathered by responding to the first three questions.

Perhaps we have come to realize that focusing on changing the behavior of our managers may be part of the problem. We originally defined our challenge as, “How do we get our managers to conduct regular coaching conversations with their employees?” Maybe we should consider defining our challenge as, “How might we help our employees realize their potential?”

Why is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?

A couple of weeks ago, I spent time with a group of leaders in Singapore working on how to form better questions as part of a workshop on leading with agility. I returned home through Tokyo, which meant that I arrived in Dallas two hours earlier on the same day than when I departed Japan. You would think that after years of international travel, I would no longer be entertained by the idea of arriving earlier than I departed. “What happened to those two hours?” I thought when I landed in Dallas. Of course the question can’t be answered because it rests on a fundamental misunderstanding. However, asking myself the question got me thinking about nonsense, which in turn got me thinking about Lewis Carroll.

In Chapter Seven of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, after some back and forth about whether there is room at the table for Alice to join the Mad Hatter’s tea party, the Hatter poses the question, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” The precocious Alice is eager to work out the riddle, but gets caught up in the chaotic tea party conversation. Later, when the Hatter asks Alice about the riddle, she admits that she has not worked it out and asks the Hatter for the answer. He tells her that he does not have the slightest idea*.

Some nonsense questions amuse us in the same way we might be amused by the charming innocence of a child’s question. Decades before Bill Cosby shocked and disappointed a whole generation, my friends and I spent hours memorizing his routines. I can still picture the cover of his album, “Why is there Air?” Cosby’s question is elegant, simple and nonsensical. Asking, “Why is there Air?” and “What happened to the two hours I lost during my twelve hour flight?” indicate that the person asking the question is either confused or trying to be funny.

Like Lewis Carroll, I’m a fan of wordplay, puns and riddles. I pay close attention to how people express themselves looking for interesting or clever ways to interpret a turn of phrase. It turns out, not everyone delights in my attempts at wit. What I imagine to be an endearing habit quickly becomes obnoxious if I’m not careful.

The Unstuck Minds Method is based on the idea that you can tell a lot about how people think by paying attention to the questions they ask. The key to helping people explore the thinking behind their choice of question is not to place too much emphasis on their choice of words. Consultants should not engage with a philosophical or lawyerly mindset. Philosophers worship clarity. Lawyers weaponize clarity. Consultants and coaches should focus on constructing meaning, not deconstructing meaning.

Don’t focus on what the question means, focus on what the person means by asking it.

As an example, when a client frames a consulting request as, “How do we get people to be more accountable?” I need to let go of my reflex to dismiss the question as nonsense and instead, help my client clarify the unexpressed need. I might take an appreciative approach and say, “Tell me a story about someone acting with accountability to help me picture what you want more people to do.” Or, I might offer options to get the conversation moving, “When you say ‘accountable,’ is it more about keeping commitments or not blaming others or maybe it’s simply about complying with directives?”

I don’t ask questions to hear answers. I ask questions to summon insights. Answers are dead ends. Insights open doors. Sometimes people look forward to opening doors and sometimes opening a door can be scary. If the mind is stuck, then summoning an insight will be consequential. Not everyone is eager to chase a white rabbit down a hole without a companion.

 

*After the publication of Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll was pestered to provide a response to the Mad Hatter’s riddle. Here’s a blog post describing Carroll’s response.

How to Fix a Bad Question

I recently worked with a group of managers employed by a Fortune 100 insurance provider. We spent the day on the topic of getting unstuck by learning to ask better questions. One manager in the session so dramatically transformed the question that had him stuck, it has become one of my favorite examples of the power of overhauling a poorly constructed question.

The insurance company mainly sells its products through local agents. The agents are most comfortable selling automobile insurance, but the company would like the agents to cross-sell its other insurance products (e.g. homeowners insurance, life insurance, etc.). “Cross-selling” is when a company offers an existing customer a different, but related product. When Amazon informs you that people who purchased the toothbrush you just ordered also purchased dental floss, Amazon is cross-selling.

The manager in our session that day walked in feeling stuck. He had been tasked with increasing the sales of products other than automobile insurance in California. He started the day with the question, “How do we get our agents to cross-sell our insurance products?”

Before we step through the process of “fixing” the question, let’s remind ourselves of the four criteria by which we determine whether one question is better than another. We refer to the four criteria as the Unstuck Minds Imperatives:

  • Avoid solving the wrong problem
  • Reduce the risk of missing something important
  • Make it easier for people to take concerted action, and
  • Increase the novelty of our options

Like any professional remodeling project, we have to start by understanding the existing state of disrepair. The form of the question, “How do we get our agents to cross-sell our insurance products?” is the most common form of the question I hear from organizational leaders. Essentially, the question reads as a complaint about other people who need to adopt a different behavior in order for the leader to meet an objective. Other than the topic, the question sounds a lot like a parent lamenting, “How do I get my teenage daughter to keep her bathroom clean?”

One way to begin fixing the question is to uncover needs and interests. The idea of framing a question around an insight about what people need is a tenet of Human-Centered Design. You could say that one way to fix a question is to make sure the question doesn’t presuppose fixing other people. A poorly constructed question will emerge from a strategy to alter the behavior of others in pursuit of your own needs. A better question will emerge from a strategy designed to explore shared interests

You can tell that you have identified a need or an interest if the people at the heart of your question change their attitude toward helping you answer it. I’m unlikely to get much enthusiasm from my daughter if I start a conversation with, “Let’s talk about how I can get you to keep your bathroom clean?” On the other hand, she might be happy to participate in a conversation about how to reduce the amount of nagging going on at home. You can tell immediately that the second question is an improvement because both parent and daughter would willingly take time to answer it. Similarly, the insurance company will have limited success putting on a training program called, “How to cross-sell.”

The manager considered what the company’s insurance agents care about. “The best agents” he told me, “want to be seen as community leaders.”

After more conversation and a few revisions, we came up with a different question, “How might we help our agents become their neighborhoods’ trusted, go-to resource for protecting against the costs of injury, damage, or loss?”

When it comes to the Unstuck Minds Imperatives, the remodeled question about insurance agents is clearly better. More importantly, if agents truly want to be seen as community leaders, they would be motivated to learn about becoming a “trusted go-to resource.” The question also opens the door for innovations that may have nothing to do with cross-selling insurance products.

A Thought Experiment for Getting Reacquainted

Last week I was in Southern California. I had volunteered to drive my daughter’s car from our home in Dallas to Los Angeles so she would have it for commuting to and from school. She is getting a physical therapy degree and had been on a clinical rotation in Dallas for the summer. She didn’t have time between the end of the rotation and start of school to drive back. Since I had client work in Los Angeles, I agreed to drive west with the car and fly home after my work. The client work got rescheduled to October, but I already had my flight and the time blocked, so I turned my parental good deed into a road trip and rewarded myself with a day off in Santa Monica.

A week before my road trip, Rochelle, a friend that I hadn’t seen in over 30 years sent me a message through Facebook. After a few e-mail exchanges, I discovered that she lived near the hotel in Santa Monica where I’d be staying and we made plans to meet for breakfast before my flight back to Dallas.

I had several days and about 1,400 miles to try and remember when I last saw Rochelle and to think about what I most wanted to know about her life since then. Apart from class reunions, we rarely get a chance to skip ahead on a relationship to see what you still recognize about one another. It’s like finding yourself in front of a current episode of a TV series you stopped watching after season one. What will be surprising and what will be familiar? “You don’t go backpacking anymore?” she might wonder aloud. “You still eat too fast I see.”

Amidst all this over-thinking, I came to an insight. I know it counts as an insight because it revealed something that both surprised me and became obvious the moment I recognized what I had previously failed to notice. I’ll share the insight with you, but first the experiment.

Step 1: Think about someone from your past that knew you well. Someone from a different era of your life. Perhaps someone from a time when you imagined your life turning out differently than it has.

Step 2: Imagine that you only get to ask them one question. The purpose of the question is to re-establish the rapport you once shared. You are not trying to get caught up on the activities and events you’ve missed; that’s what Facebook is for. You want a question that when answered honestly will disclose how your friend feels about their current situation and perhaps about the future. A provocative question that your friend will want to answer truthfully and completely and in so doing may come to realize something that they have not been paying attention to.

Don’t go to step 3 until you have a question in mind

 

Step 3: Now, imagine your friend posing that question to you.

Here’s the question I imagined that I would ask Rochelle, “What are the most satisfying aspects of your life these days and what needs remain unfulfilled?” I didn’t actually pose this question; I’m not a complete social nitwit. I wanted to reminisce, not conduct research or therapy. Most of our conversation was about our kids and our spouses, and most of the questions started with, “Do you remember…?”

In a moment of clarity that came to me somewhere between Albuquerque and Flagstaff, I realized that I was projecting my inner critic onto the Rochelle I anticipated meeting. When you imagine seeing someone you haven’t been in contact with for over 30 years, you are also imagining the earlier version of that person encountering the current version of you. The question I had crafted was designed for me, not for her. My 60-year-old self wanted to get reacquainted with my 25-year-old self. My 60-year-old self wanted to be reassured and refocused.

What was it like when I asked you to imagine posing to yourself the question you designed for a long lost friend?

 

 

What would you accept as evidence that you’re wrong?

Virtual instructor led training will never replace in-person classroom training.

When I facilitate a discussion about the challenges of leading organizational change, I often use a personal example. I mention that Interaction Associates, the training and consulting firm where I work, has been developing modules of instruction that can be delivered through web conferencing platforms. Our clients want virtual training and we are responding.

To emphasize the challenges of organizational change, I bluntly describe my aversion to participating in webinars, which is exceeded only by my aversion to leading webinars. I then ask participants to imagine that they are my bosses and that they would rather help me adapt than replace me.

By the way, if you are one of my clients and I’m scheduled to lead a virtual learning session for you, don’t worry… keep reading. The point of this blog post is to share what I’ve learned about making it easier for people to be wrong so that they can avoid getting stuck. Spoiler alert: I have turned the corner on my resistance by better understanding its source.

We have learned from the work of Kahneman and Tversky that when people consider options and outcomes, “Losses loom larger than gains.” From William Bridges work on “Managing Transitions” we understand that people experiencing change will first consider what they are losing before they can accept a new beginning. Ron Heifetz warns us not to ignore the adaptive aspects of change (aspects that require us to transform our repertoires) by only focusing on the technical aspects of a change (aspects that we have the expertise to deal with). The more a change threatens something a person considers core to their identity, the greater the resistance.

For those of us with a more analytical bent, our resistance often masquerades as well-reasoned conclusions. We experience the fear associated with the threat of loss, but we’re more comfortable with rationale than raw emotion and by the way, so are our organizations. We build theories to justify our opinions, and then we interpret the inevitable missteps that accompany any large-scale change as evidence that we were right all along.

In 1959, the philosopher Karl Popper introduced the concept of “falsifiability” as a way to distinguish a legitimate scientific claim from a pseudo-scientific claim. For Popper, an empirical scientific system is one that can be refuted by evidence. Borrowing the concept of falsifiability can be useful when people raise reasonable sounding objections to hide their fear of loss.

Ask someone who argues in support of the status quo two questions:

  1. What should we accept as evidence that we’re wrong about making this change?
  2. What would you accept as evidence that you’re wrong about preserving the status quo?

If we want to have a conversation about the emotional impact of change, then it’s best not to argue about whose theory of emerging trends is more accurate. Simply give people the time and space to express and empathize with each other’s reaction. If we want to have a conversation about the most reasonable course of action given our hypotheses, we should be prepared to look for falsifying evidence, not just confirmatory evidence. If I can’t imagine discovering evidence that I’m wrong about one of my theories, then it’s not a theory; it’s something I take on faith.

If you’re a leader or manager and you’re dealing with a pain-in-the-ass employee like me, consider allowing your employee to pontificate, and then acknowledge that they may have a point. If the employee has a reputation as an alarmist, they’re unlikely to sway others. If the employee is respected and trusted, he or she will come around or opt out because that’s what people with integrity do.

Sometimes being stuck is like recognizing that we’ve stepped into quicksand and we struggle unproductively to free ourselves. Sometimes being stuck is like standing still while the ground beneath us turns to quicksand. At first we feel comfortable and settled. We scoff at the frenetic activity around us. We’re content to stay put. What we need is a better question to wake us up to the sinking feeling that we may be left behind.