The Surprising Power of Not Knowing What to Do

During a family vacation in 1943 Edwin Land, inventor of the instant camera and co-founder of the Polaroid Corporation took a picture of his three-year-old daughter Jennifer. He explained to Jennifer that she could see the picture after it was developed, which at the time had to be done in a darkroom or processing lab. Jennifer objected asking, “why do we have to wait?” According to Land, Jennifer’s question sparked the notion that camera film could be invented that did not require time-consuming processing. In 1947, Land introduced the instant camera at a meeting of the Optical Society of America. A couple of years later, the camera was available to the public.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.

Shunryu suzuki

The image above is the Japanese Kanji for Shoshin, which means, beginner’s mind. In his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Zen monk and teacher Shunryu Suzuki opens with, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.” Land’s daughter Jennifer demonstrated a beginner’s mind by asking what some would describe as a naïve question. Land too demonstrated a beginner’s mind by allowing his assumptions to be altered by his daughter’s question. A beginner’s mind can circumvent constraints and expertise because it is not burdened by assumptions about how the world works or what should or should not be done.

The Beginner’s Mind Versus the Stuck Mind

To engage with a beginner’s mind is to take a leap of faith. The beginner’s mind is not waiting for an opening to insert a point of view. The beginner’s mind does not seek to absorb someone else’s expertise. The beginner’s mind trusts that what attracts its attention in the moment will illuminate a path forward. Like the mind of an improviser, the beginner’s mind builds on what is offered.

By contrast, the stuck mind is most attentive to its own assumptions and biases. The stuck mind fears uncertainty and indiscriminately eliminates complexity. The stuck mind fears uncertainty because uncertainty introduces the risk of upending the status quo. The stuck mind eliminates complexity because complexity feels overwhelming.

It’s hard to imagine a time of greater uncertainty and complexity than the current moment. The twin viruses of Covid-19 and racism have infected us with a malaise. The governing principles of civil society that anchor our identities and our aspirations have come unmoored. When our bedrock assumptions are threatened, we become susceptible to simplistic answers, arrogant leaders and snake-oil salesmen. We are grateful for any port in a storm. More than ever we need to adopt a beginner’s mind.

How to Cultivate a Beginner’s Mind

Those paralyzed by the uncertainty and complexity of our chaotic times have hunkered down. They wait for the storm to pass. Those approaching our challenging times with a beginner’s mind have begun to notice and get curious about long held assumptions. Some people are asking what would have seemed like naïve questions before the world turned topsy-turvy:

  • Why does it matter where my work gets done?
  • What is the purpose of a classroom?
  • What is the relationship between law enforcement and public safety for all citizens?

You can practice cultivating a beginner’s mind by giving yourself permission to think, “I don’t know,” when someone asks, “what should we do?” Even if you believe you do know what to do, set your solution aside temporarily and imagine the response of someone who has no expertise or experience to draw on. If you truly had no ideas, you would start with a question. The question would likely be naïve and potentially as potent as Jennifer’s question to her inventor dad.

Here are few all-purpose, beginner’s mind questions to use when someone asks, “what should we do?”

  • What is going on that makes it important for us to take action?
  • What would you like to have happen?
  • Who will benefit from taking action and what are their needs?
  • What are we assuming about the way things work that might be limiting our options?

The beginner’s mind sees abundant possibilities because it is not captivated by assumptions the world has left behind. If you’re feeling stuck, here’s my advice…

Don’t know what to do? Don’t know what to do!

Scenario Un-Planning; How to get Unstuck by Starting from Where you Aren’t

When a team of strategists conducts a scenario planning exercise, they imagine, in great detail possible futures. Exploring alternative scenarios about the future can help an organization get unstuck. The problem however, might not be a lack of imagination about the future, but rather an inability to shed current, unproductive norms and routines. If dismantling the status quo feels both necessary and hopeless, a kind of reverse scenario planning might help.

In 1997 I worked as a director in the operations department of Pizza Hut. That year, Mike Rawlings became the President of Pizza Hut. In 2011, Rawlings went on to become the Mayor of Dallas, Texas. Before joining Pizza Hut, he had been an executive in an advertising agency.

Rawlings got the top job at Pizza Hut by having demonstrated his capability as a leader, what he lacked was specific experience running a global restaurant company. Like many businesses, restaurant companies rarely put individuals into senior leadership roles who have not had years of industry experience. Rawlings needed to establish credibility with an executive team of restaurant industry veterans and at the same time oversee the transition of Pizza Hut from a division of PepsiCo to a division of the newly formed Yum! Brands restaurant company. Rawlings had not been in his role long when the new parent company asked the heads of each of its three divisions, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC to reduce overhead spending by 10%.

Rawlings may not have known much about running a pizza company, but he knew a lot about the potential traps associated with restructuring an organization to reduce cost. He understood that if he had asked his department heads to recommend cuts, they would likely protect their own departments and propose that the 10% reduction come from someone else’s budget. To get a more balanced perspective, Rawlings formed a team of middle managers, each from a different corporate department. I was asked to represent the operations department. While the executive team prepared their cost cutting recommendations, we prepared our own analysis. Before the Pizza Hut executives finalized the specific overhead reduction changes, Rawlings asked us to make a presentation of our analysis and recommendations to the executives.

Our team decided to reframe the assignment. Instead of taking the existing organizational structure as a given and then looking for ways to trim overhead, the team changed the question. First, we asked ourselves, “Which role at Pizza Hut has the greatest impact on the value our customers get from doing business with us?” The answer to the first question was easy. Under the leadership of David Novak, Yum! Brands had built a culture focused on ensuring each restaurant had what it needed to create customer loyalty. The company went so far as to officially change the name of their corporate offices to “Restaurant Support Centers.” At least in theory, each restaurant general manager played the pivotal role in ensuring customer value and customer loyalty. We then posed a new question, “What would the organization look like if the only corporate jobs that existed were the ones needed by the restaurant managers?”

We’ve started to move past the shock and denial of a deadly virus, quarantines, and an economy in limbo. The good new? It is easier for us to separate in our minds what’s essential from what’s merely traditional.

We conducted the following thought experiment as an approach to answering the second question. Imagine that tomorrow, the restaurant support center disappeared, and the restaurants and their staff were the only thing left of the Pizza Hut organization. What would a restaurant general manager, who behaved like a savvy business owner, need in order to continue building customer value and customer loyalty?

The task team then redesigned the Pizza Hut organization from the ground up based on the roles and functions a restaurant general manager couldn’t operate without. In the end, the approach created a company that, on paper looked and functioned like a franchisor. We concluded that if Pizza Hut wanted restaurant general managers to behave like business owners, maybe the company should structure itself accordingly. We proposed an aggressive shift in the balance of company-owned versus franchised Pizza Huts, reducing the need for a significant number of operations, marketing and accounting roles. We estimated that our plan would lower overhead by almost 30%.

The executives were unwilling to approve such a dramatic transformation of Pizza Hut, but Rawlings had achieved his goal of challenging the thinking of his department heads with ideas from leaders within their own functions. Notably, Nation’s Restaurant News reported in October of 2016, nearly 20 years after we made our recommendation, that Yum! Brands decided to sell about 2,000 of its company-owned restaurants in order to cut $300 million in overhead by 2019.

The idea behind “scenario un-planning” is to imagine that none of the current structures and systems exist. Start by choosing a guiding mission around which to build. Next, have a brutally honest conversation about the structures, systems and processes that would be required to accomplish the mission. The point of the exercise is not to restructure the organization. The point of the exercise is to identify areas of alignment around what is essential to the mission, areas of disagreement about what may or may not be needed, and areas of opportunity for reprioritizing resources and investments.

Coming to terms with the current pandemic is a bit like having the “scenario un-planning” exercise get a bit too real. We don’t have to imagine life without status quo systems; we’re living it. We’ve started to move past the shock and denial of a deadly virus, quarantines, and an economy in limbo. The good new? It is easier for us to separate in our minds what’s essential from what’s merely traditional.

How to Question our Future

A stuck mind is disabled by complexity and uncertainty. In the face of our pandemic, stuck minds are yearning for a return to normal, as if the state of the world before the virus shut things down represented some ideal. Grieving the loss of our routines and interactions makes sense. I don’t want to minimize or dismiss the impact of what we’ve lost, what we continue to lose. On the other hand, focusing on getting back what we’ve lost misses the opportunity to consider what we might bring forth.

The author William Bridges built a consulting practice around his theory of “transitions,” which describes the human experience of confronting change. Bridges points out that the way we speak about change is very different from the way we experience change. We talk about change as an event with a before and an after. However, when humans are involved in change, we don’t simply adapt to a new set of circumstances. Humans, according to Bridges move through a three-stage transition as we become familiar with and learn to accept what is different.

Ironically, the first phase of the transitions process is “the ending.” In the ending phase, we focus on what is being lost or going away. We can’t give our attention to what is changing until we’ve made peace with what’s ending. I’ll come back to the second phase in a moment.

The third and final phase of a transition, according to Bridges is the “new beginning.” In a new beginning, we tentatively accept the post-change reality. We start to alter our habits and routines and give our attention to making things work given the conditions we find ourselves in.

Bridges calls the second phase of the transition process, “the neutral zone.” The neutral zone is a time of anxiety and ambiguity. In the neutral zone, people become polarized. Some are impatient to move into a new reality while some are unwilling to accept that a former reality has ended for good.

Surprisingly, the neutral zone also provides an opportunity for creativity. When you are not stuck in the past and you are not yet habituated to a new reality, possibilities present themselves. In describing the neutral zone, Bridges (1991) wrote, “When everything is going smoothly, it’s often hard to change things… People who are sure they have the answers stop asking questions. And people who stop asking questions never challenge the status quo” (p. 36).

The Unstuck Minds Compass Model is a good source of questions in times of uncertainty and complexity. The Compass Model suggests posing questions from four different directions or dimensions:

  1. Explore the context by asking, What’s changing?
  2. Analyze current structures by asking, What’s keeping things in place?
  3. Consider social networks by asking, Who needs what?
  4. Reorient your thinking by asking, How might we reframe our challenge?

Let me provide some responses to each of the Compass Questions and invite you to add your own answers in the comments section below:

What’s Changing?

  • We’re developing a deep appreciation for essential service providers and healthcare workers.
  • We’re learning the depth of our interconnectedness in terms of social systems and infrastructure.
  • Disparities in access to services, opportunities, and basic needs are becoming even more evident.

What’s keeping things in place?

  • A false dichotomy between economic health and physical health.
  • Territorial approaches to solutions rather than collaborating across boundaries.
  • Politicizing problem-solving by only agreeing to solutions that help you maintain control and power.

Who needs what?

  • Leaders need to project competence and trustworthiness.
  • Healthcare workers need to feel safe, well-equipped, and effective.
  • Vulnerable populations need to feel protected, empowered, and able to safely access necessities.

How might we reframe our challenge?

Given what’s changing, what’s keeping things in place, and in consideration of people’s needs, the final question of the Compass Model invites us to change our questions. People with stuck minds are asking, “When can we return to normal?” People with unstuck minds recognize an opportunity to ask questions that create new futures. Here are some of my favorites:

  • What will we miss about sheltering in place that we can include in our future routines?
  • From an article in The Atlantic by Ed Yong: How might the society we return to be fairer and less vulnerable?
  • What role do we want and not want technology to play in the way we work, learn, interact, and entertain ourselves?
  • How do we make empathy and compassion a way of life when we’re not facing an emergency?

What are the questions worth asking during this time of transition for your organization?

Bridges, W. (1991). Managing Transitions, Making the most of change. New York, NY: Harper Collins

When Reacting is Re-Acting

A few weeks ago, I led a day-long workshop for seventy-five high potential managers who work for a global technology company. The managers, representing every region of the world where the company does business are enrolled in a two-year program consisting of a variety of activities and assignments. Once each year, the entire group gathers for a week of workshops and networking.

As a whole, the managers are smart, driven, action-oriented, competitive, and entrepreneurial. It’s easy to see why they’ve been identified as future executives; they embody the culture of the organization. My job was to teach them how to slow down, reflect on the thinking traps that might keep them stuck, and have them practice reframing the questions they had been asking about the situations they wanted to change. It did not go well.

I had worked with many of the leaders in the group before, so I singled one out that I knew pretty well and asked for some feedback about the session. He told me that his typical day consists of juggling multiple challenges. He’ll take an action to make progress on one challenge and if he hits a roadblock or a delay, he’ll refocus his attention on one of his other challenges. Sometimes an emergency erupts, and everything gets reprioritized. The idea of slowing down to reframe a challenge when you’re not making progress made sense to him in theory, but also felt unrealistic and counterculture. As with many organizations, action gets noticed, thinking might be mistaken for indecision.

While I was listening, the image came to mind of a plate spinner’s act that I remember watching on the Ed Sullivan show when I was growing up. I remember the act as mesmerizing and dramatic; now it feels quaint. It’s as if each day the leaders of this company attempted to keep china plates spinning on the top of narrow sticks; the priority of the moment, the wobbliest plate, attracts attention and determines a leader’s next move.

It may sound like I’m making excuses for the unsatisfying workshop experience, “If the participants weren’t so addicted to action, they might recognize the value of what I’m offering.” I’m not proud to admit that I did actually have that thought when I saw the ratings on the evaluation form. Upon reflection, I see now that I failed to practice what I’ve been preaching.

Who needs what?

A big part of the Unstuck Minds Method, which was the topic of the workshop, rests on the foundational principles of Design Thinking. Design thinking asks us to empathize with and learn about the people we want to help, and then build on insights about what they need (often needs they themselves don’t recognize). To be honest, I didn’t empathize with the leaders in my workshop, I wanted to fix them.

Another element of the Unstuck Minds Method is to recognize that our framing of the situations we want to change belies the assumptions and beliefs we hold about the situation and those involved. In the workshop, we teach people about Quicksand Questions, the framing of a challenge in the form of a question that gets you stuck. The more you work to answer a quicksand question, the more stuck you become. One category of quicksand question comprises questions of the form: How do we get them to change? Leaders often frame their challenges as seeking to take action that alters the behavior of others based on the leader’s needs. For example, “How do we get managers to spend more time coaching their teams?” or “How do we get our customers to follow us on social media?”

Ironically, I had designed a workshop containing an admonition to avoid quicksand questions built on a hidden quicksand question: How do I get the leaders of this company to respond thoughtfully to their challenging situations rather than react to them? Like the most dangerous quicksand, you don’t notice it until you’re stuck in it.

Reacting is Re-Acting

Compounding the error, I started emulating the leaders in my workshop as soon as it ended. My colleagues and I recognized that the session didn’t have the intended impact, so we immediately started problem-solving the instructional design. It took a few weeks and some emotional distance from the training to recognize that I had succumb to the very thinking traps I had been teaching people to avoid.

Reacting helps in urgent, familiar situations. On the other hand, reacting becomes counterproductive when we don’t fully understand the situation we’re facing. Reacting makes use of our habits and routines, that’s why I think of it as “re-acting.” When reacting, you operate in a mode that feels familiar and comfortable. When you go to a doctor with common, recognizable symptoms, the doctor re-acts (i.e. reenacts a familiar script). If the diagnosis and prescription don’t work, the doctor switches from reacting to responding. Responding requires more information about the current situation and a bit of reflection about alternative ways to interpret the current situation.

Here’s a question for busy leaders in plate-spinning mode: When should I stop reacting and start responding?

Leaders addicted to action, prefer to react. If the first solution doesn’t work, they try something else. As long as you’re learning from what you try, and you’re not squandering resources, reacting might be a good strategy. However, you don’t get to dress up reacting as prototyping or experimenting. Experimenting requires reflection on outcomes and thoughtful responses that control for what you want to learn.

Before I revisit the instructional design, I would be well served by taking a dose of my own medicine. I think the better question for me is: How might I help overwhelmed organizational leaders reduce the risk of missing something important, avoid solving the wrong problem, and increase the novelty of their options when they feel stuck for an answer?

The Featured image above is from Henrik Bothe’s plate spinning routine

Be Questionable!

I’m on a mission to expand what it means to describe someone as questionable. You might say I’m on a quest. By the way, both ‘quest’ and ‘questionable’ have their roots in the Latin, quaerere, to ask, or seek, and the ability to ask or seek has never been more important.

First, we are overwhelmed by the amount of information coming at us. Without the ability to question what we read, hear, and watch, we settle for the information that’s most easily digested, whether or not it’s accurate or relevant. To be more questionable is to be a more discerning consumer of information. Secondly, in times of volatility and uncertainty we need the ability to question our own assumptions. To be more questionable is to recognize that assumptions rooted in past experience may no longer serve us.

The customary use of questionable comes along with negative connotations. If, for example people describe you as being of questionable character, they don’t mean that your character deserves further investigation, they mean you are not to be trusted. My goal is to turn the accusation that you are questionable (at least in certain contexts) into a compliment. Maybe I’ll invent an award for the year’s most questionable leader. An award you’d be honored to receive.

It’s not too much of a stretch to destigmatize “questionable.” Note that the first definition of questionable in Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary carries no inherently pejorative connotation:

1 obsolete inviting inquiry

Obsolete? Sure. Extinct? Not if I have anything to say about it!

To be adaptable is to have the ability to adapt. To be questionable (in the near future and with the help of the internet) is to have the ability to question. Being questionable is a job requirement for philosophers, scientists, and journalists, why not leaders? As Professor Michael J. Marquardt noted in his 2104 book, Leading with Questions, “most of us are simply unaware of how important or pervasive our questions are to our way of thinking and acting.”

My own practice over the last several years backs up Professor Marquardt’s observation about the relationship between the questions we ask and the way we are thinking about the situations we want to change. In fact, I have been keeping a catalogue of questions leaders bring into Unstuck Minds working sessions. I like to compare the original questions leaders pose to the challenge definitions they develop as part of learning how to be more questionable.Certain habits of thought cause leaders to frame questions that unintentionally, but predictably undermine their desire for new insights and options. Often, the very question itself limits creativity, misdirects attention and resources, or places blame. I use the term, “quicksand questions” to refer to the ineffectual questions that leaders ask. A quicksand question is a challenge definition the asking of which gets you more stuck rather than less stuck.

For example, I worked with an HR leader responsible for changing her organization’s approach to performance management. The leader and her team felt stuck because they focused their efforts on answering the question, “how do we get our managers to conduct regular coaching conversations?” The team felt that regular coaching conversations would do more to shift the performance management culture than any other single behavior change. The strategy made sense, but the question put managers on the defensive and narrowed the focus to transactional interactions.

After applying the Unstuck Minds inquiry strategies to the dilemma, the HR leader began to consider the bigger picture of performance management. In the end, her team chose to focus on a different question: How do we help our employees realize their potential? It’s not that one question is more appropriate than the other question. The point is that if you feel stuck, altering your question might unlock new insights and options. The ability to alter your questions may be the most important leadership skill of the next decade.

Questionable people are skilled at improving their questions when they’re stuck for an answer.

Be Questionable; The Antidote to Expertise Addiction

Hi, my name is Jay and I’m an expertise addict. It’s been 30 minutes since I acted like a know-it-all.

I was raised to value intelligence, but somewhere along the way I confused intelligence with having a ready answer for any situation. I see now that aspiring to be the foremost authority on anything is a fool’s errand.

Knowing things is becoming an obsolete advantage

in 2011, IBM’s artificial intelligence platform Watson famously beat the best human players at Jeopardy. Ken Jennings, one of the humans who lost to Watson delivered a TED Talk about the experience in which he refers to himself as an “obsolete know-it-all.” Watson has redefined what it means to be a know-it-all, but it has not yet figured out how to parlay its vast stores of information into world-changing outcomes and predictions. For example, Watson already has consumed everything published on the subject of cancer but hasn’t yet improved patient outcomes.

Watson may have an answer for any question about cancer, but Watson still can’t tell the difference between a useful question about cancer and an unproductive question about cancer. I suggest that we cede knowing things to artificial intelligence (AI) and instead stake our future on developing our questionable intelligence (QI). Of course, I’m playing with the word, “questionable,” but my use of the word is consistent with its original meaning. Before “questionable” connoted something deprecatory, it simply meant something that may be interrogated or something open to dispute.

How do we create readiness for key roles in our organizations?

Earlier this week I had an opportunity to share my work at Unstuck Minds with the Leadership Development Council of the Conference Board at a meeting in New York. Eliška Meyers, The Program Director and I agreed that we would have the group fast cycle through the methodology on a relevant topic as a way of learning by doing. I asked Eliška for a headline question that council members would immediately recognize as a shared dilemma. We chose to focus on the question: How do we accelerate readiness for key roles in our organizations? Are you already thinking about how you would respond to the question? You may be addicted to expertise too. Let me suggest that we first probe the question for thinking traps.

First, the idea of “accelerating readiness” seems to suggest that we know what “readiness” looks like. If we know what it takes to be ready for key roles, then the question is ultimately about getting the right people into that future state faster. If we don’t know what it takes to be ready, then asking how to accelerate readiness doesn’t seem like the place to start.

It’s as if we’ve been preparing our future leaders in a conventional oven and now, we’re looking for the microwave. We get trapped by the question when we successfully find ways to speed up the process only to discover that we no longer have a taste for what we’ve prepared.

Another subtle trap in the question has to do with the idea of “key roles.” For the most part, our current organizational structures remain hierarchical and role specific. We tend to organize around highly experienced individuals who have tremendous authority to set direction and make investment decisions. One of the reasons people in Human Resources and Talent Development feel pressured is that in many cases our most highly tenured senior leaders are retiring and taking with them decades of accumulated expertise and experience that those left to fill their roles lack.

At the end of the session with the council, we considered a different question: How do we make our organizations less dependent on an individual’s talent and experience?

Counterproductive Expertise

If we can’t accumulate expertise through tenure on the job, what’s the next best substitute? Maybe we should start by questioning the value of accumulating expertise in the first place. Consider Jerry Useem’s July 2019 article for The Atlantic, At Work, Expertise Is Falling Out of Favor. Useem described the U.S. Navy’s “Minimal Manning” experiment in which a large number of specialized workers are being replaced with fewer problem-solving generalists. After describing several conversations with organizational leaders about the pitfalls of mastering a narrow specialization, Useem mused, “It would be supremely ironic if the advance of the knowledge economy had the effect of devaluing knowledge.”

David Epstein in his 2019 bestseller, Range; Why Generalists Triumph in A Specialized World, also makes the case that expertise can be counterproductive. Epstein offers examples and research that seem to fly in the face of recent advice based on Angela Duckworth’s work on Grit or Malcolm Gladwell’s writings on mastering a skill through 10,000 hours of dedicated practice. For example, Epstein writes about the work of Erik Dane of Rice University who coined the term, “cognitive entrenchment” to describe the downsides of domain expertise. Dane conducted research to demonstrate that accumulated domain expertise is associated with a loss of flexibility in problem-solving, adaptation and creative idea generation.

Be Questionable

Apply Questionable Intelligence to make sure you are asking better questions. Anyone who has been frustrated by the volume of useless options returned from a poorly worded Google search inquiry understands the importance of thinking clearly about what you want to ask. When experts frame questions, they inevitably infect the question with their world-views. If you go to an ear, nose, and throat Doctor (ENT) with a complaint about pressure behind your cheeks, you’ll be asked very different questions than if you went to a dentist with the same complaint. Unless that is, the dentist and the ENT had enough QI to set their expertise aside long enough to pose a few broad, open-ended questions.

If our future depends on leaders who can be effective under conditions of uncertainty and complexity, maybe it’s time society deemphasized knowing and expertise in favor of discovering and inquisitiveness.

You Can’t Schedule a Time to be Agile; Getting things done while figuring things out

How many of you use some form of a Lean Six-Sigma process in your organizations to problem-solve, reengineer processes, and make improvements?

How many of you use some form of a human-centered design or user-first design process in your organizations to innovate?

How many of you have a strategy formulation process to set direction, analyze trends, uncover market forces, and identify emerging technologies?

Each methodology represents a useful approach to finding opportunities and solving problems. At the same time, each methodology conceals two underlying and debilitating assumptions. First, we assume that reengineering, innovating, and strategizing are distinct processes. Secondly, we assume that each process can be scheduled and undertaken periodically.

Sometimes reengineered improvements arise from the application of design thinking. Sometimes a design thinking exercise will surface an opportunity that has the potential to influence strategy. Sometimes a strategy formulation exercise feels divorced from the realities of what it will take to reengineer the systems required to bring the strategy to life. An agile organization must access a variety of tools so it can respond and adapt while it invents and plans.

Perhaps there was a time when it made sense to employ process reengineering, innovation, and strategy exercises on special occasions. We no longer have the luxury to pick and choose a time to think about how to make things better or plan for the future. Isolating time spent figuring things out from time spent getting things done only works when conditions are stable. Otherwise, by the time you have things figured out and you’re able to operationalize your conclusions, the assumptions on which you based your thinking may no longer pertain. An agile organization treats problem-solving and opportunity identification as a management routine.

The Unstuck Minds Heuristic

A heuristic is a simple method or procedure that allows for self-discovery, exploration or problem-solving in order to improve performance. For example, if you have a method for fitting suitcases into the trunk of a car (e.g. put the largest cases in first), you’re applying a heuristic. I remember explaining to my daughters that I estimate a 20% tip at restaurants by moving the decimal one place to the left and then doubling the number to the left of the decimal. Once you have a heuristic that works, you can share it with others; heuristics are rules-of-thumb that create learning and performance shortcuts.

If you accept the premise that an agile organization needs leaders who can reengineer, innovate, and strategize on a routine basis, you’ll need to provide your leaders with a powerful heuristic. Leaders will need something memorable and useful that doesn’t require the intervention of an expert.

Four Questions to ask when you’re Stuck for an Answer

Consider asking the following four questions anytime you sense a loss of momentum, the return of a familiar problem, or an opportunity just out of reach:

1) What’s changing?

Zoom out like a strategist to notice what is happening in the environment. What is your competition doing differently, what political or economic policies might shift that could influence your organization or your customers? What emerging technology could undermine your organization’s value proposition?

Think about what is becoming more important and less important. Think about what is becoming more available and less available. Think about what is becoming more popular and less popular.

2) What’s keeping things the same?

Zoom in like a systems thinker to notice the interconnections that define the status quo. Ask yourself about existing systems and processes that may have turned counterproductive. Look into the ways people are rewarded, recognized, incentivized and punished. Ask about what has become comfortable to do that no longer adds value.

Play out the consequences for people of maintaining the status quo versus altering the status quo. What do the habits and routines suggest about the organization’s priorities?

3) Who needs what?

Apply the curiosity and empathy of a design thinker to discover the needs, wants, worries, and priorities of the people who will adopt any solution that gets developed. Instead of creating carrots and sticks so people will comply with a solution developed by a few leaders, find a solution that makes it easier for people to apply their passions and aspirations. Trust that when you make it easy for a lot of the right people to get what they need, insights and options will emerge.

Once you accept that new ideas will surface by focusing on what people need, choose the individual or group to put at the center of your efforts. Once you select the people to focus on, take time to understand and empathize with their desires and motivations. When you shift your problem-solving priority from arranging the world to work for you to helping people you care about get what they need, you’ll be ready to define your challenge.

4) How will we define our challenge?

Once you define your challenge as an open-ended question about how to make the world work better for people you care about, you will immediately see new and interesting options. As I’ve written in a previous blog post, there’s a big difference between the solution set for the challenge: How do I get my teenage daughter to keep her bathroom clean? And the solution set for the challenge: How do we reduce the amount of nagging at home?

When you’ve defined your challenge and identified solutions, you can use the work you did in steps one and two to evaluate which solutions will work best. Prioritize solutions that take into account what is changing and counteract what is keeping things the same.

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?

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.