The Unstuck Minds Compass: How to recognize and avoid thinking traps

Imagine you have a persistent and mysterious stomachache. Your family physician is stumped. Now imagine that you could convene a dream team of health professionals to sit together like a panel of experts and ask you questions about your condition. Maybe you would select a gastroenterologist, a psychologist, a nutritionist and a mind-body healer. Each expert takes turns posing questions about your condition. As you would expect, each of them asks questions based on their training and worldview. You will be drawn to some questions and you will reject others.

In the same way, the Unstuck Minds Compass comes at your most persistent dilemmas from different directions. Four different thinking systems ensure a comprehensive approach to understanding the nature of your dilemma. The four strategies of the compass don’t supply answers; they introduce questions you haven’t been thinking about. You will be drawn to some questions and you will reject others.

Critical Inquiry

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Critical inquiry helps us get unstuck by ensuring we don’t take problems at face value. For example, we can take medicine to relieve a headache. The medicine makes us feel better, but we are left wondering why we periodically get headaches. If we take action to resolve a problem and the problem returns, then we start looking for patterns. Critical inquiry helps us recognize patterns in our persistent problems and helps us explain why the patterns exist.

Critical inquiry helps us avoid solving the wrong problem.

Contextual Inquiry

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Contextual inquiry helps us get unstuck by encouraging us to look at the big picture. Sometimes we follow our comfortable routines without ever questioning whether the routines still make sense. For example, improving the durability of a video cassette is a waste of time if people stop buying video cassette recorders. Contextual inquiry helps us notice changes in the environment that alert us to what’s coming. Contextual inquiry allows us to reevaluate how we prioritize our attention and resources.

Contextual inquiry reduces the risk of missing something important.

Collaborative Inquiry

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Collaborative inquiry helps us get unstuck by drawing our attention to the networks of people and groups that might play a role in improving our situation. When ideas and feedback feel unwelcome or when sharing them feels unsafe, the organization can only recycle familiar opinions. Even a high quality strategy or solution won’t improve things if people are committed to maintaining the status quo. Collaborative inquiry reminds us of the power of social networks and the value of hearing what people are thinking and feeling.

Collaborative inquiry makes it easier for people to take concerted action.

Creative Inquiry

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Creative inquiry helps us get unstuck by provoking insights and surfacing hidden needs. Sometimes we get stuck because we insist on a business case for new ideas rather than encouraging experimentation and learning from failure. If the only ideas we are interested in are the ones that feel like a sure thing, we will only hear about ways of improving the status quo. Creative inquiry encourages us to question our assumptions about what people need and about our self-imposed limitations.

Creative inquiry increases the novelty of our options.

Using the compass helps you think differently about your dilemma while simultaneously teaching you how to deal more effectively with complexity and uncertainty. When people use the compass together they not only develop their thinking skills, they develop an appreciation for how others in the organization think and feel about the situation you want to improve.

Everybody’s Talking at Me

Harry Nilsson’s Grammy award winning song has been stuck in my head all day. I actually met Harry Nilsson years ago when I managed a restaurant in Southern California called Severino’s. Nilsson’s sister and her partner Severino Surace owned the place. Nilsson decided to make a surprise visit to his sister and walked into the restaurant one busy Saturday night. He bypassed the Maitre D’, walked into the bar and started playing the piano. I didn’t recognize him, so I did what any attentive restaurant manager would do; I officiously insisted that a Grammy award winning singer/songwriter get up from the piano and stop disturbing the other patrons. In my defense he wasn’t exactly dressed for a night out at a high-end Italian restaurant. Luckily, Severino intervened before it turned into an argument by walking up to us and giving Harry Nilsson a big bear hug. Severino introduced me to Harry, after which I made some sort of lame apology and beat a hasty retreat to the kitchen.

As I told the story of my Harry Nilsson encounter to a few of my colleagues, I recognized that I had acted out the song title by “talking at” Nilsson. Now that I can’t shake the song, I find myself thinking a lot about the prevalence of “talking at” as opposed to, for example, “talking with.” When we have a responsibility, work to do and we need the cooperation of others to get it done, influence generally looks like “talking at.” The police officer says, “move along.” The clerk says, “next!” Even a request for information can feel like you’re being talked at, like when a bureaucratic agent at a call center asks with a blend of tyranny and boredom, “name and account number?”

The meeting rooms of our organizations have become arenas for talking at. Meeting participants take turns expressing important ideas in a bulleted list hoping to influence, inspire and/or inform. Recall something you heard that you found influential, informative or inspiring. My guess is that you are recalling a narrative or image not a list. We are wired to take in narrative. Narrative involves us, whereas a list on a slide highlights the separation between the presenter and those being presented to. In a recent letter to shareholders, Jeff Bezos reiterated his prohibition against presenting ideas in the form of bullet points. “We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon.”

If you’re not ready to ban PowerPoint at your meetings, you could make one small change that will switch the level of involvement you get when you present.

Next time you have to make a presentation to people whose cooperation or approval you need, consider starting with the question, “What will you be listening for?”

Depending on the number of people in the meeting, you can hear each person’s answer or have them talk it over in small groups and then request a few responses. Giving people the opportunity to tell you what they need to hear not only helps you shape your presentation, it also creates an atmosphere of shared responsibility in the room.

We Don’t Need Artificial Intelligence to Protect Ourselves from Disinformation, We Need Actual Intelligence

In case you missed it, the 2015 Jade Helm military exercises were back in the news this week. While promoting his new book, The Assault on Intelligence: American national security in the age of lies, Retired General and former head of the National Security Agency Michael Hayden suggested that Russia had fomented paranoia in Texas through internet bots, which spread rumors that the Obama administration was using the exercises to impose martial law in Texas. Hayden further speculated that Russia’s experience with Texan’s vulnerability to disinformation emboldened them to employ a similar strategy to interfere with the 2016 Presidential campaign.

While the heads of tech companies try to balance the promise of open exchanges of information with the need to filter out malicious propaganda, others have decided to come at the problem from the opposite direction. In much the same way that one can focus efforts to address a drug epidemic by reducing supply (tighter enforcement) or by reducing demand (just say, “no”), a few educators and activists are pushing for a greater emphasis on critical thinking skills for kids in hopes that they grow up to be more discerning consumers of information (just say, “show me your evidence”). For example, NPR recently featured a story about a French investigative journalist named Thomas Huchon. Huchon has been conducting school assemblies in France to teach kids how to recognize disinformation on the Internet.

We become less vulnerable to disinformation when we become more aware of who produced the information we’re consuming and how it was produced. It’s not really that different from being an educated consumer of food. If dairy products upset your stomach, you would probably check the ingredients before buying untested food at the grocery story or you would have your server ask the chef whether the menu item you’re interested in was made with milk. If discussions of gun laws upset you, you owe it to yourself to find out why stories about guns predominate your Facebook newsfeed.

One way to become a better consumer of information is ask yourself some provocative questions as you read, listen or watch people provide their judgments, assessments and conclusions.

Why am I having an emotional reaction? It’s easy to confuse whom you hate with what you hate (equally true for strong positive emotions like love and admiration). After all, it’s hard to truly hate someone you have no personal experience with. More likely, you are witnessing someone embody values that feel personally threatening. When we feel threatened, we are vulnerable to messages that make us feel safe. When we feel threatened, we seek safety in numbers.

How badly do I want it to be true? If you see or hear a report that is devoid of any evidence or sources, or is laden with tightly edited sound bites, notice whether or not you’ve learned something that you could defend. Did the information convince you, or did the information simply deepen a conviction you already held to be true?

Whose perspective is missing? Be suspicious of reporting that does not include a diversity of perspectives. Quality information should leave you thinking, “I guess I can understand how some people might see it that way.” If the only information being presented impugns the character of a person or group without providing any opportunity to hear directly from that person or group, then you’re not getting information, you’re getting gossip. I understand that we like gossip. Gossip is fun to share and builds relationship (albeit at the expense of others). However, like overindulging in sweets made with processed sugar, a steady intake of gossip can become addictive and diminish your appreciation for subtlety and variety.

Who benefits from my attention and my actions? Social media sites and news media channels make money when they keep you engaged. The more they know about your likes and dislikes, the easier it is for them to package information that appeals to you. We understand when watching commercials that advertisers have designed messages to influence our choices and behaviors on behalf of those who paid for the ad. The same level of scrutiny is warranted when taking in information from any source dependent on advertising for the bulk of its revenue. To learn more about the pernicious strategies employed by tech companies to hold our attention, check out this interview with Tristan Harris, Founder of the non-profit initiative, Time Well Spent.

Information ennobles us when we learn something new or feel more inspired or more connected to others. Be wary of information intended to narrow your view of the world. The more we allow someone to do our thinking for us, the more we abdicate our humanity.

A New Take on Employee Retention: Thanks for stopping by

What would happen if the mission of your Human Resources Department looked more like the mission of a university’s job placement center?

Last week, my colleague Beth and I co-led a workshop on innovation and collaborative problem solving for a group of 30 leaders from a company that provides information technology services and systems integration for government agencies. Our workshop was part of a 9-month program during which participants work on teams to apply the leadership skills they have been learning to one of the organization’s most critical challenges. At the end of the program, the teams present their recommendations to a panel of executives. One team had been asked to develop a retention strategy for the organization’s employees. Since Beth and I wanted to encourage the teams to use some of the concepts we had been teaching as they began work on their assignments, I engaged the team in a conversation about retention.

I started asking the team questions that seemed more upsetting than helpful. For example I said, “I’ve heard you talk about the costs of employees leaving the company, what are the costs associated with employees staying too long? What are the benefits of helping employees move on to pursue careers elsewhere? How long should an employee stay?” I’m pretty sure that the team stopped thinking about my questions the minute I left their table to visit with another team. I however spent the rest of the week thinking about employee retention.

It is very easy to find data and articles about the costs of employee turnover. You know what’s hard? Finding data and articles about the costs of employees staying with a company.

Consider this list of attitudes people hold, but only share with trusted friends and their family:

  • I am bored and burnt out, but looking for a new job is more painful than staying
  • If I can hang in there for another couple of years, my stock options will be fully vested
  • I’m comfortable and good at what I do. My job is easy as long as things don’t change. I just need to make sure things don’t change.

What is the opportunity cost to an organization – especially an organization desperate for innovation and agility – of retaining people who stay primarily because it’s easier than leaving?

It may appear that I’m arguing for more draconian performance management policies, I’m not. I don’t think we should ferret out people who are less than thrilled to show up every day and show them the door. I am actually wondering what would change if organizations thought about retention from the perspective of the employee rather than from the perspective of the company.

From the employee’s point-of-view, there will be times when long-term job stability is valuable and there will be times when long-term job stability is merely comfortable or at least more comfortable than being out of a job. There may even be times when job stability inhibits an employee from pursuing a risky aspiration. To a recent college graduate, feeling a sense of belonging while being challenged and getting paid may be more important than stability. To someone who is starting a family and thinking about investing in a home, stability probably feels essential.

Let me offer three purpose statements for Human Resources Departments, each of which focuses on an employee population with different needs for job stability.

For early-career employees…

Our mission is to prepare you to be successful in your next job (P.S. your manager and your team will help you be successful in your current job).

For mid-career employees…

Our mission is to find ways for our organization to create value from what lights you up.

For late-career employees…

Our mission is to help you transfer your skills, knowledge and experience to others while we explore ways to liberate you from the constraints of your current role.

Universities, The Peace Corps and The Military are three examples of institutions that recruit and develop talented people who then leave the institution to pursue bigger and better things. Even a company like McDonalds has been rethinking its relationship to employee retention. Whether or not the reality matches the advertising, I applaud McDonald’s latest campaign, “America’s best first job.”

I can’t help wondering what would have happened if the team assigned to recommend a retention strategy had framed their assignment as, “How might we redesign our business systems so that things improve when we help our most talented people leave for a better opportunity?”

We’re Asking James Comey the Wrong Question

The weather forecast called for a 50% chance of rain showers. A woman named Tracy decided to take her umbrella with her on her commute to the office. The rain never came. After work Tracy met friends at a bar for happy hour. When she left the bar to walk home, she forgot to take her umbrella with her. The next time she needed her umbrella, she couldn’t find it.

Was Tracy’s choice to bring her umbrella to work on the day the weather service predicted a 50% chance of showers a good decision or a bad decision?

Here’s an easier one. Late in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl 49, Pete Carroll the coach of the Seattle Seahawks called for a pass on 2nd and goal. The pass was intercepted and the Seahawks lost the championship.

Was the choice to throw a pass a good decision or a bad decision?

Asking whether a decision was “good” or “bad” (right or wrong, ethical or unethical) by working backwards in time from judgments about the outcomes to judgments about the decision represents a thinking trap. Those who research decision quality recognize that the decision maker has no control over the external consequences resulting from the decision. It may be fun to consider “what if” scenarios, but focusing on outcomes doesn’t help us learn to become better decision makers. What if the railroad industry had reacted differently to the advent of the automobile? Would we be driving around in a Union Pacific sedan or a Reading Lines SUV? If you only consider outcomes when asking about Steve Jobs’s decision to make John Sculley the CEO of Apple in 1983 you might reach different conclusions depending on whether you asked the question when Sculley fired Jobs in 1985 or when Jobs returned to Apple with fresh insights about product design in 1997.

We can’t ‘unknow ‘ the outcomes of a decision when reevaluating the decision maker’s alternatives after the decision has been acted on.

Sometimes the relationship between the decision and an outcome is direct and obvious, in which case it’s more tempting to judge the decision by the outcome. The TV show America’s Funniest Home Videos is a treasure trove of questionable decisions followed immediately by unfortunate and weirdly entertaining outcomes. We have learned from the TV show not to stand next to the blindfolded kid desperately swinging a stick at a piñata, especially if the kid’s shoulders are roughly the same height as your crotch. Still, judging the decision exclusively on outcomes changes if a video of the incident earned you the $25,000 prize.

I’m guessing that evaluating the “umbrella” decision felt differently to you than evaluating the Super Bowl decision, especially if you’re a Seahawks fan. The difference you experience when passing judgment (no pun intended) on Pete Carroll versus passing judgment on Tracy has to do with the fundamental nature of the two activities. Calling football plays is an activity in a finite game. Getting ready to leave the house for work is an activity in an infinite game.

James Carse coined the terms “finite games” and “infinite games” in 1986. Lately, Carse’s distinction between finite and infinite has been gaining popularity thanks to the irrepressible Simon Sinek. Carse succinctly defines his terms in the opening paragraph of his book, Finite and Infinite Games: A vision of life as play and possibility, Carse wrote:

There are at least two types of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

The distinction is a helpful way to differentiate attitudes regarding much of human activity. As an example, if you play “school” as a finite game, you focus on getting the best test score or the highest class ranking at the end of well-defined periods on an academic calendar. If you play “school” as an infinite game, you focus on learning and discovery; for every subject, there will always be more to learn.

When engaged in a finite game like football, it’s easier to connect a decision to an outcome. Most people consider Pete Carroll’s decision among the worst coaching choices in the history of the sport. However, without the rules and finality of a finite game wherein a winner is unambiguously determined, outcomes don’t help us judge decision quality. If you’re counting on the umbrella and discover that it’s missing, you may feel as though taking it with you on a day when it never rained was a bad choice. If the missing umbrella sets a series of events in motion that result in meeting the love of your life (who remembers Tracy McConnell’s yellow umbrella in the TV series How I Met Your Mother?), the decision to carry the umbrella feels like an act of genius.

To promote the publication of his new book, former FBI director James Comey has been making the rounds of talk shows and has been interviewed by many of today’s best know journalists. At some point in all the interviews I have seen, Comey is asked about a decision he made in the fourth quarter of a different kind of Super Bowl, the Super Bowl of American politics known as the presidential election.

In July of 2016 Comey announced that the FBI would not be prosecuting Hillary Clinton in connection with the use of her personal email server. Three months later, and one month before the election, Comey informed Congress that the FBI had obtained supplemental evidence in the Hillary Clinton email investigation. Various media outlets reported on the letter to Congress by characterizing the news as a “reopening” of the Clinton email investigation. In November of 2016 Donald Trump was elected President. Hillary Clinton and her supporters blame Comey’s decision for her defeat.

If you view Comey’s decision in the context of the finite game of a presidential election, you might feel like it’s easy to judge his choice. If as Comey would prefer, you judge his decision in the context of the infinite game of ethical leadership, we will need to understand more about the process Comey employed to reach his decision.

As for me, I would prefer interviewers stop asking Comey whether or not he made the right decision. We don’t need to reinforce our thinking traps by appealing to an inclination to turn infinite games into finite games. I want to hear his answer to a different question: What, Director Comey have you learned about making high stakes decisions?

How about an Organizational Seder?

At some point during the last few days, thousands of reluctant Jewish children were goaded into reciting the portion of a traditional Passover Seder known as, “The Four Questions.” Some no doubt enjoy the attention while others are scarred for life. I can still picture the unspoken enmity that arced between my mother and my daughter when my daughter refused to recite the four questions for a tableful of relatives at a Seder twenty years ago.

While I’m on the subject, let me share a clever Passover Seder ploy that my father came up with. Every year my father would offer the kids at the table money if we could isolate an unbroken, single row of matzo by eating around it. He would pay 50 cents for an end row and a dollar for a middle row. Years later I reminded him of the annual matzo challenge and he confessed that he only did it to keep us quiet.

Apart from the logistical and emotional challenges of gathering friends and family around a dinner table for hours of rituals and readings, there is something appealing to me about reconnecting with the purpose of our traditions once a year from the perspective of the communities’ newest members. The four questions all begin with the phrase, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Each question focuses on an example of a difference: Why only matzos? Why bitter herbs? Why are we dipping our vegetables? Why are we reclining? By the way, if you’ve never been to a Seder and you are looking for definitive and unambiguous answers to the four questions – spoiler alert – the Rabbis disagree.

Young children get away with asking questions about things adults take for granted. In the same way, new members of an organizational community ask questions that long-tenured members of the community accept as part of the routine. The Seder would be a lot shorter if the leader answered the four questions by saying, “that’s just how we do it around here, now eat your bitter herbs.” Of course, when it comes to Judaism, the point of the Seder is to preserve tradition. When it comes to our organizations, naïve and potentially impertinent questions undermine traditions.

Imagine some annual organizational version of the Seder. Instead of town hall meetings with leaders laying out the operating plan for the year, what would happen if the newest members of the community were encouraged to ask four questions about what makes their new organization different from all other organizations? What questions would the newest members of your organizational community ask you?

#betterquestions #passover #fourquestions

Four Imperatives for Crafting Better Questions

Since I’m in the business of helping people ask better questions. I shouldn’t be surprised when someone asks me, “What makes one question better than another?” That’s actually a good question. Before I describe why I think it’s a good question, let’s have a look at some classic categories of second-rate questions:

Questions that are actually advice or judgment masquerading as a question: Shouldn’t you unplug the toaster before trying to unjam that bagel with your knife? Just because it’s good advice, doesn’t make it a good question.

Questions that beget questions instead of answers: What should we do? Unless the situation in which this question arises is dire, the appropriate response is, “that depends, what is happening and what do you want to have happen?”

Questions that constrain rather than liberate: Should we build it ourselves or outsource it?

Questions that make it unsafe to answer candidly: The boss asks forcefully at the conclusion of a meeting, “I don’t see any reason why we can’t meet this deadline, do you?”

I apply four criteria when evaluating the quality of a question. I refer to each criterion as an imperative. Better questions satisfy four imperatives.

Imperative 1: Will answering the question help you avoid solving the wrong problem?

To avoid solving the wrong problem you must recognize the influence of underlying structures and cultural norms. It’s tempting to solve problems as they arise without questioning the cause, but when the problem persists or regularly reemerges, efforts to solve each problem in isolation become counterproductive. I can take an aspirin to make my headache go away, but if the headache keeps coming back I will need to understand more about what’s causing it.

“What can I take to get rid of this headache?” is not as good as, “Why do I get a headache every time I drink red wine?”

Imperative 2: Will answering the question reduce the risk of missing something important?

Being attentive to our environmental context and the competitive landscape reduces the risk that we will miss something important. The overwhelming amount of information available to us conspires with the relentless pace of work to narrow the aperture through which we learn about the world. If we keep our heads down and focus only on our functions and our objectives, we may miss emerging trends that could make the way we are currently framing our questions irrelevant.

“How do we leverage social media?” is not as good as, “What influences how our future best customers make judgments about a brand?”

Imperative 3: Will answering the question make it easier for people to take concerted action?

The answers to our most important questions involve and impact others. Crafting questions that are considerate of people who will be impacted by the answer is not just an ethical thing to do, it avoids unanticipated conflicts in priorities and improves your answers by including diverse perspectives.

“How do I get people to focus more on our customers?” is not as good as, “What conditions encourage helpfulness?”

Imperative 4: Will answering the question increase the novelty of your options?

Questions that allow for multiple and diverse options inspire fresh thinking. Those who value learning from mistakes ask different questions than those looking for options that simply improve the status quo.

“How will that work?” or “What are the benefits and risks of that approach?” are not as good as, “If we experimented with that idea, what would we learn?”

#betterquestions