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?
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.
It’s that time of year when goals are set and performance contracts
renewed. The official corporate clipboard awaits this year’s scorecard. Santa
is not the only one who keeps a list.
Consider your most important relationships: family,
life-long friends, partner or spouse. It would be bizarre to judge the
relationship based on a scorecard that tracks what you get compared to what you
give. In fact, when you stop being grateful for having someone in your life and
start comparing what you give to what you get from that person, it’s a sign
that the relationship is deteriorating.
If you manage others or work in a function responsible for
improving relations between employee and employer, it’s likely that you want people
to feel a stronger emotional connection to their work. What happens to the
relationship when success gets defined in terms of an exchange of value?
In 1923, the scholar, philosopher and political activist, Martin Buber published his most famous work, I and Thou. The essay contrasts two ways of relating to the world: The I-It relationship and the I-Thou relationship. An I-It relationship presumes a distinction between subject and object. In an I-It world, we move around like billiard balls bumping into one another and experiencing temporary exchanges. We are tempted to perceive the world and talk about the world in an I-It way because that’s how things seem to us. We experience ourselves as self-contained and impervious to the stuff we encounter.
Despite how it seems, Buber suggests that reality is not about subjects (us) being separate or apart from what we experience as objects (not us). Rather, as we encounter others and things we enter into a dialogue, a transformation. An I-Thou way of relating reveals what we share rather than what differentiates. Describing the I-Thou relationship is a challenge for our language and our Western ways of thinking. Suffice to say that in those moments when we feel transcendent connections, when we lose ourselves in an experience we’ve had a close encounter of the I-Thou kind.
When we define a work relationship in terms of what gets exchanged between employee and employer, we highlight our boundaries rather than our mutuality. We reject our interdependence. Our I-It work relationship is not much different than the one between a thirsty person with money and a vending machine with beverages.
If it’s true that younger workers crave purpose and meaning,
we may need to reevaluate how we evaluate. Rather than asking your boss: What
incentives and compensation will I get for meeting and exceeding my objectives
this year? Try this question instead: How will we share responsibility for each
other’s success this year?
The story goes that my parents met with my sixth grade science teacher during a school open house and when they asked him how I was doing in class, he told them, “Well, you know what we say about Jay; often wrong, but never in doubt.” I will never know for sure what happened during the open house because my mother always opted for the version of any event that made for the better story.
During a dinner party shortly after the visit with the science teacher, she shared the comment with Dora and Bernie Jacobs, friends of my parents that I had known my whole life. After hearing the story, Bernie dubbed me with the nickname, “Often.” Forty-odd years after that parent-teacher conference, I told the story to Nancy Southern, the chair of my dissertation committee. She seemed to enjoy the punch line a little too much. “Still?” I remember thinking to myself, “I’m still an insufferable know-it-all?”
After trying out several colleges and even more majors, I stumbled upon philosophy. I felt strangely secure amidst the constant state of philosophical uncertainty. Come to think of it, maybe I was so committed to never being wrong that I eagerly embraced a discipline in which nobody was ever right. I loved being part of a community of people who argued in order to make ideas more beautiful and unassailable. I became a contradiction in terms, a devout doubter. I concluded that what others saw in me as a lack of doubt, I saw as unwillingness to accept ideas at face value.
I loved studying philosophy, but I dreaded coming home on breaks and talking to adults who wanted to ask me about school.
Jacobs: What are you studying in school?
Jacobs: What are going to do with that?
I would usually come up with some jokey deflection to mask my true feelings about being asked, “What are you going to do with that?” “I’ll open a philosophy shop,” I would say. Or, “I’ll go into foodservice like everybody else with a liberal arts degree.” By the way, I did actually go into foodservice although I feel like the phrase, “I went into foodservice” overstates the situation. I got a job washing dishes; twenty years later I headed a corporate training and development department for a chain of casual theme restaurants. I guess you could say that foodservice got into me.
Dora Jacobs, with her perfectly reasonable yet irritating question about what I would do with a degree in philosophy is in good company. For years, the quickest way to undermine my credibility with colleagues and clients was to mention my undergraduate degree. I offer in evidence Episode 5 of Season 2 of Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series, “Newsroom.” In one scene, the Director of the news division, Charlie Skinner played by the archetypically avuncular Sam Waterston is having a conversation in his office with an old naval intelligence buddy named Shep. Shep asks after Charlie’s daughter:
She’s in Amherst.
What’s she majoring in?
do you do with a philosophy degree?
It takes all the energy I have not to ask that question at Thanksgiving
Et tu, Aaron Sorkin?
It has taken me years to recognize that I avoided answering the question, because I felt insulted by the presumption that learning is a means to an end. Learning, like humanity vis-à-vis Kant’s Categorical Imperative, is for me an end in itself. (Hah! Take that Dora Jacobs).
Training in philosophy is like training to be a miner. Students of philosophy learn to recognize rich veins of inquiry and use the tools of the trade to open them up and assess their worth. We spend most of our time in the dark and below the surface. The sane ones come up to the surface and return to friends and family between shifts. The lost ones confuse the mine for reality. If you think I’m being overly critical of a noble academic discipline, consider that both Socrates and Wittgenstein likened philosophers to flies. The former thought of philosophers as gadflies to the state, the latter claimed that the aim of philosophy is to “show the fly the way out of the bottle.”
Because I had supported myself with foodservice work in college, I was able to parlay my sorting skills (thoughts and silverware) into a job as a restaurant manager. For me, the way out of the bottle was busyness. When hungry customers are lining up at the door, when servers and cooks are squabbling in the kitchen, and when bartenders are running out of clean glassware, the manager has no time to ponder the ethics of serving meat or whether alcohol influences the nature of truth. Eventually, somebody with authority decided that I was hardworking and thoughtful and rewarded me with a promotion to the corporate office. I now had my first office job. A job that involved running around less and thinking more. I was being lured back into the bottle.
Early in my corporate career, I received a performance review warning me that I was developing a reputation for being “quodlibetic.” Seriously, my boss included the word, “quodlibetic” in my performance appraisal. According to the Merriam Webster on-line dictionary, the word, “quodlibetic” means consisting or of the nature of a quodlibet: purely academic; also: characterized by or fond of academic discussion. I imagine my old boss wearing out a thesaurus to find a way to gently criticize me for derailing conversations with impractical questions and quibbling over inconsistencies in the way my co-workers expressed their ideas. I understood the feedback, but secretly I took it as a compliment.
Several years and a few promotions later I found myself working in an even larger corporate office for an even larger foodservice company. As a team leader, I was invited to attend a leadership development workshop led by an upbeat and inspiring woman named Linda Dunkel. Linda led us through a transformative three-day workshop called Facilitative Leadership®, a workshop designed by a Boston-based consulting and training company called, Interaction Associates. The moment Linda referenced Aristotle’s Rhetoric during a lesson on how to share an inspiring vision, I should have known that I would end up working for Interaction Associates.
Which brings me to the plot twist and the reason for this post. After nearly twenty years as a consultant with Interaction Associates, and more than thirty years after getting my undergraduate degree, it turns out that the world sorely needs philosophers. Specifically, the world needs leaders and citizens with thinking skills designed for conditions of uncertainty, ambiguity, and change. In fact, I would argue that the global ascendency of nationalism represents an inability to adapt when one’s worldview is challenged. If nothing else, training in philosophy prepares you to question world-views, including your own. It may be comforting to hold on to assumptions that no longer serve us, especially assumptions that shape our identity. Unfortunately, comfort holds us back; comfort settles for the status quo. The faster things change, the more tempting it becomes to blame change rather than blame our capacity to adapt. Without the ability to pause temporarily for philosophically detached reflection, we end up with rising levels of anxiety and divisiveness.
In the Fifteenth Century, it was reasonable to think that our Sun circles a flat Earth because that was how it seemed. The answers and knowledge of the Fifteenth Century comforted our ancestors, but also kept them stuck in their ways. Leaps of progress are not born of answers; transformative progress results from changing the questions. As questions improve, answers lose their footing, which clears the way for better questions. Before Newton, “Why does the apple fall to the ground?” was the best form of the question. After Newton, the question became, “Why do objects like the Earth and an apple attract one another?” After Einstein, the question became, “How does the Earth’s warping of space-time and the apple’s warping of space-time explain the two objects getting closer to one another?” As we continue to explore and learn about the universe at very large and very small scales, new insights and hypotheses arise that continue to shape the way we pose the question. Some theoretical physicists studying “dark matter” and “dark energy,” conclude that the phenomenon we describe as “gravity” is an illusion in the same way that the phenomenon we experience as “temperature” becomes meaningless at the microscopic level.
Until schools stop shoveling test answers into the heads of our children in the name of learning, we will have to reacquaint adults with the curiosity that came naturally to them as kids. When we become skilled at asking better questions, better questions will feel less scary and more practical. As a starting point, consider inviting a philosophy major to your next meeting.
A leader walks into a bar. She says to the bartender, “I’ll have a beer.” The bartender replies, “What problem are you trying to solve?” The leader walks out.
A couple of weeks ago, I worked with an aerospace company whose Human Resources department was shifting to a new service delivery model. Like many HR departments, they want to alter the way line leaders see the role of HR and make use of HR services. For the last several years, HR departments in large organizations have restructured, retooled and retrained so that business leaders stop viewing HR professionals as order takers and start collaborating with them as strategic business partners.
HR professionals aren’t the only experts who feel constrained by requests from decision makers. IT professionals are often asked to build solutions without due consideration of systemic impacts or even a conversation about more efficient non-technical options. I had breakfast with a marketing professional the other day who was working on a new template for creative briefs submitted by internal clients requesting design support. Her team felt the template needed updating so that business leaders stop submitting lists of specifications and instead describe desired impressions and the intended audience.
What problem are you trying to solve?
Consultants have been taught to ask their clients, “What problem are you trying to solve?” as a way to shift the conversation away from order taking. Asking about the nature of the problem rather than discussing how to implement a request allows the expert to problem-solve with the leader rather than simply enact the leader’s solution. Programs, task teams and new processes that originate from uncritically implementing a business leader’s request, often result in wasteful activity and misaligned priorities. After all, even if you are experiencing familiar symptoms and you tell your doctor you need an antibiotic, you can bet that the doctor is going to ask a few questions and conduct a few tests before writing the prescription.
In theory, it makes perfect sense to slow leaders down to ensure the right problem gets solved. We want to make full use of our functional experts who may have interesting perspectives or an alternative the leader hadn’t considered. At the very least, a functional expert can gather data so that leaders make informed decisions before taking action.
In practice, many leaders feel as though they have given due consideration to their situation and feel confident about the efficacy of their request. As Peter Block pointed out decades ago in his pioneering work Flawless Consulting, the consultant might want to establish a collaborative relationship with the client, but the client might simply want an extra pair of hands to get work done. Some people who walk into a bar want a suggestion from the bartender. Some people know what they want. The best bartenders know the difference.
The next time you find yourself across the desk from a leader placing an order for a solution and all the while you’re thinking, “That won’t work,” buy yourself a little time to plan a scoping conversation by making the following proposal: I’d like to schedule 30 minutes with you to learn more, so that I don’t make the wrong assumptions about what needs to be done.
Design the scoping conversation around four questions. The questions make use of the Unstuck Minds Compass model and will help ensure that you walk away from the scoping conversation with an agreement on the strategic question that will guide the work.
As an example, let’s say the head of a manufacturing group made the following request, “I want to put all of my supervisors through diversity training.”
1. Contextual Inquiry: What’s changing?
You will need to understand the leader’s motivation for investing time, energy and resources to change the current situation. In particular, you’ll want to know whether the need has been building over time or if it’s in response to something new. Listen for and ask about factors outside of the leader’s functional area.
For our example, you might learn that the leader has been hearing about sensitivities of younger workers to things like implicit bias. Perhaps the leader has been paying attention to media coverage of topics like “White Privilege” and the “Me Too movement.” The leader may also be thinking about demographic shifts creating a wide range of generations all working together in a manufacturing facility.
2. Critical Inquiry: What’s holding things in place?
Next, you’ll need to learn about aspects of the current situation that have become the source of dissatisfaction. Given what you learned about what’s changing, what is it about the status quo that has become unsustainable? What existing habits or routines will create tensions between the way things are and the way things are going?
For our example, you might learn that many of the plants have inadequate locker room facilities for women. You might hear a story about an argument that broke out about which cable news channel was being broadcast in a break room. Maybe the leader received an anonymous complaint about a plant supervisor who starts his weekly safety meetings with a prayer.
3. Collaborative Inquiry: Whom will we organize around?
Now that you understand the context of the situation and its relationship to the status quo, it’s time to focus the assignment. Any solution that depends upon people altering their behavior must consider the specific population being asked to change and how the change connects to their needs.
In our example, we might determine that focusing on all people managers in the manufacturing group makes the most sense. Maybe we learn that there is a wide disparity of comfort with the topic of diversity and inclusion among the managers. Deeper inquiry might reveal undercurrents of resentment and feelings of injustice below the surface of discussions about how we include and exclude people based on the circumstances of their identity.
4. Creative Inquiry: What question will guide our work?
Having a guiding question rather than a set of static outcomes allows for new information to emerge that can be incorporated into our definition of the challenge. A question points us in a direction. An Unstuck Minds question eliminates the thinking traps that limit and misdirect.
Our example started with a question about implementing a request: How do we get the manufacturing supervisors through diversity training?
After using the Unstuck Minds Compass to scope the issue, we might choose to ask ourselves a different question: How might people managers in our manufacturing facilities help our employees feel welcome and respected?
Once we have a strategic question to guide our work, we can describe success and identify the elements of our response. One element may include training, but we now know what needs the training should address and what other changes can be included that will put the training into a broader, more sustainable context.
Consider your immediate reaction to two different ways of describing the activity of setting direction:
Defining a strategy
Choosing a way forward
If each of the above activities defined the purpose of two different meetings, which one would you rather attend?
To me, defining a strategy raises the stakes; it suggests that we seek an answer. Choosing a way forward acknowledges that there are many ways to go and our task is to pick one. A way forward can be abandoned in favor of another path without much fuss. An abandoned strategy feels like a failure.
As someone who has studied strategic thinking and facilitated my share of strategic planning exercises with organizational leaders, I want to go public with a recent heretical conclusion I’ve come to: Strategies are worthless.
To be clear, I’m not saying that formulating a strategy is a waste of time. Thinking together with other stakeholders whether on behalf of defining a strategy or as an exercise in taking stock helps build commitment and ownership. The mistake is presuming that the product describing the group’s conclusions matters as much or more than the process of reaching the conclusion. As Dwight D. Eisenhower famously said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
Strategies in my experience suffer from a mythology that the daily activities of managers must conform to a set of strategic do’s and don’ts as if strategies were commandments rather than choices. At best, strategies inform investments of time and money. However, once the investment decisions have been made the organizational system and the marketplace react. Suddenly, the assumptions under which we defined our strategy no longer pertain. You can plan your next few moves in a game of Chess, but if your opponent responds in an unpredictable way, your strategy becomes useless. In today’s business environment unpredictable conditions are the only thing we can be sure of.
Essentially, strategies are marketing statements that most often put a positive spin on what you are already doing. Organizations don’t pause like an army before a battle waiting for a plan of attack. Everyday choices are being made that lead to outcomes that hopefully lead to better options. Your best bet is to develop a strategic question that will orient and focus the activities of the organization. A question that will inform what leaders pay attention to when making decisions and assessing outcomes.
Organizations and teams need a shared set of working hypotheses from which to choose a way forward; they don’t need (and almost never defer to) a strategy. Finding a way forward depends on asking thought-provoking questions before you get stuck. Here are four questions based on the Unstuck Minds Compass that can be applied in the flow of work rather than at some fictional starting point.
What is changing?
To ask, “What is changing?” is to zoom out and conduct Contextual Inquiry. In traditional strategic thinking terms, investigating what is changing is similar to conducting an environmental scan. Contextual Inquiry focuses the environmental scan on emerging trends and potential disruptions. By asking about contextual changes, we force ourselves to evaluate our assumptions. An adaptive organization does not wait for the strategy offsite to consider whether an emerging technology makes its product obsolete.
What do we take with us and what do we leave behind?
In light of what you discover about what is changing, use Critical Inquiry to zoom in and assess what will continue to work and what can be suspended. Consider what aspects of the current situation people find satisfying. Now consider the subset of the satisfying activities that contribute to your future customers’ future needs. Let go of the rest.
Whose needs should we organize around?
In conjunction with Critical Inquiry, use Collaborative Inquiry to clearly define who benefits from what your organization produces and specifically how they benefit. Given what is changing, who are your future customers, clients or communities and what will be different about their needs in the future?
What question will define our path forward?
Note what is changing and compare it to what you’re currently doing and for whom. Now use Creative Inquiry to find the question that will reorient the organization’s attention.
By the way, if members of your organization, your board or your investors still insist on a clear statement of your strategy, you can always do what most organizations do. Retrospectively review what has worked so far and declare that you will do more of it and even better.
For nearly 50 years, Interaction Associates has been delivering workshops, facilitating meetings and consulting to individuals, teams and organizations to improve the way people lead, plan and collaborate to get work done. Until recently we conducted our work in various rooms around the world where people had gathered to learn, connect and solve problems. In the last few years, many of our clients have told us that they no longer intend to bring people together for learning experiences. Instead, they want to bring the learning to their employees through web-enabled collaboration platforms like WebEx® Zoom® and Adobe Connect®.
How do we re-design our programs so they can be delivered virtually?
If you’re among the nearly dozen subscribers to the UnstuckMinds Blog, you should know that simply answering the question above is like diving headfirst into quicksand. First, the question ignores the adaptive challenge faced by our veteran consultants being asked to facilitate virtually. I have previously written about the emotional impact of meeting our client’s requests to conduct virtual training. Secondly, the question contains two of the question traps I’ve written about: The question includes a veiled solution and is framed too narrowly.
I used the example of re-designing for virtual learning at a recent workshop to illustrate how the way we frame our questions can misdirect us. The purpose of the workshop was to teach leaders how to ask better questions using the Unstuck Minds Method. When I applied the method to transform the challenge into a better question, I developed an insight into an aspect of the situation we have not been paying attention to – more on that in a moment.
The Unstuck Minds Method synthesizes four well-researched thinking systems: strategic thinking, systems thinking, social network analysis and design thinking; it’s like the Justice League of thinking systems. Each dimension of the method applies a corresponding thinking system in pursuit of new information, new insights and new options. Each thinking system brings its corresponding “superpower” to rescue us when we get stuck.
Reduce the risk of missing something important
Avoid solving the wrong problem
Social Network Analysis
Make it easier for people to take concerted action
Increase the novelty of our options
Using the Unstuck Minds Method on the example of virtual training that I brought to the workshop led me to a useful insight. Face-to-face leadership development workshops meet two distinct kinds of needs, a “connection” need and a “development” need. Technology opens up options for meeting the development need, but often at the expense of the connection need. Bringing people together for traditional classroom learning experiences is not just about the transfer of knowledge, skills and tools. Organizations benefit from the cross-boundary exchange of ideas and the strengthening of social networks when diverse groups share an experience together.
With respect to the development need, technology overcomes one of the most persistent disadvantages of traditional classroom learning experiences. Those of us who facilitate development workshops can never be certain that what people learn in the classroom will translate into behavior change on the job. Technology makes it possible to equip leaders with the tools and skills they need without taking them “offline” to learn them. For example, before I conduct an important and potentially contentious meeting, I’d love to access a checklist and a video on my smart device and maybe schedule quick FaceTime interaction with a coach rather than find the relevant tools in the participant manual gathering dust on my bookshelf.
When you tease apart the connection need from the development need, you end up with two different questions. Instead of asking, “How do we re-design our programs so they can be delivered virtually?” We could be asking:
How might we help out clients create transformative experiences that enhance and sustain cross-boundary collaboration?
How might we help leaders access tools and expertise when they need it most?
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?
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.
The 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.