How Do We Get Started? versus Where Do We Go?

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.

Four Superpowers you need to Avoid Misdirection

Here’s the situation…

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.

The dimensions are represented as compass points to reinforce the idea that when we’re unsuccessfully dealing with a challenge, it’s often our orientation to our problem that is preventing us from getting unstuck.

Dimension Thinking System Superpower
Contextual Inquiry Strategic Thinking Reduce the risk of missing something important
Critical Inquiry Systems Thinking Avoid solving the wrong problem
Collaborative Inquiry      Social Network Analysis      Make it easier for people to take concerted action  
Creative Inquiry Design Thinking 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:

  1. How might we help out clients create transformative experiences that enhance and sustain cross-boundary collaboration?
  2. How might we help leaders access tools and expertise when they need it most?

Unjust Deserts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1) The lure of the veiled solution

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

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

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

2) The lure of the false dichotomy

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

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

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

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

3) The get-them-to-change lure

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

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

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

4) The lure of the distorted scope

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

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

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

Question your Answers

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

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

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

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

  • New data,
  • New perspectives
  • New insights.

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

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

The Four Questions of the Unstuck Minds Compass

  1. What is the bigger picture?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

How to Fix a Bad Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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