The Surprising Power of Not Knowing What to Do

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

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

Shunryu suzuki

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

The Beginner’s Mind Versus the Stuck Mind

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

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

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

How to Cultivate a Beginner’s Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Practicing Uncertainty

Are you pro-life or pro-choice? Should governments regulate social media companies? Who is our ally and who is our enemy in the Middle East?

When you read each question above, did you think about your answer or did you think about your reaction to the question? All three questions have one thing in common: they are all terrible questions.

At Unstuck Minds, we call questions like the ones above, quicksand questions. Instead of encouraging productive dialogue, quicksand questions limit the conversation, misdirect our attention, encourage us to seek blame, and preserve the status quo. In short, quicksand questions keep us stuck.

We ask quicksand questions because we like simple answers. Complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity make our brains hurt. The technical term for the impact of imposing too much information on our working memories is cognitive load. We have two strategies available to us for dealing with the cognitive load we experience when dealing with an increasingly complex and uncertain world. We can oversimplify our challenges or we can develop our capacity for processing un-simple information.

Here’s a workout routine for teams that helps them stretch their capacity for uncertainty before taking on a complex challenge.

The Ethicist column appears weekly in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. The current “Ethicist,” Kwame Anthony Appiah continues the tradition started by Randy Cohen, who wrote the column for twelve years. People submit thorny, modern, every-day dilemmas that raise questions about the right thing to do. The Ethicist provides perspective on the issue and renders a conclusion. Cohen collected some of his favorite questions and responses in a book called, “Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything.” Here’s a sample question from one of Cohen’s columns:

My mother wants to hire someone to clean house and handle the laundry. To assure herself of this person’s integrity, she plans to leave loose money around as “bait” during the house cleaner’s first few days of work. Here in Brazil, those stray bills can constitute a significant percentage of a house cleaner’s wages. My mother sees this “trap” as a perfectly ethical precaution. Do you?

Inviting a team to discuss ethics questions not only gives team members a chance to hear how others think, it gives everyone a chance to develop their ability to play with questions that don’t have easy answers (you can find Cohen’s response here).

Considering how to respond to an ethics question requires a different capacity for problem solving than the skillset most organizational leaders feel comfortable using to analyze a problem. One key difference between responding to ethics questions and analytical problem solving is the role of ambiguity and variability. Like ethics questions, complex strategic questions require a high degree of tolerance for ambiguity and variability. Analytical problem solving on the other hand views ambiguity and variability as the enemy of the search for an effective and efficient solution.

Like learning to use an atrophied muscle, teams working on complex challenges may need to warm up their tolerance for variability and ambiguity. When we are unprepared to brave the tensions inherent in uncertainty, we get drawn into the status-quo quicksand.

China, Black Holes, and Trump Supporters

As I write this post I’m sitting in my Beijing hotel room, the haze outside my window as impenetrable as the language. I arrived in China a few days ago to work with a group of leaders on the topic of adaptability and agility. It’s only now occurring to me that the participants in the program weren’t the only ones developing their adaptability and agility.

Speaking of “impenetrable,” this week astronomers using a global network of radio telescopes captured an image of a black hole. Heretofore, the black hole only existed hypothetically. Einstein’s equations predicted black holes and astronomers have detected indirect evidence of their existence. Now they’ve captured a glimpse of one, or more accurately captured a glimpse of the event horizon surrounding a black hole. The event horizon is the boundary, beyond which nothing, not even light can escape. It marks the border between our familiar universe and a place where all physical laws break down.

And speaking of a breakdown of laws, we are now in the second half of the Trump administration. Even as we become inured to the word, “unprecedented,” Trump continues to enjoy the support of millions of Americans. More and more it seems we are drawing geopolitical event horizons around groups of people; we cannot escape our event horizons and the rules we play by operate differently on either side.

I continue to feel disoriented by the state of our politics. The current White House seems like a black hole, except that information occasionally leaks out and we get a look at a place where the laws of decorum and maybe the laws of justice are breaking down. This week I also felt disoriented as I attempted to make my way around the Wangjing Sub-district of Beijing.

Interestingly, as I reflected on my own challenges with adaptability, I started to understand something about support for Trump that has eluded me.

I’ll explain what I mean with a slightly embarrassing story about what happened when I arrived.

Let me start by saying that I travel nearly every week for work and I’ve taken dozens of trips overseas. This week was my fourth visit to China. The difference is that in the past I’ve been pampered. Generally, when I visit Asia I’m part of an International group hosted by one of my clients. I’m greeted at the airport, transported to my hotel and there is always a helpful person nearby to translate and offer guidance. This week, I had to make my own way.

Being an experienced traveller and a neurotic human being, I planned meticulously. I downloaded useful Apps; I printed all my destinations in Chinese characters to show taxi drivers, I made sure that my phone and credit cards would all work. Still, I felt anxious and used up a lot of mental energy imagining what might go wrong. 

I landed at Beijing International airport and found my way to the taxi stand. I stood in a long queue of people; I looked like I didn’t belong and I felt like I didn’t belong (a useful experience for a white male Baby Boomer American who travelled to China to teach something about adaptability). A guy approached me and in broken English explained that he would take me to my hotel. I was well aware that this was an attempt to take advantage of me and yet in my jet-lagged, anxious state of mind, I agreed. I asked about the price and he kept saying, “meter price.” When we arrived at the hotel, he showed me a card with a price on it (the meter was never turned on). When I objected to the price, his English got worse. In the end, I paid ten times the appropriate taxi fare. My driver was an opportunist who made me an offer that I would never have accepted if I hadn’t been stressed out and disoriented. In a situation where nothing was making sense, I went with something that made sense; even while knowing it wasn’t good for me.

We make bad decisions when we experience stress and being disoriented is a particular kind of stress. I anticipated feeling disoriented because I chose to travel to a place where many of the norms I take for granted don’t apply. I was prepared to feel out-of-place and I still let someone take advantage of me.

Imagine feeling disoriented not because you chose to travel to a foreign land, but because your home no longer felt familiar. You look around and suddenly notice that the rules have changed; the most popular and influential people don’t share your values. The people in positions of power make fun of people like you. It’s as if you are standing in a line and suddenly feel unsure that waiting in the line will get you what you want. Someone appears who has learned to speak enough of your language that you feel a bit more in control. At some level you understand that he’s only looking out for himself, but at least the situation makes sense to you.

I realize now that the appeal of preserving our routines and our priorities is not simply about conservatism. Sometimes when you’re worn out and worried, even a huckster can feel like a port in a storm.

Consultant, heal thyself

Earlier this month I facilitated a meeting for a group of physicians who are members of a state medical society. The Governor of the state established a consortium for the prevention of prescription drug abuse in response to the national opioid crisis. The consortium in turn, reached out to the medical society to convene members for the purpose of establishing protocols, exchanging best practices, and aligning on a point-of-view to share with legislators that would ensure meaningful regulation.

My blood pressure goes up when I’m in a room with one doctor, so you can imagine how I felt about facilitating a meeting with 20 doctors. Nevertheless, I had agreed to help them tackle an important topic. We needed to make the most of a day-long meeting of professionals volunteering their valuable time. The expertise in the room wasn’t going to do anyone any good without a process that ensured shared understanding and produced actionable alignment.

Working with problem-solving groups is itself an exercise in problem solving.

Smart, highly skilled people who generally solve problems by themselves don’t automatically adapt to the challenges of collaboration. One of the challenges of collaborating during a problem solving exercise is slowing the group down enough to confirm that they agree on the problem before they start generating solutions. Doctors in particular, think fast and have been trained in a diagnostic methodology; they move from symptoms to causes and then prescribe or operate.

A challenge like the opioid crisis doesn’t present itself in the way a patient might show up with symptoms. A public health emergency is not just a more complicated set of symptoms requiring a differential diagnosis. Complex social problems can’t be outsmarted. Chasing down causes might help us feel more in control, but the causes are not static conditions waiting to be discovered. Asking what’s causing the opioid crisis is like asking what causes religion (no Marxist pun intended).

Upon reflection, I’ve come to realize that a tension between competing research methodologies hid below the surface of our work together that day. The doctors had been trained as scientists. Science presumes that objective observation and analysis can lead to universal causal laws. I had suggested a collaborative process based on a social theory approach called, participatory action research. Participatory action research presumes a dynamic relationship between understanding something and changing it. By contrast, science presumes we need to understand something before we try to change it.

While we made respectable progress and agreed to a few clear action steps, I am only now coming to realize the mistake I made in designing a process for the meeting. Because of my anxiety about showing up as an authority, I inadvertently acted like a doctor. I treated the group as a patient. I diagnosed their group dynamics and prescribed process fixes. Alternatively, I could have recognized that together we represented our own complex social network. I might have been more open to the way our challenges and shared understanding emerged through our dialogue. Had I been more attentive to and less judgmental about the group’s natural tendencies, we may have made even more progress.

Recalculating: When is responding to change better than following a plan?

At some level I understand that the artificial intelligence behind the voice of my navigation app is not judging me when I make a wrong turn. Still, I can’t help sensing a tinge of disappointment behind the announcement that my route is being “recalculated.” Why not just provide the re-routed directions? Better yet, let’s program the navigation system to compliment me for making a bold move: “Interesting choice. Now, continue straight for 1000 feet and make a U-turn.”

Speaking of programming, some of you may recognize the reference in the subtitle of this blog to the Agile Software Development Manifesto. The manifesto was written and signed in 2001 when a group of software developers met in Snowbird, Utah. The document codified values and principles representing a methodological shift in how software developers meet client requirements. Caroline Mimbs Nyce provides an engaging history of the agile software development movement in her 2017 article for The Atlantic, “The Winter Getaway that Turned the Software World Upside Down.”

The manifesto includes four value preferences. The fourth value preference reads, “…We have come to value responding to change over following a plan.” The manifesto does not oppose “following a plan.” The idea is that adopting a preference for “responding to change” will provide a more efficient, more targeted solution to the customer or end-user.

Recently, organizational leaders have taken note of the “Agile” philosophy. The idea of self-managed teams working cross-functionally and collaborating with customers seems like an approach the entire organization should embrace. Agile software development emerged as a response to “Waterfall” software development. The waterfall model is linear and sequential. The waterfall model favors analysis, documentation and design over end-user testing and iterating. The organizational equivalent of waterfall software development is “command and control” management.

Given the current volatility and uncertainty of our business environment, should organizations transition away from a “waterfall” leadership style to an “agile” leadership style?

I recently had the pleasure of partnering on a leadership development program with Bjorn Bihhardt, Owner and CEO of Abilitie. Bjorn introduced me to the Cynefin framework* for making sense of the contexts within which leaders solve problems and make decisions. David J. Snowden, the founder and chief scientific officer of Cognitive Edge developed the framework with input from a number of his colleagues. In November of 2007, Snowden and Mary E. Boone, President of Boone Associates co-wrote a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article about the framework.

The Cynefin Framework

CynefinThe right-hand side of the framework describes contexts that are either “simple” or “complicated.” In both cases, cause-and-effect relationships exist. In simple contexts, cause and effect are apparent to everyone. In complicated contexts, there may be more than one right answer and it requires expertise to analyze the situation and determine an appropriate response. A simple business problem is collecting a late payment from a customer. A complicated business problem is improving the company’s cash flow.

The left-hand side of the framework describes contexts that are either “complex” or “chaotic.” In a complex context, no amount of expert analysis will result in a single solution or right answer. In their HBR article, Snowden and Boone write that a complicated context differs from a complex context in the same way a Ferrari differs from the Brazilian rainforest. The car is complicated, but static. An expert can take it apart and put it back together. The rainforest, on the other hand is in a constant state of unpredictable flux. Instead of conducting expert analysis, decision makers in a complex context must investigate, sense and then respond.

In a chaotic context, there is only turbulence and ambiguity (e.g. conditions in the midst of the events of September 11, 2001). Attempting to make sense of conditions before responding does not help. In a chaotic context, one must simply act and learn from how the environment reacts to what you do. The fifth element of the framework is represented by the open space at the intersection of the other four contexts. Snowden calls the fifth context, “disorder.” Disorder applies when one cannot discern which of the other four contexts pertain.

I mention the Cynefin framework because it seems to me that following a plan works when contexts are either simple or complicated. In both cases, expertise can determine a workable solution, routines and authority can ensure people implement the solution. When things become complex, responding to change with agility will be more useful. When things become chaotic, just do something.

The question then is not whether today’s leaders should adopt a waterfall style or an agile style. The question becomes, how do we know which context we should apply when framing our situation? In other words, when should we follow the plan our navigation software put us on and when should we turn off the app and respond to the changes we are sensing?

* Cynefin (ku-nev-in) is Welsh for habitat. It carries the connotation of factors that influence us in ways we can’t understand.