SCAN: How to Notice What you’re NOT Looking For

Do you remember the Magic Eye books? The books popularized something called an autostereogram. Autostereograms are two-dimensional illustrations whose pattern obscures a hidden three-dimensional image or scene. You can watch a short video about Magic Eye books and learn how to see the image. Click here to reveal the image hidden in the autostereogram above.

seeing the hidden image requires un-focusing rather than focusing

Focusing is useful if you know what you’re looking for. In a turbulent and uncertain world, it’s what you’re not looking for that might become the source of a breakthrough. Herein lies one of the biggest challenges for today’s organizational leaders. When we focus on one thing, we lose the ability to notice what we’re not focused on. Psychologists refer to this as inattentional blindness. If you haven’t seen the original video from Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris that illustrates the phenomena, check it out here.

Our cognitive equipment is designed to help us focus on what we deem important. When we feel stuck or overwhelmed, it might be because we’re mistaken about what’s important. The world changes, but our priorities stay the same. We employ artificial intelligence and data science to help us isolate the insights in the noise. However, the breakthrough might be less like finding a needle in a haystack and more like allowing opportunities to emerge by changing how we pay attention.

To quote Louis Pasteur, in the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.

Spotlights versus Lanterns

Alison Gopnik studies, teaches, and writes about how children come to know the world around them. Gopnik is a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley. In her recent book, The Philosophical Baby, Gopnik employs a helpful analogy to describe the difference between the consciousness of an infant and the consciousness of an adult.

According to Gopnik, babies notice the world around them as if it were illuminated by a lantern. A lantern indiscriminately lights its surroundings. Adults notice the world as though it were illuminated by a spotlight. We learn to avoid distraction and prioritize available information in order to complete tasks efficiently.

If you feel stuck or overwhelmed, shining a spotlight on familiar choices might actually blind you to the insights and options you need.

If you feel stuck or overwhelmed, shining a spotlight on familiar choices might actually blind you to the insights and options you need.

Four hidden aspects of situations we want to change

As I’ve described in a previous post, SCAN is a framework for discovering insights and options when you feel stuck or need a way to set direction. SCAN stands for: Structures, Context, Assumptions, and Needs.

Illuminating Structures helps us notice the norms, habits, systems, and processes that create stability and consistency.

Illuminating Context helps us notice factors and trends in the external environment that signal disruptions and opportunities.

Illuminating Assumptions helps us notice the beliefs, values, and world-views that orient our attention, judgments, and priorities.

Illuminating Needs helps us notice the desires, fears, preferences, and social processes that motivate behaviors.

SCAN elements are consistently overlooked

Structures organize how we operate, but once they become routine, we take them for granted. Context establishes the meaning and purpose of our activities. In our busyness, we focus on the activities and fail to notice changes in what the world considers important. Assumptions form our identity and our worldview. We rarely notice how our deeply held beliefs orient our attention and judgments. Moreover, questioning our deeply held beliefs can feel threatening. Lastly, we pay lip service to the needs of others, but we don’t stay in touch with those we serve, and we overlook the needs and perspectives of people from other communities or backgrounds.

If we want to change our situations, we need to un-focus the way we pay attention to the status quo and light a lantern to help us see what we we’re not looking for.

SCAN questions that will illuminate what you may be overlooking

To notice STRUCTURES, ask yourself: Which processes or routines no longer serve their intended purpose, have diminished impact, or have turned counterproductive?

To notice CONTEXT, ask yourself: What factors outside our control might change how people experience what we offer?

To notice ASSUMPTIONS, ask yourself: What beliefs about our purpose, goals, and approach should no longer govern our priorities?

To notice NEEDS, ask yourself: What has changed about those we serve or could be serving? Whose perspectives are underrepresented or missing?

Scientist or Philosopher, The Dubious Distinction

Adam Grant published a new book. I published a new book too. Grant is a best-selling author, a top TED talker, and a highly regarded professor of organizational psychology at The Wharton School. I’m fairly popular with dozens of clients and colleagues.

Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, Daniel Kahneman, and Brené Brown enthusiastically endorse Grant’s new book. I can report that my sister Ann purchased a copy of my new book for each of her adult kids.

Grant’s book, Think Again, is about the power of knowing what you don’t know. My book, The Surprising Power of Not Knowing What to Do, is about discovering creativity and compassion in a time of chaos. We both believe that the future belongs to people who have the mental flexibility to think about how they think and the emotional maturity to question their conclusions and beliefs.

There’s an interesting and subtle difference between how each of us describe our recommended model of better thinking. Grant suggests we think more like scientists. Here’s what Grant wrote about thinking in what he calls scientist mode:

When we’re in scientist mode, we refuse to let our ideas become ideologies. We don’t start with answers or solutions; we lead with questions and puzzles… [Thinking like a scientist] requires searching for reasons why we might be wrong – not reasons why we must be right – and revising our views based on what we learn.

Adam Grant, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know (New York: Viking, 2021), 25.

I recommend that we think more like philosophers. Here’s what I wrote about thinking like a philosopher:

Training in philosophy prepares you to question assumptions, including your own… It’s reassuring to hold on to beliefs even if they no longer serve us, especially core beliefs that shape our identity. The faster things change, the more tempting it becomes to blame the change rather than our capacity to adapt. Without the ability to pause for philosophically detached reflection, we not only end up with rising levels of anxiety and divisiveness, we get stuck in our thinking.

Jay G. Cone, The Surprising Power of Not Knowing What to Do: Discovering Creativity and Compassion in a Time of Chaos (Dallas: Unstuck Minds Media, 2021), 57-58.

As I read Grant’s book, I thought about the difference between the scientist and the philosopher. Allow me to experiment with a distinction (adopting a scientist’s mindset) that I’ve been considering. I welcome your reactions. It seems to me that to the scientist, doubt is an adversary. To the philosopher, doubt is an ally.

To the scientist, doubt is an adversary. To the philosopher, doubt is an ally

I’m not saying that scientists want to eliminate doubt, it’s not an enemy to be vanquished. The scientist views doubt as a worthy adversary. An adversary that deserves respect. Scientific doubt spurs better answers. The philosopher hangs out with doubt. Philosophical doubt spurs better questions.

When it comes to finding a vaccine against Covid-19, I’m on team scientist. When it comes to finding a way to help people think through the ethics of vaccine distribution, I suggest inviting some philosophers to the conversation.

Practically speaking, it’s probably a distinction without a difference. Whether we think more like a scientists or more like philosophers, we can all benefit from thinking better and connecting better so the world becomes more creative and compassionate.

Introducing SCAN; How to Spot the Hidden Complexities that Keep Us Stuck

When you’re stuck, you need insights and options. Insights help you see your situation in new ways. Options help you restore confidence and momentum.

The Metal Detector versus the Vacuum Cleaner

We never get complete data about the world around us. Even though our senses constantly interact with information about the world, we can only pay attention to a fraction of the available data. At this moment, clothing, a chair, the floor, perhaps a device you’re holding all create sensations. Until this sentence redirected your attention, it’s unlikely you noticed the sensory data available to your skin.

We imagine that we move through the world like a vacuum cleaner picking up all the information in our path. In reality, we operate more like a metal detector. We are programmed to notice some things, and we sweep past a lot of other things that just don’t register. Some of the things we don’t notice might become the source of the insights and options we need.

SCAN

Remember that moment in the original Matrix movie when Keanu Reeves sees the Matrix? Reeve’s character Neo learns to perceive his world as cascading ribbons of glowing binary code. The true complexities of the matrix are revealed. Neo gets transcendently kissed, pummels Agent Smith with one hand behind his back, and rocks a pair of iconic sunglasses. Using the SCAN tool is less dramatic. On the plus side, you don’t have to be ‘The One’ to take advantage of disregarded or overlooked information.

SCAN stands for: Structures, Context, Assumptions, and Needs

  • Structures are the systems, processes, norms, and routines that define the environment in which we operate. Meeting norms and incentive systems are examples of structures.
  • Context describes the environmental factors outside the boundaries of our daily activities and responsibilities. New technologies and governmental regulations are examples of context.
  • Assumptions are the underlying beliefs of the individuals who want to make a change. Unspoken beliefs that our solution must be cost-neutral or that we can’t alter the manufacturing process are examples of assumptions.
  • Needs represent the underlying desires and motivations of people who might play an influential role in changing things for the better. A desire on the part of new-hires to have more autonomy at work or a growing preference among customers to do business with socially responsible organizations are examples of needs.

In the image below you see the four elements of SCAN represented as quadrants along two dimensions. Structures and Context provide information about the environment in which we operate. Assumptions and Needs provide information about the mindsets and motivations of people connected to our situation.

The horizontal dimension differentiates between elements that we can influence and elements that we can’t influence but may potentially influence us. We have the ability to change our structures and our assumptions. On the other hand, changes in our context and the needs of others happen without our intervention.

For example, our context now includes greater political and media attention on issues of racial justice. Heightened needs for fairness and equity have become a priority. The external influence of context and needs are bumping up against longstanding organizational assumptions about who deserves power and authority. Many organizations are beginning to reimagine their hiring, performance management, and promotions structures.

SCAN can help you avoid being blindsided by external forces that disrupt the status quo. When leaders and their teams routinely SCAN for insights and options, they notice opportunities sooner and become more adaptable to change.

SCAN can help you avoid being blindsided by external forces that disrupt the status quo. When leaders and their teams routinely SCAN for insights and options, they notice opportunities sooner and become more adaptable to change.

The other important thing to notice about the horizontal axis is that the things we can influence (Structures and Assumptions) are precisely the things that maintain stability. It’s more comfortable to preserve the status quo and operate according to our habits and routines. Stability makes it easier to scale up. Stability makes it easier to orient and train new-hires. When we maintain assumptions and structures, we can make improvements through efficiency and productivity. But, as the world continues to become more complex, uncertain, and turbulent, stability creates dysfunction by keeping things the same when what’s needed is change.

The things we can’t influence (Context and Needs) are precisely the things that create opportunity. Options and possibilities emerge from changes in society, technology, regulations, scientific discoveries, and generational priorities. We can look to what’s changing in society and the marketplace for a new way forward. At the same time, the pursuit of opportunities creates instability that can feel risky or threatening.

Let’s have a look at how the SCAN tool might help us think differently about a common challenge facing today’s organizational leaders.

Using SCAN to Improve Online Team Meetings

Keep in mind that conducting a SCAN does not give you an answer. Revealing hidden complexities is about widening the search area to increase the odds of discovering insights and options.

Suppose like a lot of leaders these days, you’re struggling to keep your distributed team engaged during virtual team meetings. You’ve made a few attempts at switching up the meeting processes, but things haven’t improved. You can tell that people are bored or distracted. You suspect that they are multi-tasking, or perhaps sending private, unhelpful chat comments to one another.

Insights and options will continue to be elusive unless you’re willing to think through the hidden complexities. It’s likely that some unexamined habits carried over from the weekly face-to-face update meetings need to change (Structure). There are probably new software applications and ways of working being introduced that you haven’t explored (Context). Perhaps some deeply held beliefs about meetings need to be challenged (Assumptions). Finally, investigating with empathy what really matters to people might help you figure out whether or not team meetings serve those who attend (Needs). The image below captures questions worth discussing with the team related to each dimension of SCAN.

The Unstuck Mind

You have two choices if making decisions in times of uncertainty feels overwhelming. You can reduce the uncertainty, or you can get comfortable feeling uncertain.

Our evolutionary impulse is to reduce uncertainty, even when it’s bad for us. A 2016 study conducted by researchers at University College London found that students who had a 50% chance of being shocked showed greater signs of stress than students who had a 100% chance of being shocked.

Speaking of stress, other researchers have demonstrated that when conditions become stressful, we’re quicker to reach conclusions. Under stress, we are also more likely to maintain allegiance to our premature conclusions. We don’t like uncertainty. And, unless conditions are ideal, thinking feels like a chore to be completed quickly. We shouldn’t be surprised that absolutism is on the rise and nuance on the decline.

There’s a vicious cycle at work here. Given our preference for reducing uncertainty, we take comfort in easy answers. The more we accept easy answers, the lower our tolerance for uncertainty. If you don’t use your muscles, they get weak. If you don’t use your mind, it becomes susceptible to nonsense.

If you don’t use your muscles, they get weak. If you don’t use your mind, it becomes susceptible to nonsense.

You know who is very happy to reduce uncertainty for you? Advertisers, politicians, fundamentalists, and your know-it-all relative or neighbor. Plenty of people and companies are happy to slip you easy-to-digest answers.

Moreover, we can now reduce complex ideas and share them with the world as social media headlines. Last I checked, the most common length of a Tweet is 33 characters. How much of your understanding of the world is based on your Twitter feed?

When I write a blog post, an algorithm will judge its readability. I will see a green happy face, or a red frowny face displayed at the bottom of my draft. Instead of feeling insulted, I’m meant to feel grateful. I’m being warned, let’s not burden people with complete sentences! I’m a fan of simplification in service of learning. Simplifying complex ideas should be a strategy for engagement, not a way to feel like you’re done understanding something.

The Surprising Power of Not Knowing What to Do

In my new book, I take the position that feeling uncertain about what to do is an opportunity, not a problem. Moments of uncertainty allow for creativity and compassion. Sitting with moments of uncertainty develops your stamina for dealing with chaos and turbulence. Instead of knowing what to do, our work is to find strategies for accepting what uncertainty has to offer.

Borrowing a tradition from my friend and colleague, Michael Reidy, I’ll end with a poem. Michael also deserves credit for bringing the poem to my attention.

Our Real Work

by Wendell Berry

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Copyright ©1983 by Wendell Berry, from Standing by Words

How Are You Thinking Today?

While scientists frantically work to find a safe, effective vaccine for Covid-19, I’m focused on boosting our immunity to an epidemic of closed-mindedness. I’m not talking about a closed-mindedness born of conviction. I’m talking about a closed-mindedness born of exhaustion. Our brains were not designed to cope with sustained chaos.

Current events 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.

Some strive to reduce the turmoil and increase predictability, yearning for simpler times. I’m more interested in developing a fitness routine for the way we think. If we can boost our immunity to chaos, we can respond with creativity and compassion rather than paralysis and tribalism.

If we can boost our immunity to chaos, we can respond with creativity and compassion rather than paralysis and tribalism

The current epidemic of closed-mindedness leaves us vulnerable to lies and simplistic platitudes. The most dangerous virus is the one that makes us susceptible to dogmatism and attention-grabbing. Easy answers in difficult times are no answers at all. When our stamina for discernment has been lowered, we accommodate the most easily digestible, the briefest, the loudest, the most outrageous. We become susceptible to messages that light up our limbic system by appealing directly to our emotions. It’s no coincidence that we refer to attention-grabbing media as “viral.”

It seems almost too obvious to say, but for things to improve, something must change. What’s less obvious is that one of the things available to change is how we think. If you’re stuck in freeway traffic, you could improve your situation by having something outside your control change, like a tow truck clearing away a stalled vehicle. You could improve your situations by taking matters into your own hands. You could exit the freeway and pick an alternate route. You could also improve things by changing your attitude about your situation. Instead of thinking of yourself as stuck, you adopt the attitude that you’ve been given a break in your day to catch up on a podcast or audiobook.

Let’s work to prevent the spread of harmful thinking. If you are focused on answering the question, “What should we do?” you are vulnerable to people who pretend to have all the answers. In times of chaos, no one has all the answers. By definition, situations feel chaotic because the usual rules no longer apply.

The chaos, instability and turbulence we’re currently experiencing calls for a particular type of thinking. In truth, our world was becoming more complex and uncertain long before 2020. It’s worth considering whether our lack of stamina for thinking, our attraction to simplistic answers, and our shrinking attention spans are the causes rather than the results of our interlocking crises. Either way, our future may depend on the kind of unfettered thinking characteristic of an unstuck mind rather than the dog-eared playbook of incurious experts.

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.