How to Scope a Business Leader’s request without being Annoying

A leader walks into a bar. She says to the bartender, “I’ll have a beer.” The bartender replies, “What problem are you trying to solve?” The leader walks out.

A couple of weeks ago, I worked with an aerospace company whose Human Resources department was shifting to a new service delivery model. Like many HR departments, they want to alter the way line leaders see the role of HR and make use of HR services. For the last several years, HR departments in large organizations have restructured, retooled and retrained so that business leaders stop viewing HR professionals as order takers and start collaborating with them as strategic business partners.

HR professionals aren’t the only experts who feel constrained by requests from decision makers. IT professionals are often asked to build solutions without due consideration of systemic impacts or even a conversation about more efficient non-technical options. I had breakfast with a marketing professional the other day who was working on a new template for creative briefs submitted by internal clients requesting design support. Her team felt the template needed updating so that business leaders stop submitting lists of specifications and instead describe desired impressions and the intended audience.

What problem are you trying to solve?

Consultants have been taught to ask their clients, “What problem are you trying to solve?” as a way to shift the conversation away from order taking. Asking about the nature of the problem rather than discussing how to implement a request allows the expert to problem-solve with the leader rather than simply enact the leader’s solution. Programs, task teams and new processes that originate from uncritically implementing a business leader’s request, often result in wasteful activity and misaligned priorities. After all, even if you are experiencing familiar symptoms and you tell your doctor you need an antibiotic, you can bet that the doctor is going to ask a few questions and conduct a few tests before writing the prescription.

In theory, it makes perfect sense to slow leaders down to ensure the right problem gets solved. We want to make full use of our functional experts who may have interesting perspectives or an alternative the leader hadn’t considered. At the very least, a functional expert can gather data so that leaders make informed decisions before taking action.

In practice, many leaders feel as though they have given due consideration to their situation and feel confident about the efficacy of their request. As Peter Block pointed out decades ago in his pioneering work Flawless Consulting, the consultant might want to establish a collaborative relationship with the client, but the client might simply want an extra pair of hands to get work done. Some people who walk into a bar want a suggestion from the bartender. Some people know what they want. The best bartenders know the difference.

Try This

The next time you find yourself across the desk from a leader placing an order for a solution and all the while you’re thinking, “That won’t work,” buy yourself a little time to plan a scoping conversation by making the following proposal: I’d like to schedule 30 minutes with you to learn more, so that I don’t make the wrong assumptions about what needs to be done.

Design the scoping conversation around four questions. The questions make use of the Unstuck Minds Compass model and will help ensure that you walk away from the scoping conversation with an agreement on the strategic question that will guide the work.

As an example, let’s say the head of a manufacturing group made the following request, “I want to put all of my supervisors through diversity training.”

1. Contextual Inquiry: What’s changing?

You will need to understand the leader’s motivation for investing time, energy and resources to change the current situation. In particular, you’ll want to know whether the need has been building over time or if it’s in response to something new. Listen for and ask about factors outside of the leader’s functional area.

For our example, you might learn that the leader has been hearing about sensitivities of younger workers to things like implicit bias. Perhaps the leader has been paying attention to media coverage of topics like “White Privilege” and the “Me Too movement.” The leader may also be thinking about demographic shifts creating a wide range of generations all working together in a manufacturing facility.

2. Critical Inquiry: What’s holding things in place?

Next, you’ll need to learn about aspects of the current situation that have become the source of dissatisfaction. Given what you learned about what’s changing, what is it about the status quo that has become unsustainable? What existing habits or routines will create tensions between the way things are and the way things are going?

For our example, you might learn that many of the plants have inadequate locker room facilities for women. You might hear a story about an argument that broke out about which cable news channel was being broadcast in a break room. Maybe the leader received an anonymous complaint about a plant supervisor who starts his weekly safety meetings with a prayer.

3. Collaborative Inquiry: Whom will we organize around?

Now that you understand the context of the situation and its relationship to the status quo, it’s time to focus the assignment. Any solution that depends upon people altering their behavior must consider the specific population being asked to change and how the change connects to their needs.

In our example, we might determine that focusing on all people managers in the manufacturing group makes the most sense. Maybe we learn that there is a wide disparity of comfort with the topic of diversity and inclusion among the managers. Deeper inquiry might reveal undercurrents of resentment and feelings of injustice below the surface of discussions about how we include and exclude people based on the circumstances of their identity.

4. Creative Inquiry: What question will guide our work?

Having a guiding question rather than a set of static outcomes allows for new information to emerge that can be incorporated into our definition of the challenge. A question points us in a direction. An Unstuck Minds question eliminates the thinking traps that limit and misdirect.

Our example started with a question about implementing a request: How do we get the manufacturing supervisors through diversity training?

After using the Unstuck Minds Compass to scope the issue, we might choose to ask ourselves a different question: How might people managers in our manufacturing facilities help our employees feel welcome and respected?

Once we have a strategic question to guide our work, we can describe success and identify the elements of our response. One element may include training, but we now know what needs the training should address and what other changes can be included that will put the training into a broader, more sustainable context.

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.

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?”

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.

 

 

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

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

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

Critical Inquiry

CriticalIcon

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

Critical inquiry helps us avoid solving the wrong problem.

Contextual Inquiry

Contextualicon

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

Contextual inquiry reduces the risk of missing something important.

Collaborative Inquiry

CollaborativeIcon

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

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

Creative Inquiry

CreativeIcon

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

Creative inquiry increases the novelty of our options.

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

Everybody’s Talking at Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

If an Opportunity Presented Itself, Would you Notice?

During a lecture at the University of Lille in 1854, Louis Pasteur remarked, “In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.” Getting unstuck often starts with an interesting situation getting your attention. What makes a situation interesting enough to get our attention is that it deviates from the norm. We notice something and then have an insight that connects what we notice to an opportunity for an improvement. If the 3M scientist, Dr. Spencer Silver had ignored the result of his failed experiment to make a super-strong adhesive, we might have been stuck in a world without Post-It Brand sticky notes. If the Swiss engineer, George de Mestral had not marveled at the tiny hooks that allowed cockle-burs to attach themselves to his dog’s fur, we might never have benefitted from the hook and loop fastening system known as VELCRO®. Silver and de Mestral had prepared minds when an opportunity knocked.

Organizational leaders feel disoriented by the volatility and hyper-competiveness of today’s business environment. What’s worse, we can no longer rely on traditional management tools like business process optimization to produce predictable results. Process optimization doesn’t work when a process becomes obsolete. For example, why expend energy reducing the cost of producing music CDs when nobody wants them? Consequently, topics like innovation and design thinking have replaced process reengineering as popular skill sets for managers.

Unfortunately, leaders who have been trained to optimize business processes are not well equipped to take advantage of interesting situations that deviate from the norm. Generally speaking, the minds of today’s leaders are not well prepared to be favored by chance. For most of today’s leaders, chance is a nemesis; variability is the enemy of efficiency and productivity. When design thinkers encourage us to invite uncertainty and ambiguity into management processes, they create problems for leaders who have been trained to reduce surprises and variability. Anticipating the emerging challenge of preparing managers to become more innovative, Jeanne M. Liedtka and John W. Rosenblum wrote in a 1996 article for the California Management Review,

When we reduce variation, we increase the performance of the system in the short term. In the long term, we deprive the system of the new information that it needs to move forward.

Henry Mintzberg, a pioneer of strategic thinking made a similar point, “…tomorrow’s vision may grow out of today’s aberration.”

The “prepared mind” gets more chances to improve things because it can recognize opportunities that the unprepared mind ignores or dismisses. The prepared mind is curious and asks questions. The prepared mind has an expansive outlook and a flexibility of attention capable of entertaining a wide range of options. The barrier to improving our organizations may not be a lack of analytical skill or imagination. The problem may be that the unprepared organizational mind only knows what it sees, because it can only see what it already knows.