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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

A New Take on Employee Retention: Thanks for stopping by

What would happen if the mission of your Human Resources Department looked more like the mission of a university’s job placement center?

Last week, my colleague Beth and I co-led a workshop on innovation and collaborative problem solving for a group of 30 leaders from a company that provides information technology services and systems integration for government agencies. Our workshop was part of a 9-month program during which participants work on teams to apply the leadership skills they have been learning to one of the organization’s most critical challenges. At the end of the program, the teams present their recommendations to a panel of executives. One team had been asked to develop a retention strategy for the organization’s employees. Since Beth and I wanted to encourage the teams to use some of the concepts we had been teaching as they began work on their assignments, I engaged the team in a conversation about retention.

I started asking the team questions that seemed more upsetting than helpful. For example I said, “I’ve heard you talk about the costs of employees leaving the company, what are the costs associated with employees staying too long? What are the benefits of helping employees move on to pursue careers elsewhere? How long should an employee stay?” I’m pretty sure that the team stopped thinking about my questions the minute I left their table to visit with another team. I however spent the rest of the week thinking about employee retention.

It is very easy to find data and articles about the costs of employee turnover. You know what’s hard? Finding data and articles about the costs of employees staying with a company.

Consider this list of attitudes people hold, but only share with trusted friends and their family:

  • I am bored and burnt out, but looking for a new job is more painful than staying
  • If I can hang in there for another couple of years, my stock options will be fully vested
  • I’m comfortable and good at what I do. My job is easy as long as things don’t change. I just need to make sure things don’t change.

What is the opportunity cost to an organization – especially an organization desperate for innovation and agility – of retaining people who stay primarily because it’s easier than leaving?

It may appear that I’m arguing for more draconian performance management policies, I’m not. I don’t think we should ferret out people who are less than thrilled to show up every day and show them the door. I am actually wondering what would change if organizations thought about retention from the perspective of the employee rather than from the perspective of the company.

From the employee’s point-of-view, there will be times when long-term job stability is valuable and there will be times when long-term job stability is merely comfortable or at least more comfortable than being out of a job. There may even be times when job stability inhibits an employee from pursuing a risky aspiration. To a recent college graduate, feeling a sense of belonging while being challenged and getting paid may be more important than stability. To someone who is starting a family and thinking about investing in a home, stability probably feels essential.

Let me offer three purpose statements for Human Resources Departments, each of which focuses on an employee population with different needs for job stability.

For early-career employees…

Our mission is to prepare you to be successful in your next job (P.S. your manager and your team will help you be successful in your current job).

For mid-career employees…

Our mission is to find ways for our organization to create value from what lights you up.

For late-career employees…

Our mission is to help you transfer your skills, knowledge and experience to others while we explore ways to liberate you from the constraints of your current role.

Universities, The Peace Corps and The Military are three examples of institutions that recruit and develop talented people who then leave the institution to pursue bigger and better things. Even a company like McDonalds has been rethinking its relationship to employee retention. Whether or not the reality matches the advertising, I applaud McDonald’s latest campaign, “America’s best first job.”

I can’t help wondering what would have happened if the team assigned to recommend a retention strategy had framed their assignment as, “How might we redesign our business systems so that things improve when we help our most talented people leave for a better opportunity?”

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.

Increase the Novelty of your Options

How would you create a vehicle out of cardboard, pencils, soft drink cup lids, mailing labels, paper clips, rubber bands, toothpicks and scissors that could hold and transport ten Ping-Pong balls when blown across the floor by a leaf blower? By the way, you’re on a team of seven and you have five minutes.

When my three daughters were in elementary school, they participated in an extracurricular program called, “Destination Imagination.” Kids participating in Destination Imagination form teams and compete at creative problem solving competitions. Winning teams at the local level could move to their state competition and winning teams at the state competition are invited to the Global Finals competition held at the University of Tennessee each May. Since the program provided an engaging way for kids to explore three important subjects: creative problem solving, leadership, and teamwork, my wife and I became avid supporters and volunteers.

Teams participating in Destination Imagination solve two types of challenges. The teams spend months designing a solution to one of the published challenges and then present their solution at the tournament. While at the tournament, teams are given a second challenge, the “instant challenge,” which they have never seen before and must solve on the spot. After a few years with the program, I was asked to be an appraiser at the state tournament. The tournament officials assigned me to score high school teams solving an “instant challenge.” I watched twelve high school teams tackle a very tricky instant challenge at the state tournament that year with varying degrees of success.

At tournaments, teams check in at their appointed time for their instant challenge and then they are escorted to an instant challenge room. Teams pledge not to discuss what happens in the instant challenge room so that no team gets an unfair advantage by knowing what to expect. Only the appraisers and the team’s coach are allowed to watch the teams solve the instant challenge, parents must wait in a designated part of the tournament site. As a parent and former coach, I don’t know which is worse, not knowing what is happening in the instant challenge room or watching your team struggle with a challenge without being able to help. Destination Imagination has a strict non-interference rule, so if you’re the kind of parent that can’t keep your hands off the science fair project, be forewarned, Destination Imagination will be great for your kid and stressful for you.

That day the teams walked into a room to find a large open space on the floor and a table of materials. On the floor at one end of the room was a line of tape. Behind the line was a leaf blower. For their instant challenge, teams were given five minutes to construct a vehicle from the materials on the table that would hold and transport ten Ping-Pong balls. At the end of five minutes, the teams were to place the vehicle behind the line. They would have one minute to use the leaf blower to move the vehicle as far as possible across the room. Teams received points for distance travelled multiplied by the number of Ping-Pong balls remaining in the vehicle when they turned off the leaf blower.

Almost all the teams that day focused on the word, “vehicle.” Almost all the teams noticed that among the materials were items that looked like wheels (soft drink cup lids) and axles (pencils). Consequently, almost all the teams built some form or cart with a lid to contain the Ping-Pong balls. A few teams created a sail to catch the wind from the leaf blower. Given the power of the wind created by the leaf blower, the makeshift wheels and sails were as resilient as a kite in a hurricane. The diabolical scoring based on the distance travelled multiplied by the number of balls remaining in the vehicle left a lot of teams with a score of zero after the leaf blower wrecked the vehicles and scattered the Ping-Pong balls.

One team approached the challenge in a completely different way. They didn’t allow themselves to be constrained by the setup of the challenge. Instead of focusing on the word, “vehicle” or the suggestive nature of the materials, the team focused on containing and moving Ping-Pong balls. After thinking it through for a few minutes, the team rolled a piece of cardboard into a tube. They closed one end with a soft drink cup lid, filled the tube with the Ping-Pong balls and then sealed the other end with another soft drink cup lid; basically, they created a can filled with Ping-Pong balls. They laid the can down on the floor, turned on the leaf blower and watched in delight as it rolled across the floor and came to rest against the wall on the other side of the room with all ten Ping-Pong balls securely contained.

In his 1970 book Lateral Thinking, Edward deBono made a distinction between two thinking processes. He described vertical thinking as reasoning in a straight line or following a sequence of steps as one might do to solve a well-defined problem in logic or mathematics. By contrast, lateral thinking concerns itself with generating alternative ways of interpreting the problem. “Lateral thinking,” according to deBono, “is also concerned with breaking out of the concept prisons of old ideas” (1970, p. 8). The team that created a Ping-Pong ball can in response to the instant challenge used lateral thinking to create a novel solution.

Most of the problem-solving methodologies used in organizations (process reengineering, lean six sigma, kaizen, etc.) have strong vertical thinking orientations. Vertical thinking may not produce novel or unconventional solutions, but it will reliably yield a solution that improves the situation. Lateral thinking attracts intuitive leaps or insights by remaining open to information, ideas and connections that may seem irrelevant. As deBono put it, “Vertical thinking digs the same hole deeper; lateral thinking is concerned with digging a hole in another place” (p.15). In other words, vertical thinking will improve the status quo; lateral thinking will increase the novelty of your options.

Creative inquiry is not just about posing questions that spur new ideas. Creative inquiry is also about posing questions that reframe our assumptions. Once we define the problem we want solved, we inadvertently impose constraints. For example, If you manage a hotel that has been receiving complaints about how long it takes for the elevators to arrive, you might believe you have a “slow elevator problem.” If you focus on the people rather than the elevator, you might reframe the issue as, “a bored guest problem.” It’s easier to reduce complaints by putting mirrors and other distractions near the elevator doors than it is to upgrade the elevator system.

A Situation Someone Wants to Change

As teenagers, my three daughters shared a bathroom situated between two bedrooms. My oldest daughter, Abby had her own bedroom on one side of the bathroom. My middle daughter Hannah and her younger sister Bekah shared a bedroom on the other side of the bathroom. There are two doors leading into the bathroom from each of the bedrooms and two sinks in the bathroom, one per bedroom. In real estate jargon, this arrangement is referred to as a “Jack and Jill” bathroom, although in our case it’s more of a “Jill and Jill” situation.

Two of my three daughters wore little to no makeup in high school and did not spend much time caring for their nails. Hannah, on the other hand accumulated an ample collection of cosmetics, nail polishes, and other beautification equipment I’m too unfamiliar with to name. It was not unusual to find one sink of the bathroom splattered with mascara droppings. On the counter near the sink sat an open bag of colorful tubes and bottles. An electric hair device was permanently plugged in and often dangerously hot. There would be a hand-mirror here and a roll of toilet paper there. It would not be unusual to find a half-filled water bottle or two on the counter, evidence I suppose of some exertion related to whatever was happening on that side of the bathroom. You could say that the situation I’m describing constituted a persistent problem and that my wife Katherine and I felt stuck about how best to resolve it. By the way, the problem has been solved. All of our daughters have moved out.

I mention the situation with the messy bathroom because it illustrates two important points about problem solving and design thinking. David Straus, the founder of Interaction Associates and the author of How to Make Collaboration Work, defines a problem as, “…a situation someone wants to change” (2002, p.19). By this definition, when it comes to collaborating with my daughter on cleaning up the bathroom only one of us has a problem because only one of us has a situation he wants to change.

The second point illustrated by the messy bathroom situation has to do with the main principle of human-centered design thinking. If I want to use design thinking, I need to consider the motivations and needs of the people served by an innovative solution. A design thinker might reframe the challenge from “How do I get my daughter to keep her bathroom clean?” to something like, “How do we reduce the amount of nagging around the house?”

Perhaps you’re thinking that a more authoritarian approach to getting my daughter to clean her bathroom is called for. First, remember that creative inquiry is about novel options. Secondly, let’s look at the effectiveness of more traditional and direct parenting tools in light of David Straus’ definition of a problem. Let’s say, for example that I tell Hannah, “you can get your phone back when this bathroom is clean.” I have now created a situation that my daughter is motivated to change. In other words, she now has a problem to solve. Notice however that Hannah is not solving the problem I want solved. She is working on changing the ‘get-my-phone-back’ situation. I’m more interested in her making progress on the ‘show-respect-for-other-family-members’ situation. Consequently, I shouldn’t be surprised if Hannah succeeds in solving her problem, but in the long run it doesn’t really solve my problem.

Straus’ definition of a problem and design thinking’s bias for starting with desirability both suggest that getting unstuck through creative inquiry means identifying what I call the “targets” and the “tensions.” Targets are the people served by a new idea or option; the people whose lives you aim to improve are collectively the targets. Tensions are the needs or dissatisfying situations that a new idea or option will resolve. Robert Fritz introduced the concept of creativity as the resolution of a tension in his 1991 book, Creating. Fritz wrote, “There will always be structural tension at the beginning of the creative process, for there will always be a discrepancy between what you want and what you have” (1991, p. 27). For Fritz, the creation resolves the tension.

One way to use creative inquiry to help a leader, team or organization get unstuck is by clarifying and aligning on definitions of the target and the tension. In the case of the messy bathroom, the targets are the family members living in the house and the tension is the stress of constant nagging. There are any number of ways to choose a target and a tension.

A tension can exist in the current state for a target, in which case the target has a situation they are motivated to change. Envisioning a possible future that some target will want once they become aware of it can also create a tension. In other words, even if I am content with my current situation, once I see something that will improve my life, I now have a situation I am motivated to change. One can create tension for a target by working forwards from a dissatisfying present or working backwards from a compelling future possibility.