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?”

How to Fix a Bad Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Unstuck Minds Method: How to find the better question


Step 1: Contextual Inquiry – What’s Changing?

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.

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

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.


Step 3: Collaborative Inquiry – Who needs what?

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.


Step 4: Creative Inquiry – How else might we define our challenge?

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.

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.