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?”

The Unstuck Minds Method: How to find the better question

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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.

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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.

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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.

Measuring for Improvement versus Measuring for Control

In 1979, Domino’s advertised their famous, “30 minutes or free” guarantee. In 1993, Dominoes owner, Thomas Monaghan ended the guarantee citing perceptions that the policy encouraged the pizza delivery drivers to speed and drive recklessly. While restaurants offering food delivery learned their lesson from Domino’s, the idea that a customer can expect their order in about thirty minutes persists. I worked with a global chain of pizza restaurants years ago that felt pressured by what they referred to as the customer’s “30-minute mindset.” They wanted to speed up their operations, but they did not want to hold the drivers accountable to a standard that might encourage unsafe driving. Instead, they developed a standard for the time it took from an order being placed until the pizza was sliced and in a box waiting for the driver; the company referred to the span of time from order to box as the “in-store time.” They reasoned that the overall wait time for a customer could be reduced through a focused effort to reduce the in-store time.

The company created a bonus for restaurant managers who kept their overall in-store time below a certain number for a full month. After the incentive program had been in place for several months, a few district managers began noticing some unusual patterns in the various reports they received each month on restaurant performance in their respective districts. Some of the restaurants that had the lowest overall in-store time also showed a decline in sales. At the same time, the call center that logged complaint calls from customers had noticed that the complaints about late orders had declined, but the complaints about poor service when placing the order had increased.

When the district managers visited the restaurants with the best in-store times they noticed something disturbing. At the busiest times, the employees responsible for taking phone orders seemed to be ignoring customers who were on hold waiting to place their order. The district managers could see the blinking lights on the phone indicating that someone was waiting to place an order. It turned out that some of their restaurant managers had directed their staff to stop taking orders if the production line got backed up. A pizza oven can only handle so many pizzas at one time and you can’t speed up the cook time for a pizza. If the oven can’t accept any more pizzas, it creates a bottleneck and pizzas ready to go in the oven have to wait while the in-store time clock ticks away. If you want to ensure that the oven does not get backed up, just slow down the number of orders coming in.

The story of the pizza company illustrates a common organizational trap that I would summarize as the confusion between measuring for improvement and measuring for control. When a person purchases a fitness tracker and begins monitoring the steps they take each day, they want to measure something for improvement. If your car insurance company offers you a discount if you install a sensor that monitors your driving habits, they might advertise it as a way to improve safety, but they also want to control their costs. When you measure for improvement, you put the data in the hands of the people who can make use of it to change for the better. When you measure for control, you use the data to make comparisons that have consequences imposed on people by others with authority.

When I am a student and you grade my test, I learn how well I have mastered the subject. If the test score is only for me and not used for any other purpose, then it is a measure for improvement. If an administrator’s bonus is linked to my performance on the test and my score becomes a data point in the school district’s rating and the school district’s rating becomes a data point in determining property taxes, suddenly there’s a lot more than improving my mastery of the subject at stake.

The distinction I am making between measuring for improvement and measuring for control is elegantly explained by a principle known as Goodhart’s Law. A popularized statement of the law developed by the economist Charles Goodhart goes like this: When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. Goodhart’s original formulation from his 1981 paper on monetary policy in the United Kingdom is less pithy, but more consistent with the distinction I am trying to make. Goodhart wrote, “Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.” Consider the law in the context of public school test scores. One might argue that putting pressure on teachers and students to meet test score performance targets will moderate the degree to which the test scores can be used to reach valid conclusions about what students are learning.

Measurement is the tool of choice for managing performance, yet we rarely stop to question whether or not we are paying attention to the right measures, or whether the very act of measurement creates dysfunctional behaviors. Through critical inquiry, we may discover that we have been equating success with what is easiest to measure rather than equating success with what we want to accomplish. Because of our addiction to managing through measurement, we find the closest quantifiable substitute for what we really want and then focus on measuring the substitute.

Eventually, the focus on the measure replaces a focus on the goal that the measure stands for. For example, we don’t want a society comprised of people with high grade point averages; we want a society comprised of well-educated citizens.

What’s worse, when authority figures incentivize achievement of a metric that substitutes for what we really want, Goodhart’s law kicks in and we end up with data tainted by people gaming the system.