Practicing Uncertainty

Are you pro-life or pro-choice? Should governments regulate social media companies? Who is our ally and who is our enemy in the Middle East?

When you read each question above, did you think about your answer or did you think about your reaction to the question? All three questions have one thing in common: they are all terrible questions.

At Unstuck Minds, we call questions like the ones above, quicksand questions. Instead of encouraging productive dialogue, quicksand questions limit the conversation, misdirect our attention, encourage us to seek blame, and preserve the status quo. In short, quicksand questions keep us stuck.

We ask quicksand questions because we like simple answers. Complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity make our brains hurt. The technical term for the impact of imposing too much information on our working memories is cognitive load. We have two strategies available to us for dealing with the cognitive load we experience when dealing with an increasingly complex and uncertain world. We can oversimplify our challenges or we can develop our capacity for processing un-simple information.

Here’s a workout routine for teams that helps them stretch their capacity for uncertainty before taking on a complex challenge.

The Ethicist column appears weekly in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. The current “Ethicist,” Kwame Anthony Appiah continues the tradition started by Randy Cohen, who wrote the column for twelve years. People submit thorny, modern, every-day dilemmas that raise questions about the right thing to do. The Ethicist provides perspective on the issue and renders a conclusion. Cohen collected some of his favorite questions and responses in a book called, “Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything.” Here’s a sample question from one of Cohen’s columns:

My mother wants to hire someone to clean house and handle the laundry. To assure herself of this person’s integrity, she plans to leave loose money around as “bait” during the house cleaner’s first few days of work. Here in Brazil, those stray bills can constitute a significant percentage of a house cleaner’s wages. My mother sees this “trap” as a perfectly ethical precaution. Do you?

Inviting a team to discuss ethics questions not only gives team members a chance to hear how others think, it gives everyone a chance to develop their ability to play with questions that don’t have easy answers (you can find Cohen’s response here).

Considering how to respond to an ethics question requires a different capacity for problem solving than the skillset most organizational leaders feel comfortable using to analyze a problem. One key difference between responding to ethics questions and analytical problem solving is the role of ambiguity and variability. Like ethics questions, complex strategic questions require a high degree of tolerance for ambiguity and variability. Analytical problem solving on the other hand views ambiguity and variability as the enemy of the search for an effective and efficient solution.

Like learning to use an atrophied muscle, teams working on complex challenges may need to warm up their tolerance for variability and ambiguity. When we are unprepared to brave the tensions inherent in uncertainty, we get drawn into the status-quo quicksand.

Have a D.I.E.T (Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity Talk)

Download a free D.I.E.T. Deck at Unstuck Minds/ D.I.E.T. Deck

I’m a 60-year old, white, heterosexual, cisgender male. I’m not apologizing; that’s just how it has turned out for me.

I mention the circumstances of my existence and identity because I want to offer something useful to promote diversity, inclusion and equity on our teams and in our workplaces. I make this offer in spite of my identity and circumstances (or maybe because of my identity and circumstance).

I’m experimenting with a card deck of questions that you can download for free at Unstuck Minds. I’m imagining that a facilitator or team leader would bring people together, shuffle the cards and place them face down on a table. A group of people who want to better understand and appreciate one another would take turns picking a card and reading the question out loud. Any member of the group with a personal experience to share in response to the question speaks up with an answer and/or an example. The leader or facilitator closes out the session by asking for insights.

I have listed the questions below if you’d rather not bother downloading and printing off the questions in the form of cards. I would love to hear what you think of the questions and how you use them. I will happily update the deck based on new questions that people submit or revise questions based on suggested edits. Bookmark this blog post so you can submit new questions in the comments section. Indicate whether you like or dislike the questions so we can decide which new questions get included in an updated deck.

D.I.E.T. Deck Questions

  • What do you believe is among the first things people you meet at work notice about you? What would you rather they notice about you?
  • In what retail store do you feel most at ease? Why?
  • You’re walking into your first meeting with a team of people you’ve never met. The others have been working together for a year. What do you most want the team leader to do to help you feel like you belong?
  • What do your co-workers not get about you… that you wish they did?
  • What language was spoken in the home you grew up in that is not spoken at work?
  • What did a memorable teacher do to make it easier for you to learn when you struggled with a subject or topic?
  • Which of your colleagues is worn out by a non-stop series of interactions? How do you know?
  • When you board public transportation and walk down an aisle to find a seat, what do you assume the people who are seated think when they notice you?
  • What do you wish recent college graduates understood about what it takes to be successful?
  • What do you wish people who will be retiring in the next 15-20 years understood about people just entering the workforce?
  • How would you feel about being forced to use a bathroom designated for a different gender?
  • How important is it for a cafeteria at school or work to accommodate dietary restrictions (e.g. allergies to the presence of certain foods, religious dietary laws, diets based on health or ethics, etc.)?
  • What assumptions grant you an unearned advantage over others (e.g. “Tall people are good at basketball,” so you get chosen to play based on your height – Thank you for this example, @Stephanie Walton)?
  • What do you need to use that is designed badly for someone like you?
  • What do you have in common with someone at work who is very different than you, something you were surprised to discover?
  • What’s an example of something in our organization that is rigged against people like you?
  • What’s an example of language or jargon used by a group at work that seems designed to exclude others?
  • What do you “just deal with” at work, even though it puts you at a disadvantage?
  • Bonus Question: What’s the name of the person who cleans the toilets at your workplace? What else do you know about them?

Gives and Gets; The Road to Disengagement

It’s that time of year when goals are set and performance contracts renewed. The official corporate clipboard awaits this year’s scorecard. Santa is not the only one who keeps a list.

Consider your most important relationships: family, life-long friends, partner or spouse. It would be bizarre to judge the relationship based on a scorecard that tracks what you get compared to what you give. In fact, when you stop being grateful for having someone in your life and start comparing what you give to what you get from that person, it’s a sign that the relationship is deteriorating.

If you manage others or work in a function responsible for improving relations between employee and employer, it’s likely that you want people to feel a stronger emotional connection to their work. What happens to the relationship when success gets defined in terms of an exchange of value?

In 1923, the scholar, philosopher and political activist, Martin Buber published his most famous work, I and Thou. The essay contrasts two ways of relating to the world: The I-It relationship and the I-Thou relationship. An I-It relationship presumes a distinction between subject and object. In an I-It world, we move around like billiard balls bumping into one another and experiencing temporary exchanges. We are tempted to perceive the world and talk about the world in an I-It way because that’s how things seem to us. We experience ourselves as self-contained and impervious to the stuff we encounter.

Despite how it seems, Buber suggests that reality is not about subjects (us) being separate or apart from what we experience as objects (not us). Rather, as we encounter others and things we enter into a dialogue, a transformation. An I-Thou way of relating reveals what we share rather than what differentiates. Describing the I-Thou relationship is a challenge for our language and our Western ways of thinking. Suffice to say that in those moments when we feel transcendent connections, when we lose ourselves in an experience we’ve had a close encounter of the I-Thou kind.

When we define a work relationship in terms of what gets exchanged between employee and employer, we highlight our boundaries rather than our mutuality. We reject our interdependence. Our I-It work relationship is not much different than the one between a thirsty person with money and a vending machine with beverages.

If it’s true that younger workers crave purpose and meaning, we may need to reevaluate how we evaluate. Rather than asking your boss: What incentives and compensation will I get for meeting and exceeding my objectives this year? Try this question instead: How will we share responsibility for each other’s success this year?

Invite a Philosopher to your next Meeting

The story goes that my parents met with my sixth grade science teacher during a school open house and when they asked him how I was doing in class, he told them, “Well, you know what we say about Jay; often wrong, but never in doubt.” I will never know for sure what happened during the open house because my mother always opted for the version of any event that made for the better story.

During a dinner party shortly after the visit with the science teacher, she shared the comment with Dora and Bernie Jacobs, friends of my parents that I had known my whole life. After hearing the story, Bernie dubbed me with the nickname, “Often.” Forty-odd years after that parent-teacher conference, I told the story to Nancy Southern, the chair of my dissertation committee. She seemed to enjoy the punch line a little too much. “Still?” I remember thinking to myself, “I’m still an insufferable know-it-all?”

After trying out several colleges and even more majors, I stumbled upon philosophy. I felt strangely secure amidst the constant state of philosophical uncertainty. Come to think of it, maybe I was so committed to never being wrong that I eagerly embraced a discipline in which nobody was ever right. I loved being part of a community of people who argued in order to make ideas more beautiful and unassailable. I became a contradiction in terms, a devout doubter. I concluded that what others saw in me as a lack of doubt, I saw as unwillingness to accept ideas at face value.

I loved studying philosophy, but I dreaded coming home on breaks and talking to adults who wanted to ask me about school.

Dora Jacobs: What are you studying in school?

Me: Philosophy

Dora Jacobs: What are going to do with that?

I would usually come up with some jokey deflection to mask my true feelings about being asked, “What are you going to do with that?” “I’ll open a philosophy shop,” I would say. Or, “I’ll go into foodservice like everybody else with a liberal arts degree.” By the way, I did actually go into foodservice although I feel like the phrase, “I went into foodservice” overstates the situation. I got a job washing dishes; twenty years later I headed a corporate training and development department for a chain of casual theme restaurants. I guess you could say that foodservice got into me.

Dora Jacobs, with her perfectly reasonable yet irritating question about what I would do with a degree in philosophy is in good company. For years, the quickest way to undermine my credibility with colleagues and clients was to mention my undergraduate degree. I offer in evidence Episode 5 of Season 2 of Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series, “Newsroom.” In one scene, the Director of the news division, Charlie Skinner played by the archetypically avuncular Sam Waterston is having a conversation in his office with an old naval intelligence buddy named Shep. Shep asks after Charlie’s daughter:

Shep: …and Sophie?

Charlie: She’s in Amherst.

Shep: What’s she majoring in?

Charlie: Philosophy

Shep: What do you do with a philosophy degree?

Charlie: It takes all the energy I have not to ask that question at Thanksgiving

Et tu, Aaron Sorkin?

It has taken me years to recognize that I avoided answering the question, because I felt insulted by the presumption that learning is a means to an end. Learning, like humanity vis-à-vis Kant’s Categorical Imperative, is for me an end in itself. (Hah! Take that Dora Jacobs).

When someone says, “I just started going to church” nobody asks, “What are you going to do with that?” When someone confesses, “I’ve just signed up with an on-line dating service” nobody asks, “What are going to do with that?” Learning is my religion. Pondering the more interesting question, my constant companion.

Training in philosophy is like training to be a miner. Students of philosophy learn to recognize rich veins of inquiry and use the tools of the trade to open them up and assess their worth. We spend most of our time in the dark and below the surface. The sane ones come up to the surface and return to friends and family between shifts. The lost ones confuse the mine for reality. If you think I’m being overly critical of a noble academic discipline, consider that both Socrates and Wittgenstein likened philosophers to flies. The former thought of philosophers as gadflies to the state, the latter claimed that the aim of philosophy is to “show the fly the way out of the bottle.”

Because I had supported myself with foodservice work in college, I was able to parlay my sorting skills (thoughts and silverware) into a job as a restaurant manager. For me, the way out of the bottle was busyness. When hungry customers are lining up at the door, when servers and cooks are squabbling in the kitchen, and when bartenders are running out of clean glassware, the manager has no time to ponder the ethics of serving meat or whether alcohol influences the nature of truth. Eventually, somebody with authority decided that I was hardworking and thoughtful and rewarded me with a promotion to the corporate office. I now had my first office job. A job that involved running around less and thinking more. I was being lured back into the bottle.

Early in my corporate career, I received a performance review warning me that I was developing a reputation for being “quodlibetic.” Seriously, my boss included the word, “quodlibetic” in my performance appraisal. According to the Merriam Webster on-line dictionary, the word, “quodlibetic” means consisting or of the nature of a quodlibet: purely academic; also: characterized by or fond of academic discussion. I imagine my old boss wearing out a thesaurus to find a way to gently criticize me for derailing conversations with impractical questions and quibbling over inconsistencies in the way my co-workers expressed their ideas. I understood the feedback, but secretly I took it as a compliment.

Several years and a few promotions later I found myself working in an even larger corporate office for an even larger foodservice company. As a team leader, I was invited to attend a leadership development workshop led by an upbeat and inspiring woman named Linda Dunkel. Linda led us through a transformative three-day workshop called Facilitative Leadership®, a workshop designed by a Boston-based consulting and training company called, Interaction Associates. The moment Linda referenced Aristotle’s Rhetoric during a lesson on how to share an inspiring vision, I should have known that I would end up working for Interaction Associates.

Which brings me to the plot twist and the reason for this post. After nearly twenty years as a consultant with Interaction Associates, and more than thirty years after getting my undergraduate degree, it turns out that the world sorely needs philosophers. Specifically, the world needs leaders and citizens with thinking skills designed for conditions of uncertainty, ambiguity, and change. In fact, I would argue that the global ascendency of nationalism represents an inability to adapt when one’s worldview is challenged. If nothing else, training in philosophy prepares you to question world-views, including your own. It may be comforting to hold on to assumptions that no longer serve us, especially assumptions that shape our identity. Unfortunately, comfort holds us back; comfort settles for the status quo. The faster things change, the more tempting it becomes to blame change rather than blame our capacity to adapt. Without the ability to pause temporarily for philosophically detached reflection, we end up with rising levels of anxiety and divisiveness.

In the Fifteenth Century, it was reasonable to think that our Sun circles a flat Earth because that was how it seemed. The answers and knowledge of the Fifteenth Century comforted our ancestors, but also kept them stuck in their ways. Leaps of progress are not born of answers; transformative progress results from changing the questions. As questions improve, answers lose their footing, which clears the way for better questions. Before Newton, “Why does the apple fall to the ground?” was the best form of the question. After Newton, the question became, “Why do objects like the Earth and an apple attract one another?” After Einstein, the question became, “How does the Earth’s warping of space-time and the apple’s warping of space-time explain the two objects getting closer to one another?” As we continue to explore and learn about the universe at very large and very small scales, new insights and hypotheses arise that continue to shape the way we pose the question. Some theoretical physicists studying “dark matter” and “dark energy,” conclude that the phenomenon we describe as “gravity” is an illusion in the same way that the phenomenon we experience as “temperature” becomes meaningless at the microscopic level.

These days, answers are being outsourced to artificial intelligence systems with names like Alexa, Cortana, Siri, and Watson. As the shelf life of answers continues to shrink, the more valuable becomes the philosopher’s mission of improving our questions.

Until schools stop shoveling test answers into the heads of our children in the name of learning, we will have to reacquaint adults with the curiosity that came naturally to them as kids. When we become skilled at asking better questions, better questions will feel less scary and more practical. As a starting point, consider inviting a philosophy major to your next meeting.

Four Superpowers you need to Avoid Misdirection

Here’s the situation…

For nearly 50 years, Interaction Associates has been delivering workshops, facilitating meetings and consulting to individuals, teams and organizations to improve the way people lead, plan and collaborate to get work done. Until recently we conducted our work in various rooms around the world where people had gathered to learn, connect and solve problems. In the last few years, many of our clients have told us that they no longer intend to bring people together for learning experiences. Instead, they want to bring the learning to their employees through web-enabled collaboration platforms like WebEx® Zoom® and Adobe Connect®.

How do we re-design our programs so they can be delivered virtually?

If you’re among the nearly dozen subscribers to the UnstuckMinds Blog, you should know that simply answering the question above is like diving headfirst into quicksand. First, the question ignores the adaptive challenge faced by our veteran consultants being asked to facilitate virtually. I have previously written about the emotional impact of meeting our client’s requests to conduct virtual training. Secondly, the question contains two of the question traps I’ve written about: The question includes a veiled solution and is framed too narrowly.

I used the example of re-designing for virtual learning at a recent workshop to illustrate how the way we frame our questions can misdirect us. The purpose of the workshop was to teach leaders how to ask better questions using the Unstuck Minds Method. When I applied the method to transform the challenge into a better question, I developed an insight into an aspect of the situation we have not been paying attention to – more on that in a moment.

The Unstuck Minds Method synthesizes four well-researched thinking systems: strategic thinking, systems thinking, social network analysis and design thinking; it’s like the Justice League of thinking systems. Each dimension of the method applies a corresponding thinking system in pursuit of new information, new insights and new options. Each thinking system brings its corresponding “superpower” to rescue us when we get stuck.

The dimensions are represented as compass points to reinforce the idea that when we’re unsuccessfully dealing with a challenge, it’s often our orientation to our problem that is preventing us from getting unstuck.


Dimension Thinking System Superpower
Contextual Inquiry Strategic Thinking Reduce the risk of missing something important
Critical Inquiry Systems Thinking Avoid solving the wrong problem
Collaborative Inquiry      Social Network Analysis      Make it easier for people to take concerted action  
Creative Inquiry Design Thinking Increase the novelty of our options

Using the Unstuck Minds Method on the example of virtual training that I brought to the workshop led me to a useful insight. Face-to-face leadership development workshops meet two distinct kinds of needs, a “connection” need and a “development” need. Technology opens up options for meeting the development need, but often at the expense of the connection need. Bringing people together for traditional classroom learning experiences is not just about the transfer of knowledge, skills and tools. Organizations benefit from the cross-boundary exchange of ideas and the strengthening of social networks when diverse groups share an experience together.

With respect to the development need, technology overcomes one of the most persistent disadvantages of traditional classroom learning experiences. Those of us who facilitate development workshops can never be certain that what people learn in the classroom will translate into behavior change on the job. Technology makes it possible to equip leaders with the tools and skills they need without taking them “offline” to learn them. For example, before I conduct an important and potentially contentious meeting, I’d love to access a checklist and a video on my smart device and maybe schedule quick FaceTime interaction with a coach rather than find the relevant tools in the participant manual gathering dust on my bookshelf.

When you tease apart the connection need from the development need, you end up with two different questions. Instead of asking, “How do we re-design our programs so they can be delivered virtually?” We could be asking:

  1. How might we help out clients create transformative experiences that enhance and sustain cross-boundary collaboration?
  2. How might we help leaders access tools and expertise when they need it most?

When it’s your turn to present, start with a question

“That staff meeting was the best part of my day,” said no one ever.

People in organizations endure staff meetings and status update meetings everyday. Of all the dreaded rituals of organizational life, update meetings seem to be the most impervious to change. Staff meetings, task-force meetings, and information sharing meetings according to one study of meetings in America, make up 88% of all meetings. Over 33% of the time spent in meetings is considered, “unproductive” by participants.

We’re not suffering from a lack of effective meeting practices. The founder of the consulting firm where I work, Interaction Associates literally wrote the book on how to make meetings work in 1976.

We’ve known for years how to fix bad meetings, yet we don’t.

I have a theory that partially explains why we allow ourselves to be tortured by bad update meetings and I have a simple suggestion, in the form of a question, for making them better.

Team leaders and functional leaders who generally convene the update meetings are getting their needs met at the expense of all the other participants. If you lead a group and need to know what is happening so that you can anticipate problems, allocate resources or reassure others that you are in control, the most efficient way to get your needs met is to convene the group. The problem is that while the leader gets his or her needs met, everyone else at the meeting gets bored.

If everyone attending a meeting could get their needs met, not just the leader, meetings would be better. When it’s your turn to present at an update meeting, start by asking the group, “what are you listening for?” You don’t pitch in baseball without first checking to see what the catcher wants. Similarly, presenters should never pitch ideas without knowing what their audiences want. Don’t guess, ask.

Suppose you are responsible for working with a technology vendor on a project involving a software change that will impact accounting procedures. You have been allotted fifteen minutes on the agenda to update the team. Before giving your update, you say, “Before I begin, what information do you need from me?” Here are some possible responses:

  • Leader: I need to know if we’re on track with milestones and whether or not you anticipate any budget overruns.
  • Team member A: I need to know when to schedule training classes for the accounting department.
  • Team member B: I don’t need to know anything about this part of the project. If you need support, I’d like to know how I can help.
  • Team member C: I’m curious about your impressions of the vendor. I need a team of developers for a different project

Knowing what people are listening for allows you to tailor your update to the needs of the team. If the meeting is face-to-face, write down what people are listening for on a flip chart or whiteboard and respond to the items one by one. If the meeting is virtual, use the meeting platform’s shared screen to capture the list. Of course you may have important information to share that others won’t know to ask about. You can always add something to list. Most update meetings have nine or fewer participants. If you have a larger group, you may need to have people submit their information needs ahead of the meeting.

Once the idea of presenters responding to what people want to know becomes routine, you won’t even have to ask the question. When transitioning from one topic to the next, participants in the meeting will let the presenter know what they need. The group will understand the expectation that they share responsibility with the presenter for ensuring that only useful information gets exchanged. As a side benefit, people won’t be able to multi-task because they have a role to play even when it’s not their turn to present.

If you want to drive greater accountability, not just greater engagement, you can pair the question, “what are you listening for?” with the question, “what will you do?” at the conclusion of the topic. Before you present, you will know what information people need. After you present everyone will know the action steps people will take with the information you have provided.

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?”