Why did Blockbuster and Kodak, once undisputed leaders in their respective industries, both file for bankruptcy? You might think that each business ignored the innovations that eventually led to their downfall, but the story is a bit more complicated.
With hindsight, it would be easy to conclude that Blockbuster didn’t see the digital and streaming entertainment business coming. In fact, Blockbuster had an opportunity to purchase Netflix in 2000 and passed. Not only that, Blockbuster developed an online DVD subscription business in 2004.
With hindsight, it would be easy to conclude that The Eastman Kodak Company didn’t see the digital camera business coming. You might be surprised to learn that a Kodak engineer invented the first digital camera and Kodak held the first patent for digital cameras. Even more surprising, Kodak had an online photo storage and sharing platform as early as 1999.
The leaders of Blockbuster and Kodak at the turn of this century were smart, strategic and experienced. They noticed emerging trends. They just underestimated the threat in the same way that railroad executives at the turn of 20th century disregarded the potential of the automobile.
Getting stuck is not only about missing something important. Sometimes we want to change, but we can’t figure out how to let go of our habits and routines. In the first case, being stuck has to do with how we process information. In the second case, being stuck has to do with the way we process our emotions.
We can use the framework below to characterize four mindsets that keep us stuck. The left-hand column describes elements related to people, including ourselves. In the lower-left quadrant we find the human elements that we can influence (e.g. our own behaviors and those of our core relationships). The upper-left quadrant includes human elements that we cannot influence (e.g. society and social movements).
The right-hand column describes elements related to structures. Structures are arrangements of interrelated elements. Structures include everything from our workspaces and tools (things we can influence) to large scale systems like public schools or research programs that study emerging technologies.
If we lack the ability to recognize the influence of our emotions, we succumb to the human element mindsets that keep us stuck:
We conserve our assumptions without pausing to ask if they still serve us.
We fear and reject social movements instead of reflecting on how they emerged and what they might mean for the future.
If we lack the ability to recognize biases and limitations in the way we process information, we succumb to the structural elements that keep us stuck.
We maintain our processes and routines without questioning whether they still make sense.
We misinterpret the significance of innovations.
What Unstuck Minds do Differently
We can use the same framework to identify how each of the four disciplines of an unstuck mind combats each of the mindsets that prevent us from changing our situations. Of course, if you don’t feel stuck, you may not feel motivated to contemplate your situation. I refer to the four strategies as disciplines precisely because I suggest you apply them even when you don’t feel the need. It’s like disciplining yourself to eat well and exercise rather than waiting to be dissatisfied with your health before taking action.
People with unstuck minds regularly reflect on their own assumptions, beliefs, and behaviors. They ask: How might I be getting in my own way?
People with unstuck minds get curious about shifts in societal attitudes and norms. They don’t necessarily buy-in to the latest trend, but they want to know: What does this trend say about our social norms?
People with unstuck minds tinker and improve their surroundings. They ask: Why do we do it that way?
People with unstuck minds are agile and respond to environmental changes. They ask: What opportunities become possible if this innovation catches on?
Efforts to help organizations become places that welcome differences – in who we are and how we like to work – have shifted from an emphasis on diversity to an emphasis on inclusivity. An emphasis on diversity, which can be thought of as an outcome, leads to conversations about representation that often devolve into a focus on demographics. An emphasis on inclusivity, which can be thought of as a practice, leads to conversations about human needs that create opportunities to focus on structures that create and sustain unfair advantages and oppressive disadvantages.
Abraham Maslow famously represented human needs as a pyramid suggesting that we won’t be motivated to meet some needs until more foundational needs have been satisfied. For example, in Maslow’s hierarchy, we cannot work to meet our need for “love and belonging” until our physiological and safety needs have been met. I won’t seek out companionship if I’m living in fear of being harmed or being left without a livelihood.
At Unstuck Minds we have been dabbling with a framework that borrows the notion of a hierarchy of needs with a focus on inclusivity. We want to acknowledge recent conversations with our colleagues Tracy Rickard and Ford Hatamiya who have both contributed their experience with the topic to the current expression of the model. We view this post as an invitation to continue the conversation about how best to provide a simple, memorable, and powerful way for organizational leaders to explore how they practice inclusivity.
The Need to be Seen
The first section of The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook (Senge, Kleiner, Roberts, Ross, and Smith, 1994) introduced many of us in the West to the African philosophy of Ubuntu. Senge, et al. shared the Zulu phrase, Umuntu ngumuntu nagabantu, which translates as: “A person is a person because of other people” (1994, p. 3). In a sense, your acknowledgement of me brings me into existence.
The Ubuntu philosophy explains the significance of the Zulu greeting, Sawubona, which literally translates as: “I see you.” Each encounter with someone becomes a reaffirmation of our coexistence and interdependence. In writing and directing the 2009 movie Avatar, James Cameron imbues the Na’vi, the native population of the fictional planet Pandora, with a version of the Ubuntu philosophy. In Na’vi, the greeting, Oel ngati kame, also means, “I see you.”
If I don’t feel seen at work, I will not identify with my organization. I will see my workplace as a foreign territory I periodically visit. It will feel risky to reveal myself to others.
The Need to Belong
David McClelland, an American psychologist most noted for his work on motivation theory, popularized the concept of affiliation needs. McClelland thought of affiliation as a fundamental need to feel a sense of involvement and belonging with a social group.
Researcher, author, and world-renown speaker Brené Brown has made “belonging” a centerpiece of her message about the power of vulnerability. Brown, like McClelland describes belonging as an innate human desire. For Brown our need to belong sometimes manifests as a desire to “fit in” that ironically separates us from others because we are hiding our authentic, imperfect selves.
If I don’t feel like I belong at work, I will not support my organization. I will see work as a marketplace where I trade my effort for pay. I play a role at work the same way that a car-engine part plays a role in making the car move. When my capacity to serve my function is diminished, I expect to be replaced.
The Need to Matter
Following the rubric of a hierarchy, until I feel seen, I won’t try to belong. Until I feel like I belong, I won’t work to establish my distinctiveness; a distinctiveness that demonstrates how I matter. When I no longer question whether or not I’m a recognized and accepted part of my organization, I can seek out ways to be significant to my organization.
Will Schutz, an American Psychologist, author, and creator of the psychometric instrument known as the FIRO-B® described “significance” as the primary feeling associated with our need for inclusion. For Schutz, to feel significance is to “…know that I make a difference, am an important person, am meaningful and worthwhile” (1994, p. 31).
If I don’t feel that I matter at work, I will not contribute my creativity, ingenuity, or discretionary effort. My organization has become a comfortable place where I understand the routines and people count on me to do my part. I might embellish the odd assignment with a personal touch in order to express myself, but eventually my yearning for meaning and for being consequential will alienate me from my organization and I will seek self-esteem elsewhere.
Applying the Framework
If you are a target of the “isms” that undermine social cohesion and human development (racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, etc.), it makes sense that you would feel worn out and angry by a daily struggle to be seen, to belong, and to matter. If you have the good fortune to fit your society’s preferred identities, your world has been set up to facilitate your requirements for being seen, belonging, and feeling like you matter.
Frameworks can help us see invisible structures. If we can’t see how structures cause harm, we can’t talk about them. If we can’t talk about them, we can’t dismantle them. Over the course of your day, how much energy do you expend trying to be seen, trying to belong, and trying to matter? Now pose that question to someone who experiences society as inhospitable.
Senge, P., Kleiner, A., Roberts, C., Ross, R.B., & Smith, B.S. (1994). The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. New York, NY: Doubleday
Schutz, W. (1994). The Human Element: Productivity, self-esteem, and the bottom line. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
A few weeks ago, I led a day-long workshop for seventy-five high potential managers who work for a global technology company. The managers, representing every region of the world where the company does business are enrolled in a two-year program consisting of a variety of activities and assignments. Once each year, the entire group gathers for a week of workshops and networking.
As a whole, the managers are smart, driven, action-oriented, competitive, and entrepreneurial. It’s easy to see why they’ve been identified as future executives; they embody the culture of the organization. My job was to teach them how to slow down, reflect on the thinking traps that might keep them stuck, and have them practice reframing the questions they had been asking about the situations they wanted to change. It did not go well.
I had worked with many of the leaders in the group before, so I singled one out that I knew pretty well and asked for some feedback about the session. He told me that his typical day consists of juggling multiple challenges. He’ll take an action to make progress on one challenge and if he hits a roadblock or a delay, he’ll refocus his attention on one of his other challenges. Sometimes an emergency erupts, and everything gets reprioritized. The idea of slowing down to reframe a challenge when you’re not making progress made sense to him in theory, but also felt unrealistic and counterculture. As with many organizations, action gets noticed, thinking might be mistaken for indecision.
While I was listening, the image came to mind of a plate spinner’s act that I remember watching on the Ed Sullivan show when I was growing up. I remember the act as mesmerizing and dramatic; now it feels quaint. It’s as if each day the leaders of this company attempted to keep china plates spinning on the top of narrow sticks; the priority of the moment, the wobbliest plate, attracts attention and determines a leader’s next move.
It may sound like I’m making excuses for the unsatisfying workshop experience, “If the participants weren’t so addicted to action, they might recognize the value of what I’m offering.” I’m not proud to admit that I did actually have that thought when I saw the ratings on the evaluation form. Upon reflection, I see now that I failed to practice what I’ve been preaching.
Who needs what?
A big part of the Unstuck Minds Method, which was the topic of the workshop, rests on the foundational principles of Design Thinking. Design thinking asks us to empathize with and learn about the people we want to help, and then build on insights about what they need (often needs they themselves don’t recognize). To be honest, I didn’t empathize with the leaders in my workshop, I wanted to fix them.
Another element of the Unstuck Minds Method is to recognize that our framing of the situations we want to change belies the assumptions and beliefs we hold about the situation and those involved. In the workshop, we teach people about Quicksand Questions, the framing of a challenge in the form of a question that gets you stuck. The more you work to answer a quicksand question, the more stuck you become. One category of quicksand question comprises questions of the form: How do we get them to change? Leaders often frame their challenges as seeking to take action that alters the behavior of others based on the leader’s needs. For example, “How do we get managers to spend more time coaching their teams?” or “How do we get our customers to follow us on social media?”
Ironically, I had designed a workshop containing an admonition to avoid quicksand questions built on a hidden quicksand question: How do I get the leaders of this company to respond thoughtfully to their challenging situations rather than react to them? Like the most dangerous quicksand, you don’t notice it until you’re stuck in it.
Reacting is Re-Acting
Compounding the error, I started emulating the leaders in my workshop as soon as it ended. My colleagues and I recognized that the session didn’t have the intended impact, so we immediately started problem-solving the instructional design. It took a few weeks and some emotional distance from the training to recognize that I had succumb to the very thinking traps I had been teaching people to avoid.
Reacting helps in urgent, familiar situations. On the other hand, reacting becomes counterproductive when we don’t fully understand the situation we’re facing. Reacting makes use of our habits and routines, that’s why I think of it as “re-acting.” When reacting, you operate in a mode that feels familiar and comfortable. When you go to a doctor with common, recognizable symptoms, the doctor re-acts (i.e. reenacts a familiar script). If the diagnosis and prescription don’t work, the doctor switches from reacting to responding. Responding requires more information about the current situation and a bit of reflection about alternative ways to interpret the current situation.
Here’s a question for busy leaders in plate-spinning mode: When should I stop reacting and start responding?
Leaders addicted to action, prefer to react. If the first solution doesn’t work, they try something else. As long as you’re learning from what you try, and you’re not squandering resources, reacting might be a good strategy. However, you don’t get to dress up reacting as prototyping or experimenting. Experimenting requires reflection on outcomes and thoughtful responses that control for what you want to learn.
Before I revisit the instructional design, I would be well served by taking a dose of my own medicine. I think the better question for me is: How might I help overwhelmed organizational leaders reduce the risk of missing something important, avoid solving the wrong problem, and increase the novelty of their options when they feel stuck for an answer?
Like many young adults with an undergraduate degree in Philosophy, my first job after graduation was in a restaurant. It wasn’t the profession my mother had in mind for me, but I enjoyed restaurant work. When I eventually became the General Manager of a restaurant, I never felt bored or unchallenged. There’s something very satisfying about ending each day with a sense of accomplishment. Hungry, sometimes cranky people came in, we fed them, helped them relax, gave them time and space to enjoy the company of their friends and family, and then they went home.
Repeat that process for a bunch of people and everyone is happy. Of course, when a lot of hungry people show up at roughly the same time, restaurant management boils down to two activities, preventing disasters and recovering from disasters. If you’re of a certain age, you might remember seeing plate spinners on variety TV shows. Check out this YouTube clip of Erich Brenn’s performance on the Ed Sullivan show. If you’re inspired by what you see, restaurant management might be a good career choice.
In a restaurant the lunch rush and the dinner rush are times of focused activity, thinking on your feet, urgent problem-solving, and frequent interactions. In the afternoon between lunch and dinner, the rhythm of work abruptly shifts. Between meal periods the manager plans, completes paperwork, and meets with staff or suppliers. I always found the time between the rush of the meal periods to be disorienting. I was addicted to the constant demands on my time that came from meeting other people’s needs. When I sat at my desk after lunch and before dinner, my needs (as opposed to the demands of others) dictated how I spent time. I’d be processing invoices, but I’d keep looking up to see if someone wanted me. I’d get up from my desk and pace around the restaurant hoping to be distracted by something that needed my urgent attention. I had more control over my time, but secretly I didn’t want it.
There are two problems with posing the question, “How do I
get more control of my time?” First, it’s not your time, so you can’t control
it. Secondly, you might not really want to control it.
It’s not “your” time
As I’ve noted before, we often get caught in thinking traps by the way we frame our questions. I refer to questions that limit, misdirect or place blame as “quicksand questions.” The harder we try to work the question, the more stuck we become. One issue with the question, “how do I get control of my time?” is that it assumes I have the ability to manage how I spend my time. It assumes that I can somehow make choices about my time without considering how other people I interact with manage their time. In reality, everyone who needs to interact is a free agent in a system of interrelationships. When I make a choice about how to manage my time, it impacts the choices other people have about managing their time, and vice versa. I can’t control my time any more than I can control my commute in rush hour traffic.
You might not want to control your time
You think you want to control your time, but just like when I was a restaurant manager, you may find that you miss the familiar pattern of reacting to demands. Having blocks of unstructured time can be scary. We’re suckers for the devices that we habitually check. We have a love/hate relationship with the tsunami of images, video and text incessantly pushed to us. When the flow of distractions gets interrupted unexpectedly, even for a minute, we don’t feel relieved, we panic or feel immediately bored. The more options we have for filling our time, the less capable we are of turning free time into productive time.
A better question and one daring solution
If thinking about “getting control” of your time doesn’t generate new and useful solutions, how else might you reframe the dilemma of feeling overwhelmed by the demands on your time? First, I would ask myself, “who places the most predictable and frequent claims on my time?” (If you have infants or young children at home or you are another form of caregiver, you are answering a higher calling. Unfortunately, the next suggestion won’t help you). Secondly, I would meet with those who want my time so that we could jointly answer the question, “what agreements can we put in place about how and when we reach out to each other to meet routine needs?”
Let me give you an example of an agreement you might make with your team and your manager. Consider a protocol around sending and receiving emails and meeting invitations. For knowledge workers, communicating and interacting fill our days. Try setting a permanent, automatic out-of-office message on your email application that reads:
Thank you for contacting me. I check my email in the morning between 7 and 8 and in the afternoon between 4 and 5. If you have an urgent matter that requires my attention please call me or stop by my office. If you’re inviting me to a meeting, please include the purpose and desired outcomes of the meeting in the invitation so that I can productively contribute when I attend.
Now, imagine what you might be doing between 8am and 4pm
other than responding to emails and attending poorly planned meetings. Still
want control of your time?
Success on the playing field is winning. Teams square off against one another in a well-defined activity with a definitive endpoint. No one on a team succeeds unless the team succeeds. Players have roles, they are expected to develop expertise in their roles, and they are accountable to one another for specific tasks. Performance is measured, reported, and there are consequences when performance outcomes don’t meet expectations. Some authorities judge the quality of play, other authorities dictate what constitutes allowable play. On the playing field you have opponents. James Carse describes a game played on a playing field as a Finite Game. A “finite game” according to Carse, “is played for the purpose of winning.”
Success on the playground is joy. Individuals choose activities and make use of the available equipment. On the playground, we play alone or with others. We can be challenged to accomplish a skill or overcome a fear, or we can simply create and imagine. We can agree to adopt roles in a spontaneous joint project, but no one is waiting for the project to produce any outcome. There are no authorities on how to play on the playground. Carse describes the game played on a playground as an Infinite Game. An “Infinite game” according to Carse, “is played for the purpose of continuing to play.”
How much of your work feels like being on a playing field and how much feels like being on a playground?
How much of your organization’s purpose is about winning and how much of your organization’s purpose is about thriving so that play continues?
Strategic Agility is a hot topic these days. Whatever we
mean by “strategic agility,” the concept is fundamentally about the tension
between being prepared (strategic) and being quick to adapt (agile).
Strategic agility seems useful on the playing field. You would want to have a game plan and you would want to adapt and respond when conditions change, or when your opponent does something unexpected. When success is winning, strategic agility may provide a competitive edge.
Strategic Agility seems counterproductive on the playground.
Developing a plan for how you engage on a playground suddenly changes your
relationship to other players and to the nature of your play. When activity
becomes part of a larger plan, play becomes a means to an end; players become
allies or obstructionists.
When organizations see all activity as moves on a playing field, everything feels like a competition. Meetings become arenas in which people move ahead or fall behind. People covet resources, take credit, and place blame. When organizations see all activity as moves on a playground, harmony trumps decisiveness. People avoid conflict while harboring resentments.
In our organizational lives, we need wins to thrive and we need to thrive in order to win.
How many of you use some form of a Lean Six-Sigma process in
your organizations to problem-solve, reengineer processes, and make
How many of you use some form of a human-centered design or
user-first design process in your organizations to innovate?
How many of you have a strategy formulation process to set
direction, analyze trends, uncover market forces, and identify emerging
Each methodology represents a useful approach to finding opportunities and solving problems. At the same time, each methodology conceals two underlying and debilitating assumptions. First, we assume that reengineering, innovating, and strategizing are distinct processes. Secondly, we assume that each process can be scheduled and undertaken periodically.
Sometimes reengineered improvements arise from the application of design thinking. Sometimes a design thinking exercise will surface an opportunity that has the potential to influence strategy. Sometimes a strategy formulation exercise feels divorced from the realities of what it will take to reengineer the systems required to bring the strategy to life. An agile organization must access a variety of tools so it can respond and adapt while it invents and plans.
Perhaps there was a time when it made sense to employ
process reengineering, innovation, and strategy exercises on special occasions.
We no longer have the luxury to pick and choose a time to think about how to
make things better or plan for the future. Isolating time spent figuring things
out from time spent getting things done only works when conditions are stable.
Otherwise, by the time you have things figured out and you’re able to
operationalize your conclusions, the assumptions on which you based your
thinking may no longer pertain. An agile organization treats problem-solving
and opportunity identification as a management routine.
The Unstuck Minds
A heuristic is a simple method or procedure that allows for
self-discovery, exploration or problem-solving in order to improve performance.
For example, if you have a method for fitting suitcases into the trunk of a car
(e.g. put the largest cases in first), you’re applying a heuristic. I remember
explaining to my daughters that I estimate a 20% tip at restaurants by moving
the decimal one place to the left and then doubling the number to the left of
the decimal. Once you have a heuristic that works, you can share it with
others; heuristics are rules-of-thumb that create learning and performance shortcuts.
If you accept the premise that an agile organization needs
leaders who can reengineer, innovate, and strategize on a routine basis, you’ll
need to provide your leaders with a powerful heuristic. Leaders will need
something memorable and useful that doesn’t require the intervention of an
Four Questions to ask
when you’re Stuck for an Answer
Consider asking the following four questions anytime you
sense a loss of momentum, the return of a familiar problem, or an opportunity
just out of reach:
1) What’s changing?
Zoom out like a strategist to notice what is happening in
the environment. What is your competition doing differently, what political or
economic policies might shift that could influence your organization or your
customers? What emerging technology could undermine your organization’s value
Think about what is becoming more important and less important.
Think about what is becoming more available and less available. Think about
what is becoming more popular and less popular.
2) What’s keeping
things the same?
Zoom in like a systems thinker to notice the
interconnections that define the status quo. Ask yourself about existing
systems and processes that may have turned counterproductive. Look into the
ways people are rewarded, recognized, incentivized and punished. Ask about what
has become comfortable to do that no longer adds value.
Play out the consequences for people of maintaining the
status quo versus altering the status quo. What do the habits and routines
suggest about the organization’s priorities?
3) Who needs what?
Apply the curiosity and empathy of a design thinker to
discover the needs, wants, worries, and priorities of the people who will adopt
any solution that gets developed. Instead of creating carrots and sticks so
people will comply with a solution developed by a few leaders, find a solution
that makes it easier for people to apply their passions and aspirations. Trust
that when you make it easy for a lot of the right people to get what they need,
insights and options will emerge.
Once you accept that new ideas will surface by focusing on
what people need, choose the individual or group to put at the center of your
efforts. Once you select the people to focus on, take time to understand and
empathize with their desires and motivations. When you shift your
problem-solving priority from arranging the world to work for you to helping
people you care about get what they need, you’ll be ready to define your
4) How will we define
Once you define your challenge as an open-ended question about how to make the world work better for people you care about, you will immediately see new and interesting options. As I’ve written in a previous blog post, there’s a big difference between the solution set for the challenge: How do I get my teenage daughter to keep her bathroom clean? And the solution set for the challenge: How do we reduce the amount of nagging at home?
When you’ve defined your challenge and identified solutions, you can use the work you did in steps one and two to evaluate which solutions will work best. Prioritize solutions that take into account what is changing and counteract what is keeping things the same.
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
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.
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?
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?
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.
Jacobs: What are you studying in school?
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:
She’s in Amherst.
What’s she majoring in?
do you do with a philosophy degree?
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).
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.
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.