Be Questionable!

I’m on a mission to expand what it means to describe someone as questionable. You might say I’m on a quest. By the way, both ‘quest’ and ‘questionable’ have their roots in the Latin, quaerere, to ask, or seek, and the ability to ask or seek has never been more important.

First, we are overwhelmed by the amount of information coming at us. Without the ability to question what we read, hear, and watch, we settle for the information that’s most easily digested, whether or not it’s accurate or relevant. To be more questionable is to be a more discerning consumer of information. Secondly, in times of volatility and uncertainty we need the ability to question our own assumptions. To be more questionable is to recognize that assumptions rooted in past experience may no longer serve us.

The customary use of questionable comes along with negative connotations. If, for example people describe you as being of questionable character, they don’t mean that your character deserves further investigation, they mean you are not to be trusted. My goal is to turn the accusation that you are questionable (at least in certain contexts) into a compliment. Maybe I’ll invent an award for the year’s most questionable leader. An award you’d be honored to receive.

It’s not too much of a stretch to destigmatize “questionable.” Note that the first definition of questionable in Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary carries no inherently pejorative connotation:

1 obsolete inviting inquiry

Obsolete? Sure. Extinct? Not if I have anything to say about it!

To be adaptable is to have the ability to adapt. To be questionable (in the near future and with the help of the internet) is to have the ability to question. Being questionable is a job requirement for philosophers, scientists, and journalists, why not leaders? As Professor Michael J. Marquardt noted in his 2104 book, Leading with Questions, “most of us are simply unaware of how important or pervasive our questions are to our way of thinking and acting.”

My own practice over the last several years backs up Professor Marquardt’s observation about the relationship between the questions we ask and the way we are thinking about the situations we want to change. In fact, I have been keeping a catalogue of questions leaders bring into Unstuck Minds working sessions. I like to compare the original questions leaders pose to the challenge definitions they develop as part of learning how to be more questionable.Certain habits of thought cause leaders to frame questions that unintentionally, but predictably undermine their desire for new insights and options. Often, the very question itself limits creativity, misdirects attention and resources, or places blame. I use the term, “quicksand questions” to refer to the ineffectual questions that leaders ask. A quicksand question is a challenge definition the asking of which gets you more stuck rather than less stuck.

For example, I worked with an HR leader responsible for changing her organization’s approach to performance management. The leader and her team felt stuck because they focused their efforts on answering the question, “how do we get our managers to conduct regular coaching conversations?” The team felt that regular coaching conversations would do more to shift the performance management culture than any other single behavior change. The strategy made sense, but the question put managers on the defensive and narrowed the focus to transactional interactions.

After applying the Unstuck Minds inquiry strategies to the dilemma, the HR leader began to consider the bigger picture of performance management. In the end, her team chose to focus on a different question: How do we help our employees realize their potential? It’s not that one question is more appropriate than the other question. The point is that if you feel stuck, altering your question might unlock new insights and options. The ability to alter your questions may be the most important leadership skill of the next decade.

Questionable people are skilled at improving their questions when they’re stuck for an answer.

The Playground and the Playing Field

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.

You Can’t Schedule a Time to be Agile; Getting things done while figuring things out

How many of you use some form of a Lean Six-Sigma process in your organizations to problem-solve, reengineer processes, and make improvements?

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 technologies?

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 Heuristic

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 expert.

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 proposition?

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 challenge.

4) How will we define our challenge?

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.

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.

Who Gets to Pose the Question?

Last week, my friend and colleague Michael Reidy shared a powerful insight with me. I had just completed an overview of the Unstuck Minds Method at an Interaction Associates gathering. During the overview I showed a slide contrasting questions asked by leaders before applying the Unstuck Minds method (left-hand column in the table below) and the corresponding reframed questions developed during various workshops over the last couple of years (right-hand column in the table below).

The left hand column lists questions the leaders started with, questions about situations where the leaders felt stuck. The premise behind the Unstuck Minds Method is that leaders, teams and organizations can get stuck simply by pursuing a flawed question. We refer to such questions as “Quicksand Questions.” By contrast, the questions in the right-hand column help us move forward in ways we haven’t considered. We call questions that allow for novel options, “Unstuck Minds Questions.”

Before I share with you what Michael saw, what do you notice about the difference between the Quicksand Questions and the Unstuck Minds Questions?

Michael pointed out that the questions on the left are asked from a position of power and authority. The people asking the questions on the left see progress as possible only when others are persuaded to change. By contrast, the questions on the right support the needs of those who lack formal authority, but without whom we can’t make sustainable progress.

Michael’s insight got me thinking about the role of power and control when it comes to posing questions. You need only watch a congressional hearing to see how status differences play out between the questioners and the questioned. It’s not just formal or political inquiry that introduces a power dynamic. Even the most innocent and sincere questioner can intentionally or unintentionally direct an interaction’s focus. Consider for example, the insatiable curiosity of young children.

Four-year-olds (and occasional precocious three-year-olds) ask a lot of questions. We talk about the power of the “beginner’s mind” or the curiosity of children who often pose the most interesting questions because they haven’t learned to limit their thinking by what makes sense (Have a look at the clip, “How Does Life Live?”).

We assume that the questions of children are motivated by pure curiosity. I’ve begun to wonder whether something else might also be going on. Imagine how empowering it must feel to suddenly be controlling interactions with adults. The four-year-olds who have been in the role of responders even before they had language suddenly have adults following their lead. The child poses a barrage of questions and the adults comply with responses.

The questions people ask about the situations they want to change reveal a lot about what they are thinking and feeling. Asking better questions may not simply improve the quality of our thinking. Asking better questions may reveal and diminish the hidden power dynamics keeping us stuck.

The Four Influence Modes

People have been interested in influencing one another long before modern organizational structures blurred lines of authority. Aristotle laid out his theory of persuasion in the 4th Century BC. One of the bestselling books of all times, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People was written in 1936 and is still readily available. Today, Dale Carnegie and Associates, Inc. will sell you targeted versions of the classic like, How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age or How to Win Friends and Influence People for Teen Girls. Suffice to say; those of us schooled in Western intellectual traditions have come to believe that influence is something we do to others and the more skilled we become, the more others will be attracted to us and to our ideas.

In our organizational lives, the desire to increase agility and decrease cost challenges us to collaborate in ever more ambiguous and complex working relationships. In an attempt to move faster, organizations have removed layers of authority hoping to empower those closest to the work to make daily operating decisions without seeking permission along a chain of command. As a consequence, it is not uncommon for authority over investments, processes and the allocation of resources to be shared or unassigned.

The volatility of today’s business environment demands quick action and adaptability, but when no one can answer the question, “How will this decision get made?” the desire for agility bumps up against our preference for clarity.

When your rank, role, or status does not dictate your decision-making authority, action results from some combination of influence and cooperation. When the responsible parties cannot influence each other, decisions either get escalated to over-burdened functional executives or they tumble through an endless consensus cycle that wrings out accountability and commitment.

I want to offer for your consideration a framework that examines four modes of influence. While each mode represents a legitimate approach to influence, the distinctions among the modes may reveal hidden obstacles to moving forward. Each mode assumes a particular mindset about influence and a particular skillset to employ the mode effectively. Distinguishing among the influence modes will also surface incompatible approaches.

 

Slide2Coercive

  • Catchphrase: Do as I say
  • Source: Power imbalance
  • Strategy: Find the fear; exploit weakness

Coercive influence has limited applicability in modern organizations. It might be useful in a police interrogation or among religious fundamentalists, but influencing someone by focusing on authority or a power imbalance violates the morality of human dignity. If people respect your rank, role or status, coercive influence becomes benign compliance. When you exploit your rank, role or status to get your way, people will submit in the short run, but in the long run, they will expend their discretionary energy seeking ways to undermine or work around your demands. Coercive influence works when people have something to fear. Bob Woodward and his publishers made a very deliberate decision to call his most recent book, Fear: Trump in the White House.

When reaching conclusions or moving to action under coercive influence, there is only one acceptable option. The rules defining right and wrong are prescribed or dictated.

Slide2Persuasive

  • Catchphrase: Lend me your ear
  • Source: Rhetorical excellence
  • Strategy: Draw on credibility, emotion and logic

Persuasion is a form of influence that derives from a mechanistic model of human interaction. Person A holds belief x and uses the tools of persuasion to get person B to adopt belief x and to be willing to act on belief x. We typically think of politicians and organizational leaders as people who rely on rhetorical excellence to influence others. Persuasive influence works best when one person communicates to many people. The exact same rhetorical skill used in a more intimate setting or during a one-on-one conversation suddenly feels manipulative. People in an audience don’t expect to be heard from. People in a meeting do.

When reaching conclusions or moving to action under persuasive influence, there are only as many options as there are participants in the discussion.

Slide2Collaborative

  • Catchphrase: Better together
  • Source: Trust
  • Strategy: Build on shared interests and share responsibility for success

When we move from persuasion to collaboration, influence gets reframed. In the collaborative influence mode, influence is no longer something one person does to others. The collaborative mode and the emergent mode regard influence as change caused through interaction. In collaborative influence both parties are open to a “third way.” Collaborative influence rejects the notion that I am only influential when I convince others to see it my way. In collaborative influence, both parties explore their needs and interests and success depends on finding a way forward that meets shared needs and interests.

Under collaborative influence, multiple options emerge from an exploration of mutual interest.

Slide2Emergent

  • Catchphrase: Be here now
  • Source: Care
  • Strategy: Co-create safety for change through dialogue and improvisation

When it comes to the language of influence, it’s hard to think about influence without imagining a protagonist. Like collaborative influence, emergent influence rejects the conception of influence as something that one person does to others. Entering into emergent influence assumes that all parties care about each other’s needs and interests. In emergent influence mode, the potency of my influence is directly proportional to my openness to being influenced by others.

Under emergent influence we are only constrained by the depth of our desire to serve others.

 

How to Fix a Bad Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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