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.



  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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.

What would you accept as evidence that you’re wrong?

Virtual instructor led training will never replace in-person classroom training.

When I facilitate a discussion about the challenges of leading organizational change, I often use a personal example. I mention that Interaction Associates, the training and consulting firm where I work, has been developing modules of instruction that can be delivered through web conferencing platforms. Our clients want virtual training and we are responding.

To emphasize the challenges of organizational change, I bluntly describe my aversion to participating in webinars, which is exceeded only by my aversion to leading webinars. I then ask participants to imagine that they are my bosses and that they would rather help me adapt than replace me.

By the way, if you are one of my clients and I’m scheduled to lead a virtual learning session for you, don’t worry… keep reading. The point of this blog post is to share what I’ve learned about making it easier for people to be wrong so that they can avoid getting stuck. Spoiler alert: I have turned the corner on my resistance by better understanding its source.

We have learned from the work of Kahneman and Tversky that when people consider options and outcomes, “Losses loom larger than gains.” From William Bridges work on “Managing Transitions” we understand that people experiencing change will first consider what they are losing before they can accept a new beginning. Ron Heifetz warns us not to ignore the adaptive aspects of change (aspects that require us to transform our repertoires) by only focusing on the technical aspects of a change (aspects that we have the expertise to deal with). The more a change threatens something a person considers core to their identity, the greater the resistance.

For those of us with a more analytical bent, our resistance often masquerades as well-reasoned conclusions. We experience the fear associated with the threat of loss, but we’re more comfortable with rationale than raw emotion and by the way, so are our organizations. We build theories to justify our opinions, and then we interpret the inevitable missteps that accompany any large-scale change as evidence that we were right all along.

In 1959, the philosopher Karl Popper introduced the concept of “falsifiability” as a way to distinguish a legitimate scientific claim from a pseudo-scientific claim. For Popper, an empirical scientific system is one that can be refuted by evidence. Borrowing the concept of falsifiability can be useful when people raise reasonable sounding objections to hide their fear of loss.

Ask someone who argues in support of the status quo two questions:

  1. What should we accept as evidence that we’re wrong about making this change?
  2. What would you accept as evidence that you’re wrong about preserving the status quo?

If we want to have a conversation about the emotional impact of change, then it’s best not to argue about whose theory of emerging trends is more accurate. Simply give people the time and space to express and empathize with each other’s reaction. If we want to have a conversation about the most reasonable course of action given our hypotheses, we should be prepared to look for falsifying evidence, not just confirmatory evidence. If I can’t imagine discovering evidence that I’m wrong about one of my theories, then it’s not a theory; it’s something I take on faith.

If you’re a leader or manager and you’re dealing with a pain-in-the-ass employee like me, consider allowing your employee to pontificate, and then acknowledge that they may have a point. If the employee has a reputation as an alarmist, they’re unlikely to sway others. If the employee is respected and trusted, he or she will come around or opt out because that’s what people with integrity do.

Sometimes being stuck is like recognizing that we’ve stepped into quicksand and we struggle unproductively to free ourselves. Sometimes being stuck is like standing still while the ground beneath us turns to quicksand. At first we feel comfortable and settled. We scoff at the frenetic activity around us. We’re content to stay put. What we need is a better question to wake us up to the sinking feeling that we may be left behind.

Recalculating: When is responding to change better than following a plan?

At some level I understand that the artificial intelligence behind the voice of my navigation app is not judging me when I make a wrong turn. Still, I can’t help sensing a tinge of disappointment behind the announcement that my route is being “recalculated.” Why not just provide the re-routed directions? Better yet, let’s program the navigation system to compliment me for making a bold move: “Interesting choice. Now, continue straight for 1000 feet and make a U-turn.”

Speaking of programming, some of you may recognize the reference in the subtitle of this blog to the Agile Software Development Manifesto. The manifesto was written and signed in 2001 when a group of software developers met in Snowbird, Utah. The document codified values and principles representing a methodological shift in how software developers meet client requirements. Caroline Mimbs Nyce provides an engaging history of the agile software development movement in her 2017 article for The Atlantic, “The Winter Getaway that Turned the Software World Upside Down.”

The manifesto includes four value preferences. The fourth value preference reads, “…We have come to value responding to change over following a plan.” The manifesto does not oppose “following a plan.” The idea is that adopting a preference for “responding to change” will provide a more efficient, more targeted solution to the customer or end-user.

Recently, organizational leaders have taken note of the “Agile” philosophy. The idea of self-managed teams working cross-functionally and collaborating with customers seems like an approach the entire organization should embrace. Agile software development emerged as a response to “Waterfall” software development. The waterfall model is linear and sequential. The waterfall model favors analysis, documentation and design over end-user testing and iterating. The organizational equivalent of waterfall software development is “command and control” management.

Given the current volatility and uncertainty of our business environment, should organizations transition away from a “waterfall” leadership style to an “agile” leadership style?

I recently had the pleasure of partnering on a leadership development program with Bjorn Bihhardt, Owner and CEO of Abilitie. Bjorn introduced me to the Cynefin framework* for making sense of the contexts within which leaders solve problems and make decisions. David J. Snowden, the founder and chief scientific officer of Cognitive Edge developed the framework with input from a number of his colleagues. In November of 2007, Snowden and Mary E. Boone, President of Boone Associates co-wrote a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article about the framework.

The Cynefin Framework

CynefinThe right-hand side of the framework describes contexts that are either “simple” or “complicated.” In both cases, cause-and-effect relationships exist. In simple contexts, cause and effect are apparent to everyone. In complicated contexts, there may be more than one right answer and it requires expertise to analyze the situation and determine an appropriate response. A simple business problem is collecting a late payment from a customer. A complicated business problem is improving the company’s cash flow.

The left-hand side of the framework describes contexts that are either “complex” or “chaotic.” In a complex context, no amount of expert analysis will result in a single solution or right answer. In their HBR article, Snowden and Boone write that a complicated context differs from a complex context in the same way a Ferrari differs from the Brazilian rainforest. The car is complicated, but static. An expert can take it apart and put it back together. The rainforest, on the other hand is in a constant state of unpredictable flux. Instead of conducting expert analysis, decision makers in a complex context must investigate, sense and then respond.

In a chaotic context, there is only turbulence and ambiguity (e.g. conditions in the midst of the events of September 11, 2001). Attempting to make sense of conditions before responding does not help. In a chaotic context, one must simply act and learn from how the environment reacts to what you do. The fifth element of the framework is represented by the open space at the intersection of the other four contexts. Snowden calls the fifth context, “disorder.” Disorder applies when one cannot discern which of the other four contexts pertain.

I mention the Cynefin framework because it seems to me that following a plan works when contexts are either simple or complicated. In both cases, expertise can determine a workable solution, routines and authority can ensure people implement the solution. When things become complex, responding to change with agility will be more useful. When things become chaotic, just do something.

The question then is not whether today’s leaders should adopt a waterfall style or an agile style. The question becomes, how do we know which context we should apply when framing our situation? In other words, when should we follow the plan our navigation software put us on and when should we turn off the app and respond to the changes we are sensing?

* Cynefin (ku-nev-in) is Welsh for habitat. It carries the connotation of factors that influence us in ways we can’t understand.



Consultants on Balconies Getting Comfy

Netflix recently released Season 10 of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. If you haven’t seen the show, its title is its premise. The episodes run for about 15 minutes. At the beginning of each episode, Jerry picks up his guest in an exotic car meant to capture the spirit of the featured comedian. Jerry and his guest drive around, grab a cup of coffee, sometimes eat a meal, sometimes run an errand all the while chatting about whatever interests Jerry. Often, what interests Jerry most is philosophizing about stand-up comedy.

In the first episode of the current season, Jerry’s guest is Zach Galifianakis. After picking up Zach in a Volkswagen Thing (fun, inventive, unique, irreverent… like Galifianakis, get the idea?), the comedians end up getting their requisite coffee in a donut shop. Zach becomes nostalgic about his pre-fame days when he could spend uninterrupted time observing people in nondescript places. He explains that after the success of the Hangover movies, he feels that he lost the ability to simply hangout in ordinary places and observe. He recalls wistfully, “I got to sit and watch people… and that’s where I got everything.”

After watching Jerry and his guests discuss how comics get inspired, one gets the impression that stand-up comics split their attention as they go about their lives. The comic blends in with the rest of us Earthlings attending to the activities of daily living while simultaneously watching life from some detached, alien perspective.

For example, as Jerry and Zach are driving past a couple of elderly gentlemen greeting each other on the street, Jerry observes, “There’s two old friends. See that hug? Those guys have known each other a long time. They’ve eaten the exact same food. That’s why they’re the exact same weight.”

Facilitators and organizational development consultants also exploit the power of the detached perspective. For leaders, a detached perspective is more difficult, but no less important. Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky in their 2002 book, Leadership on the Line compare leading to dancing, ask leaders to imagine the difference between the experience of being on a dance floor and being on a balcony overlooking the dance floor:

Achieving a balcony perspective means taking yourself out of the dance, in your mind, even if only for a moment. The only way you can gain both a clearer view of reality and some perspective on the bigger picture is by distancing yourself from the fray. (p. 53)

Consultants often provide leaders with a balcony perspective because the consultant is less attached to the specific ideas and opinions surrounding a challenging organizational situation. A consultant acting as a meeting facilitator on behalf of a leader can focus on the process of the meeting and the way participants interact to ensure the meeting leader gets full advantage of convening stakeholders with diverse points-of-view.

Of course, just as leaders can get stuck on the dance floor and miss the big picture, consultants can get stuck on the balcony. Too much time on the balcony and helpful insights can become unproductive criticisms. Consultants who get comfortable on the balcony risk becoming like the “cold and timid souls” in Theodore Roosevelt’s famous speech who, “…know neither victory nor defeat.”

When Dennis Rebelo and I were students at Saybrook University working on our doctorates we developed a reputation as captious bystanders during our program’s residential conferences. At some point we started referring to ourselves as Statler and Waldorf, the cranky, wisecracking hecklers that would sit in the balcony during The Muppet Show and amuse themselves with insulting comments about whatever was happening on stage. We were never sure which of us was Statler and which was Waldorf, but we embraced the nicknames and the personas.

To be fair, Dennis gets antsy if he spends too much time on the balcony. He is a busy guy with a string of accomplishments. Check out his latest project called StoryPathing™ designed in part, to help people during transitions develop their identity through the power of narrative. I, on the other hand, get very comfortable on the balcony. Sometimes, when I facilitate meetings, the dynamics playing out in front of me can distract me from intervening and redirecting the discussion.

The view from the balcony can help a team get unstuck.

If you don’t have access to a consultant or facilitator… or a stand-up comic, you can still benefit from a detached perspective. In every group and during every meeting someone at some point in a process or discussion is paying more attention to how things are going (balcony) than to the work at hand (dance floor). Moreover, the person most likely to have a useful opinion about how things are going may be the one who seems disengaged or even anxious about participating.

If you have created an environment in which people feel safe expressing their thoughts and feelings, you can simply pause the meeting or process and ask people for feedback. If not, follow the example of Jerry Seinfeld and take a coffee break. Simply stop the action for five or ten minutes and talk to someone whose opinion you respect and who has not had much to say. When attempting to learn from someone who has been on the balcony, don’t ask, “What should we do?” Instead, ask, “What are you seeing?”