Invite a Philosopher to your next Meeting

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

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

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

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

Dora Jacobs: What are you studying in school?

Me: Philosophy

Dora Jacobs: What are going to do with that?

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

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

Shep: …and Sophie?

Charlie: She’s in Amherst.

Shep: What’s she majoring in?

Charlie: Philosophy

Shep: What do you do with a philosophy degree?

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

Et tu, Aaron Sorkin?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consultant, heal thyself

Earlier this month I facilitated a meeting for a group of physicians who are members of a state medical society. The Governor of the state established a consortium for the prevention of prescription drug abuse in response to the national opioid crisis. The consortium in turn, reached out to the medical society to convene members for the purpose of establishing protocols, exchanging best practices, and aligning on a point-of-view to share with legislators that would ensure meaningful regulation.

My blood pressure goes up when I’m in a room with one doctor, so you can imagine how I felt about facilitating a meeting with 20 doctors. Nevertheless, I had agreed to help them tackle an important topic. We needed to make the most of a day-long meeting of professionals volunteering their valuable time. The expertise in the room wasn’t going to do anyone any good without a process that ensured shared understanding and produced actionable alignment.

Working with problem-solving groups is itself an exercise in problem solving.

Smart, highly skilled people who generally solve problems by themselves don’t automatically adapt to the challenges of collaboration. One of the challenges of collaborating during a problem solving exercise is slowing the group down enough to confirm that they agree on the problem before they start generating solutions. Doctors in particular, think fast and have been trained in a diagnostic methodology; they move from symptoms to causes and then prescribe or operate.

A challenge like the opioid crisis doesn’t present itself in the way a patient might show up with symptoms. A public health emergency is not just a more complicated set of symptoms requiring a differential diagnosis. Complex social problems can’t be outsmarted. Chasing down causes might help us feel more in control, but the causes are not static conditions waiting to be discovered. Asking what’s causing the opioid crisis is like asking what causes religion (no Marxist pun intended).

Upon reflection, I’ve come to realize that a tension between competing research methodologies hid below the surface of our work together that day. The doctors had been trained as scientists. Science presumes that objective observation and analysis can lead to universal causal laws. I had suggested a collaborative process based on a social theory approach called, participatory action research. Participatory action research presumes a dynamic relationship between understanding something and changing it. By contrast, science presumes we need to understand something before we try to change it.

While we made respectable progress and agreed to a few clear action steps, I am only now coming to realize the mistake I made in designing a process for the meeting. Because of my anxiety about showing up as an authority, I inadvertently acted like a doctor. I treated the group as a patient. I diagnosed their group dynamics and prescribed process fixes. Alternatively, I could have recognized that together we represented our own complex social network. I might have been more open to the way our challenges and shared understanding emerged through our dialogue. Had I been more attentive to and less judgmental about the group’s natural tendencies, we may have made even more progress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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