Preventing the Spread of Infectious Beliefs

I have some beliefs about drivers in Dallas, Texas.

My wife and I moved to Dallas over 30 years ago from Los Angeles. I learned to drive in LA. People who live in Southern California spend a lot of time in their cars, it’s a significant part of their lives. In Dallas, you might arrive somewhere and mention the weather because quick, extreme changes in weather are not unusual. In LA, when you arrive somewhere the first question is often, “How did you get here?” The appropriate response includes a list of freeway numbers, “I took the 10 to the 405 to the 134, but going back I’m taking the 110.” Your response might prompt a respectful nod or incite an argument.

Drivers in LA do a lot of merging and lane changing, maybe that’s why they’re more disciplined about using their turn signals. Drivers in Dallas switch lanes without signaling and often don’t bother to indicate a turn. I shared this observation with a North Texas native once. He bragged, “signaling a lane change is a sign of weakness.”

From Turn Signals to Tooth Fairies

We’ll come back to my beliefs about Dallas drivers in a moment. First, I want to discuss the Tooth Fairy.

For years, our three daughters accepted as fact that a kindly, winged fairy visited in the night to exchange money for teeth, but only if the tooth was tucked under their pillow. Somewhere, I still have a note to the Tooth Fairy written by one of my daughters. She politely requested that the fairy leave the tooth and the money. I have it on good authority that the Tooth Fairy acceded to her wishes.

Richard Dawkins, the author, evolutionary biologist, and secularist famously compared belief in the Tooth Fairy to religious faith. In his 1991 essay Viruses of the Mind, Dawkins compared delusional beliefs to mental infections. Children, he argued are susceptible to misinformation in the same way that immune-deficient patients cannot protect themselves from viruses.

Mental Immunity

We are living in a time when comparisons to epidemiology and contagion are particularly, you’ll excuse the expression, germane. The philosopher Andy Norman has taken the idea-as-virus metaphor one step further. In his new book, Mental Immunity, Norman levels up the status of the metaphor arguing that ideologies are not like infections, they are infections – infections of the mind. If Norman gets his way, the next Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-6) will include something like infectious misinformation as a legitimate disease state. He has a point.

I can easily imagine the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention devoting resources to what Norman has dubbed, “Cognitive Immunology.” Even if they don’t, there’s little doubt that bad ideologies harm public health. Consider the societal “morbidities” associated with the following beliefs:

  • I will be rewarded in the afterlife if I blow myself up while murdering civilians in public
  • The 2020 U.S. presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump
  • The government is putting microchips in the Covid-19 vaccines

I’m persuaded by Norman’s argument. Whether he’s torturing a metaphor or opening a line of scientific inquiry may not matter. It feels different, and more useful to think of people harboring destructive beliefs as infected rather than insane.

It feels different, and more useful to think of people harboring destructive beliefs as infected rather than insane.

Not all infections of the body are equally detrimental. Covid-19 might land you in the hospital, but the common cold won’t. Similarly, not all infectious beliefs threaten civil society. You could argue that children enthralled by the idea of a tooth fairy inspire us with their innocence. At worst, I get irritable trying to guess the motives of drivers speeding up or slowing down around me. My belief that my fellow North Texans won’t signal their intentions with their blinkers doesn’t seem particularly virulent.

A Symptom of Being Infected with a Belief

I’m aware of the bodily symptoms associated with the common cold. What symptoms are associated with being infected by a common misconception? I can think of one. Let’s look more closely at my belief that drivers in Dallas don’t use their turn signals.

Thanks to confirmation bias, when I drive around Dallas, I see countless examples of people changing lanes without signaling. Interestingly, when I drive with my wife or daughters, they’re fond of pointing out counterexamples. “Look,” a helpful, back-seat daughter once gleefully announced, “that green car is signaling.”

Here’s how I know that I’ve been infected with a bad belief. When someone points out contrary evidence, my first instinct is not to reconsider my belief. When my daughter points out a driver dutifully using their blinker, without missing a beat I’m likely to counter, “They’re not from Dallas.” I’d rather reinterpret the facts than let go of my questionable belief.

There are innumerable practices and prescriptions for strengthening the physical body’s immune system. Norman’s book offers cognitive fitness advice for boosting our mental immunity. One idea he offers is to treat your favorite beliefs like houseguests.

Once caught, an infectious belief, like a virus makes itself at home. Over time, it’s hard to distinguish your identity from your cherished beliefs. You know you’ve become infected by a belief when you become loyal to it. Instead of you having the belief, the belief has you. Treating beliefs like a houseguest is to recognize them as temporary, always at risk of overstaying their welcome.

Take the Evidence Test

Here’s an exercise to try. Pick a belief you hold that guides your priorities or connects you to a welcoming community. What would you accept as evidence that your belief is misguided or flat out wrong? If you can’t imagine any reasons or facts that would separate you from the belief, your mental immune system has been compromised. It’s no longer something you simply believe. The belief has altered your mind’s structure. The houseguest has taken up residence and redecorated the place.

Did 2020 alter your perspective on what it takes to be a good leader? So…what does that say about your competency model?

Let’s start with a quiz. Review the two descriptions below. One is from a global executive competency model1. The other is from the American Kennel Club’s (AKC) breed standard for an Australian Shepherd Dog.

Click on the description if you need to know which is which.

Speaking of the AKC, our family has always loved watching the National Dog Show on Thanksgiving. Even though our grown daughters did not travel home for Thanksgiving this year, we all still watched the dog show. When our daughters were growing up, we had a Welsh Corgi named Milo. We still get very excited during the part of the show when it’s time to judge the herding group. To this day we all root for the Pembroke Corgi.

Sometimes I think those of us who work in leadership development are jealous of the dog show judges. We wish we had a set of agreed upon standards for judging leaders. If only we could clarify and align on an ideal, we would know whom to promote and we would know where to focus our training efforts.

Of course, describing effective leadership is nothing like describing the ideal Australian Shepherd. Leadership is a relationship not a set of characteristics. Like parenting, what counts as good leadership varies with the situation and the nature of the people you care for.

Good leaders are neither bred nor manufactured. Still, we just can’t seem to shake the production mindset when we think about the performance of leaders. We can’t help thinking that the behaviors and output of a leader should be held up against some standard.

From Models to Modes

The pandemic has brought suffering and devastation, it has also shaken loose a lot of foundational assumptions. We can get work done even when we can’t convene in an office. Classrooms aren’t the only place public education can happen. And maybe we’re starting to realize that the leadership our organizations need doesn’t conform to a static model.

Many of our clients are focused on accelerating the readiness of high-potential managers for senior leadership roles. I understand the dilemma. Given the vast number of baby boomers getting ready for retirement, organizations need to prepare promotable replacements for many of their most experienced leaders. Consequently, a select group of middle managers will soon be moving into executive roles having had much less experience than their predecessors.

While I appreciate the challenge of filling key vacancies, I believe it’s time for us to put away our measuring sticks when thinking about developing organizational leadership. If you want to accelerate someone’s readiness for a key leadership role, maybe you should be less concerned about how to speed up development and more concerned about what you mean by readiness.

If you want to accelerate someone’s readiness for a key leadership role, maybe you should be less concerned about how to speed up development and more concerned about what you mean by readiness.

We rely too much on our leadership competency models. Let’s start to think more systemically about the modes of leadership appropriate to our times, our needs, and our missions. When technology disrupts our markets, we might benefit from a shift to an innovation leadership mode. When unexpected change forces us to work in unfamiliar ways, we might need a shift to an empathetic leadership mode.

We can’t expect leaders to live up to an impossible set of standards. We can, however, redesign our organizations so we can access the leadership mode we need given our circumstances and our goals. What if our leadership modes, rather than our organizational charts determined who becomes more influential and who becomes less influential? Sometimes we need General George Patton, and sometimes we need Rosa Parks.

Our Corgi Milo suffered from serious skin allergies. He was on a variety of medications including monthly allergy shots, which he begrudgingly accepted because he knew it meant a stick of string cheese afterword. Milo was gentle and lethargic. He had a few frisky years when we first rescued him, but for most of his life with us he was never really up for herding anything.

The AKC standard for Pembroke Welsh Corgis ends with a description of the ideal breed temperament, “Outlook bold, but kindly. Never shy or vicious. The judge shall dismiss from the ring any Pembroke Welsh Corgi that is excessively shy2.” Milo never stood a chance at the National Dog Show, but he was the ideal companion when we lived in a raucous, cluttered house full of energetic kids.

  1. McCall, M., & Hollenbeck, G. (2002). Developing global executives: The lessons of international experience. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing
  2. American Kennel Club (1993). Official Standard of the Pembroke Welsh Corgi. Page 3. Retrieved from: https://images.akc.org/pdf/breeds/standards/PembrokeWelshCorgi.pdf

The Four Disciplines of an Unstuck Mind

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.

Stuck Happens

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.

Develop

People with unstuck minds regularly reflect on their own assumptions, beliefs, and behaviors. They ask: How might I be getting in my own way?

Accept

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?

Design

People with unstuck minds tinker and improve their surroundings. They ask: Why do we do it that way?

Adapt

People with unstuck minds are agile and respond to environmental changes. They ask: What opportunities become possible if this innovation catches on?

When Reacting is Re-Acting

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?

The Featured image above is from Henrik Bothe’s plate spinning routine

How do I get Control of my Time? Wrong Question!

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?

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.

Four Superpowers you need to Avoid Misdirection

Here’s the situation…

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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