The Unstuck Mindset

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing there is a field, I will meet you there.

Rumi

During the Classical Period, The Greek philosopher Aristotle explained the cosmos just as it appears, with the Sun and Moon revolving around a stationary Earth. When certain celestial objects (planets) did not move as predicted, Ptolemy figured out how to make the math work. In 270 B.C.E. some 1800 years before the Copernican Revolution, a Greek astronomer named Aristarchus proposed a Sun centered (heliocentric) cosmology. The general public could not fathom Aristarchus’ view that the Earth moved around the Sun; if the Earth was in motion, they reasoned, we’d be able to feel it move.

History gives Copernicus credit for making a heliocentric cosmology stick. Copernicus, Aristarchus, and likely others did not allow the certainty of appearances and consensus to dissuade them from considering alternatives. Copernicus and Aristarchus exhibited unstuck minds.

In 1994 South Africa ended the policy of legally enforced racial segregation known as apartheid. In 1996 President Nelson Mandela asked the Archbishop Desmond Tutu to chair South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The commission was established to investigate human rights abuses in South Africa during apartheid. As an advocate of restorative justice, Tutu proposed that the commission undertake a threefold process of confession, forgiveness, and restitution.

The TRC has been viewed by many as a model for national healing, albeit an imperfect one. In spite of the angry calls for retribution, Mandela and Tutu believed that for the oppressed to adopt the practices of the oppressors would be a betrayal of the humanistic ethics of Southern Africa known as Ubuntu. Mandela and Tutu envisioned a peaceful, thriving, multi-racial nation. Mandela and Tutu exhibited unstuck minds.

An unstuck mind develops from the disciplined application of an unstuck mindset. The term mindset describes the relatively stable assumptions and beliefs we apply to our thoughts about ourselves and about the world; it’s our way of thinking about things. In a way, “Unstuck mindset” is a useful contradiction in terms. To suggest that a mindset is unstuck is to acknowledge that we have a way of thinking about the world and at the same time acknowledge that we’re not wedded to our way of thinking.

In a way, “Unstuck mindset” is a useful contradiction in terms. To suggest that a mindset is unstuck is to acknowledge that we have a way of thinking about the world and at the same time acknowledge that we’re not wedded to our way of thinking.

When we work with clients who seek to develop their leaders’ strategic agility, we start from the premise that strategic agility benefits from an unstuck mindset. After all, being strategic means having a plan. Being agile means being able to make quick and easy movements. Putting them together means having enough certainty to choose a destination while simultaneously being attentive to signals that present viable alternatives and breakthrough options. Aristarchus and Copernicus didn’t try to fit their observations into the prevailing worldview, they wondered if the anomalies they observed might be clues to a new paradigm.

The unstuck mindset is grounded in bedrock values. The unstuck mindset trusts that learning is its own reward. The unstuck mindset presumes that as humans, we have the agency and capacity to determine our futures and solve our problems. Mandela and Tutu empathized with the pain of those calling for vengeance, yet they created an opening amidst the tensions associated with the end of apartheid for justice.

The unstuck mind develops insights by sitting with, rather than avoiding questions and tensions. Being comfortable with questions and tensions makes the space between uncertainty and certainty more habitable. The unstuck mind prefers continuums to categories. The unstuck mind thrives under conditions of ambiguity.

An unstuck mindset allows you to develop four thinking skills:

  1. How to think about the context surrounding the situation you’re dealing with, so you don’t miss something important
  2. How to think about the structures holding your current situation in place, so you don’t solve the wrong problem
  3. How to think about the desires and needs of people in your network, so that you don’t exclude diverse perspectives
  4. How to think about how you’re thinking, so that you don’t get misled by blind spots and biases

We’ve struggled to find a simple way to express what it meant to have an unstuck mindset and then we came across the image above. We’ve started referring to the young adventurer in the image as Charlie. Charlie is the embodiment of an unstuck mindset. Just look at him! Charlie has prepared himself for discovery. He is relaxed, righthand in pocket. He is undaunted, left fist pointing to his future. One gets the impression that Charlie has attempted this voyage before. Charlie willingly launches himself into the uncertainty of wide-open spaces because he understands that all the best possibilities dwell in the wide-open spaces.

How to Question our Future

A stuck mind is disabled by complexity and uncertainty. In the face of our pandemic, stuck minds are yearning for a return to normal, as if the state of the world before the virus shut things down represented some ideal. Grieving the loss of our routines and interactions makes sense. I don’t want to minimize or dismiss the impact of what we’ve lost, what we continue to lose. On the other hand, focusing on getting back what we’ve lost misses the opportunity to consider what we might bring forth.

The author William Bridges built a consulting practice around his theory of “transitions,” which describes the human experience of confronting change. Bridges points out that the way we speak about change is very different from the way we experience change. We talk about change as an event with a before and an after. However, when humans are involved in change, we don’t simply adapt to a new set of circumstances. Humans, according to Bridges move through a three-stage transition as we become familiar with and learn to accept what is different.

Ironically, the first phase of the transitions process is “the ending.” In the ending phase, we focus on what is being lost or going away. We can’t give our attention to what is changing until we’ve made peace with what’s ending. I’ll come back to the second phase in a moment.

The third and final phase of a transition, according to Bridges is the “new beginning.” In a new beginning, we tentatively accept the post-change reality. We start to alter our habits and routines and give our attention to making things work given the conditions we find ourselves in.

Bridges calls the second phase of the transition process, “the neutral zone.” The neutral zone is a time of anxiety and ambiguity. In the neutral zone, people become polarized. Some are impatient to move into a new reality while some are unwilling to accept that a former reality has ended for good.

Surprisingly, the neutral zone also provides an opportunity for creativity. When you are not stuck in the past and you are not yet habituated to a new reality, possibilities present themselves. In describing the neutral zone, Bridges (1991) wrote, “When everything is going smoothly, it’s often hard to change things… People who are sure they have the answers stop asking questions. And people who stop asking questions never challenge the status quo” (p. 36).

The Unstuck Minds Compass Model is a good source of questions in times of uncertainty and complexity. The Compass Model suggests posing questions from four different directions or dimensions:

  1. Explore the context by asking, What’s changing?
  2. Analyze current structures by asking, What’s keeping things in place?
  3. Consider social networks by asking, Who needs what?
  4. Reorient your thinking by asking, How might we reframe our challenge?

Let me provide some responses to each of the Compass Questions and invite you to add your own answers in the comments section below:

What’s Changing?

  • We’re developing a deep appreciation for essential service providers and healthcare workers.
  • We’re learning the depth of our interconnectedness in terms of social systems and infrastructure.
  • Disparities in access to services, opportunities, and basic needs are becoming even more evident.

What’s keeping things in place?

  • A false dichotomy between economic health and physical health.
  • Territorial approaches to solutions rather than collaborating across boundaries.
  • Politicizing problem-solving by only agreeing to solutions that help you maintain control and power.

Who needs what?

  • Leaders need to project competence and trustworthiness.
  • Healthcare workers need to feel safe, well-equipped, and effective.
  • Vulnerable populations need to feel protected, empowered, and able to safely access necessities.

How might we reframe our challenge?

Given what’s changing, what’s keeping things in place, and in consideration of people’s needs, the final question of the Compass Model invites us to change our questions. People with stuck minds are asking, “When can we return to normal?” People with unstuck minds recognize an opportunity to ask questions that create new futures. Here are some of my favorites:

  • What will we miss about sheltering in place that we can include in our future routines?
  • From an article in The Atlantic by Ed Yong: How might the society we return to be fairer and less vulnerable?
  • What role do we want and not want technology to play in the way we work, learn, interact, and entertain ourselves?
  • How do we make empathy and compassion a way of life when we’re not facing an emergency?

What are the questions worth asking during this time of transition for your organization?

Bridges, W. (1991). Managing Transitions, Making the most of change. New York, NY: Harper Collins

The Hierarchy of Inclusivity

Efforts to help organizations become places that welcome differences – in who we are and how we like to work – have shifted from an emphasis on diversity to an emphasis on inclusivity. An emphasis on diversity, which can be thought of as an outcome, leads to conversations about representation that often devolve into a focus on demographics. An emphasis on inclusivity, which can be thought of as a practice, leads to conversations about human needs that create opportunities to focus on structures that create and sustain unfair advantages and oppressive disadvantages.

Abraham Maslow famously represented human needs as a pyramid suggesting that we won’t be motivated to meet some needs until more foundational needs have been satisfied. For example, in Maslow’s hierarchy, we cannot work to meet our need for “love and belonging” until our physiological and safety needs have been met. I won’t seek out companionship if I’m living in fear of being harmed or being left without a livelihood.

At Unstuck Minds we have been dabbling with a framework that borrows the notion of a hierarchy of needs with a focus on inclusivity. We want to acknowledge recent conversations with our colleagues Tracy Rickard and Ford Hatamiya who have both contributed their experience with the topic to the current expression of the model. We view this post as an invitation to continue the conversation about how best to provide a simple, memorable, and powerful way for organizational leaders to explore how they practice inclusivity.

Hierarchy of Inclusion Needs

The Need to be Seen

The first section of The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook (Senge, Kleiner, Roberts, Ross, and Smith, 1994) introduced many of us in the West to the African philosophy of Ubuntu. Senge, et al. shared the Zulu phrase, Umuntu ngumuntu nagabantu, which translates as: “A person is a person because of other people” (1994, p. 3). In a sense, your acknowledgement of me brings me into existence.

The Ubuntu philosophy explains the significance of the Zulu greeting, Sawubona, which literally translates as: “I see you.” Each encounter with someone becomes a reaffirmation of our coexistence and interdependence. In writing and directing the 2009 movie Avatar, James Cameron imbues the Na’vi, the native population of the fictional planet Pandora, with a version of the Ubuntu philosophy. In Na’vi, the greeting, Oel ngati kame, also means, “I see you.”

If I don’t feel seen at work, I will not identify with my organization. I will see my workplace as a foreign territory I periodically visit. It will feel risky to reveal myself to others.

The Need to Belong

David McClelland, an American psychologist most noted for his work on motivation theory, popularized the concept of affiliation needs. McClelland thought of affiliation as a fundamental need to feel a sense of involvement and belonging with a social group.

Researcher, author, and world-renown speaker Brené Brown has made “belonging” a centerpiece of her message about the power of vulnerability. Brown, like McClelland describes belonging as an innate human desire. For Brown our need to belong sometimes manifests as a desire to “fit in” that ironically separates us from others because we are hiding our authentic, imperfect selves.

If I don’t feel like I belong at work, I will not support my organization. I will see work as a marketplace where I trade my effort for pay. I play a role at work the same way that a car-engine part plays a role in making the car move. When my capacity to serve my function is diminished, I expect to be replaced.

The Need to Matter

Following the rubric of a hierarchy, until I feel seen, I won’t try to belong. Until I feel like I belong, I won’t work to establish my distinctiveness; a distinctiveness that demonstrates how I matter. When I no longer question whether or not I’m a recognized and accepted part of my organization, I can seek out ways to be significant to my organization.

Will Schutz, an American Psychologist, author, and creator of the psychometric instrument known as the FIRO-B® described “significance” as the primary feeling associated with our need for inclusion. For Schutz, to feel significance is to “…know that I make a difference, am an important person, am meaningful and worthwhile” (1994, p. 31).

If I don’t feel that I matter at work, I will not contribute my creativity, ingenuity, or discretionary effort. My organization has become a comfortable place where I understand the routines and people count on me to do my part. I might embellish the odd assignment with a personal touch in order to express myself, but eventually my yearning for meaning and for being consequential will alienate me from my organization and I will seek self-esteem elsewhere.

Applying the Framework

If you are a target of the “isms” that undermine social cohesion and human development (racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, etc.), it makes sense that you would feel worn out and angry by a daily struggle to be seen, to belong, and to matter. If you have the good fortune to fit your society’s preferred identities, your world has been set up to facilitate your requirements for being seen, belonging, and feeling like you matter.

Frameworks can help us see invisible structures. If we can’t see how structures cause harm, we can’t talk about them. If we can’t talk about them, we can’t dismantle them. Over the course of your day, how much energy do you expend trying to be seen, trying to belong, and trying to matter? Now pose that question to someone who experiences society as inhospitable.

Senge, P., Kleiner, A., Roberts, C., Ross, R.B., & Smith, B.S. (1994). The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. New York, NY: Doubleday

Schutz, W. (1994). The Human Element: Productivity, self-esteem, and the bottom line. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

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.