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 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?

The Neural Pathway Less Travelled

Here’s a puzzle to play with. Look at the picture below. Logically, what image belongs in the empty space? In my experience, most people struggle to solve it by simply concentrating on the images until an answer emerges. Work at it a bit and then walk away, let your mind wander, don’t become overly attached to your first few guesses about the pattern. When you come back to it, you may experience an insight that brings to mind the missing image in a way that suddenly makes the solution feel obvious. When you’re ready to see the answer, follow this link.

While sheltering in place, I’ve been reading up on the neuroscience of the feeling we experience as being stuck. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve also been binge-watching a lot of TV shows. My ability to concentrate has its limits, which as it turns out, is precisely the point of what I have been learning about our brains. Let me sum it up for you. It turns out that our brains are lazy. Our brains take shortcuts. Decades of research by psychologists bolstered by more recent studies from neuroscientists and behavioral economists demonstrate that sometimes our neural pathways become cognitive ruts. It’s worth noting that our brains have evolved to take shortcuts. Our brains take shortcuts because shortcuts are efficient and require less effort. It’s helpful for example, that we don’t have to relearn how the world works every time we wake up in the morning. Sometimes, however our brains apply shortcuts that predispose us to getting stuck, often without us realizing that we’re stuck. The beneficial feature of our brain circuitry that helps us learn from experience can become a programming bug we refer to as a bias.

            Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky introduced the concept of cognitive bias in the early 1970’s. The term cognitive bias refers to a broad array of mistakes in human perception that lead to irrational conclusions and poor judgement. Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics for applying his research into the psychology of decision making to economic theory. Much of Kahneman and Tversky’s research conclusions support the idea that our brains are designed to reduce mental effort. About a decade later, in related research, the Australian educational psychologist John Sweller coined the term, “cognitive load” to describe the impacts of mental effort on our ability to solve problems.

            To reduce cognitive load, our brains take mental shortcuts. Psychologists refer to these mental shortcuts as heuristics. A heuristic (from the Ancient Greek: “find” or “discover”) is a rule-of-thumb that we substitute for the more cognitively demanding work of figuring something out from scratch. 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 described a heuristic when I taught my daughters to estimate a 20% tip at restaurants by moving the decimal one place to the left on the total charge and then doubling the number to the left of the decimal.

            Neural pathways in the prefrontal cortex become the literal shortcuts for the electrical currents we recognize as habits of thought. We are wired to interpret current situations according to the rules developed from prior experience. To our brains, the familiarity of prior experience amounts to following a well-traveled neural pathway. Being stuck in a rut may not get us where we want to go, but it feels safer than making a change. Creative solutions and insights often require getting out of neural ruts to break a pattern of thought, which is why a new solution often emerges from going for a walk or taking a shower instead of concentrating on the problem at hand.

As we age, it takes more effort to form new neural pathways. Perhaps we feel as though we have all the cognitive capability required to make our way in the world and so we stick to the comfortable neural pathways already in place. Whatever the cause, it just feels harder to learn new things (how to play a musical instrument, how to speak a new language, how to listen to people we disagree with etc.) as adults. The research suggests that reducing mental effort is a priority for our brains. The more complex and stressful our environment, the more our thoughts seek the refuge of our neural ruts.

Here’s the good news. According to research on neuroplasticity, we can continue to develop neural pathways as we age by challenging our brains. One way to challenge your brain is to reframe the questions you’re asking about a situation that you want to change. In his 2017 book, Tinker Dabble Doodle Try, Harvard psychiatrist and brain-image researcher Srini Pillay recommends changing your questions as a way to shift focus and get unstuck (p. 128). Pillay tells the story of Serena Williams’ comeback against Victoria Azarenka during the 2012 U.S. Open tennis tournament. Williams described her thinking in an interview after the match. When asked about the moment when she was down by two games in the last set, Williams explained that instead of wondering about her probability of losing, she focused on the question, “What will it take to win?” She calculated that she would need twelve more points and made it her mission to achieve her goal one point at a time.

How Do We Get Started? versus Where Do We Go?

Consider your immediate reaction to two different ways of describing the activity of setting direction:

  • Defining a strategy
  • Choosing a way forward

If each of the above activities defined the purpose of two different meetings, which one would you rather attend?

To me, defining a strategy raises the stakes; it suggests that we seek an answer. Choosing a way forward acknowledges that there are many ways to go and our task is to pick one. A way forward can be abandoned in favor of another path without much fuss. An abandoned strategy feels like a failure.

As someone who has studied strategic thinking and facilitated my share of strategic planning exercises with organizational leaders, I want to go public with a recent heretical conclusion I’ve come to: Strategies are worthless.

To be clear, I’m not saying that formulating a strategy is a waste of time. Thinking together with other stakeholders whether on behalf of defining a strategy or as an exercise in taking stock helps build commitment and ownership. The mistake is presuming that the product describing the group’s conclusions matters as much or more than the process of reaching the conclusion. As Dwight D. Eisenhower famously said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

Strategies in my experience suffer from a mythology that the daily activities of managers must conform to a set of strategic do’s and don’ts as if strategies were commandments rather than choices. At best, strategies inform investments of time and money. However, once the investment decisions have been made the organizational system and the marketplace react. Suddenly, the assumptions under which we defined our strategy no longer pertain. You can plan your next few moves in a game of Chess, but if your opponent responds in an unpredictable way, your strategy becomes useless. In today’s business environment unpredictable conditions are the only thing we can be sure of.

Essentially, strategies are marketing statements that most often put a positive spin on what you are already doing. Organizations don’t pause like an army before a battle waiting for a plan of attack. Everyday choices are being made that lead to outcomes that hopefully lead to better options. Your best bet is to develop a strategic question that will orient and focus the activities of the organization. A question that will inform what leaders pay attention to when making decisions and assessing outcomes.

Organizations and teams need a shared set of working hypotheses from which to choose a way forward; they don’t need (and almost never defer to) a strategy. Finding a way forward depends on asking thought-provoking questions before you get stuck. Here are four questions based on the Unstuck Minds Compass that can be applied in the flow of work rather than at some fictional starting point.

What is changing?

To ask, “What is changing?” is to zoom out and conduct Contextual Inquiry. In traditional strategic thinking terms, investigating what is changing is similar to conducting an environmental scan. Contextual Inquiry focuses the environmental scan on emerging trends and potential disruptions. By asking about contextual changes, we force ourselves to evaluate our assumptions. An adaptive organization does not wait for the strategy offsite to consider whether an emerging technology makes its product obsolete.

What do we take with us and what do we leave behind?

In light of what you discover about what is changing, use Critical Inquiry to zoom in and assess what will continue to work and what can be suspended. Consider what aspects of the current situation people find satisfying. Now consider the subset of the satisfying activities that contribute to your future customers’ future needs. Let go of the rest. 

Whose needs should we organize around?

In conjunction with Critical Inquiry, use Collaborative Inquiry to clearly define who benefits from what your organization produces and specifically how they benefit. Given what is changing, who are your future customers, clients or communities and what will be different about their needs in the future?

What question will define our path forward?

Note what is changing and compare it to what you’re currently doing and for whom. Now use Creative Inquiry to find the question that will reorient the organization’s attention.

By the way, if members of your organization, your board or your investors still insist on a clear statement of your strategy, you can always do what most organizations do. Retrospectively review what has worked so far and declare that you will do more of it and even better.