Uncertainty is Not the Problem

We experience uncertainty in two ways. First, there’s informational uncertainty. We experience informational uncertainty when we lack facts and data to help us predict and control our environment. Secondly, there is emotional uncertainty. Emotional uncertainty is the subjective feeling associated with our information gap. Simply put, uncertainty is both what we don’t know and how we feel about not knowing it.

We’re accustomed to equating uncertainty and uncertain times with negative emotions. Most of the time, an inability to predict and control creates stress. When we experience negative emotions caused by a lack of information, we are motivated to reduce uncertainty.

There is, however, an important difference between reducing informational uncertainty and reducing the negative emotions associated with uncertainty. You can only reduce informational uncertainty by acquiring missing facts and data. You can reduce emotional uncertainty by reaching a conclusion or taking action. You may need to settle for a disappointing outcome, but at least things feel resolved. There’s another way to reduce uncertainty, but it may strike you as counterintuitive. You could learn to get comfortable feeling uncertain.

There’s another way to reduce uncertainty, but it may strike you as counterintuitive. You could learn to get comfortable feeling uncertain.

Sometimes Uncertainty Feels Thrilling

One key to getting comfortable with uncertainty is to recognize that informational uncertainty does not always create negative emotions. We have all experienced the thrill of being surprised. We frequently put ourselves in situations designed to be unpredictable. Mystery novels and cliff-hanger season finales would not be entertaining if the uncertainty of what happens next created negative emotions. We lack information. We cannot predict. We cannot control, yet we feel entertained and engaged rather than desperate and paralyzed.

Of course, the difference in how uncertainty makes us feel has everything to do with what’s at risk. I can enjoy the suspense of a naïve character on the screen reaching for a door that they’ll soon regret opening. If only they could hear the pulsating music accompanying the scene the way I hear it, they’d think twice about turning that doorknob. I enjoy the scene because I’m not walking through the door. The doomed character and I have the same informational uncertainty, but very different emotional uncertainty. The problem is not about the information we lack!

High Stakes Plus Lack of Control

Maybe you’re thinking that because I won’t experience the consequences of making an uninformed choice, I’m not feeling stressed out by the uncertainty. It’s not quite that simple. Even when I need to deal with an informationally uncertain situation, I can still find joy in not knowing.

I once went to a fancy chef-run restaurant. One of the options on the menu was to let the chef decide what I would be served. The server checked for any dietary restrictions or strong preferences and then delivered one interesting and enjoyable course after another. I could not predict. I could not control. The anticipation and mystery enhanced the experience.

What’s the difference between situations of informational uncertainty that stress us out and those that don’t?

One difference, as mentioned before, has to do with a combination of what’s at risk and how much influence we have over the situation. We feel anxious when we cannot influence a situation that might negatively affect us. Anybody waiting for the resolution of an impending reorganization or merger understands that not knowing can feel scary.

Taking a Beat Between Thinking and Action

But what if we do have some control or authority to decide how to proceed when things are uncertain? When we are responsible for making a choice or taking action, we tend to think of informational uncertainty as an obstacle and a source of stress. We don’t know enough about the environment. We need to make a move and so we feel anxious.

It turns out that the more captured we become by the negative emotions associated with informational uncertainty, the harder it becomes to reduce the uncertainty. When we feel motivated to alleviate the stress of uncertainty, we are more likely to seize on a premature conclusion. Furthermore, when feeling stressed out by uncertainty, we are more likely to narrow our attention and miss surprising and potentially useful information.

We create a vicious cycle. A lack of information causes anxiety. Anxiety prevents us from seeking information.

We create a vicious cycle. A lack of information causes anxiety. Anxiety prevents us from seeking information.

I have written elsewhere about the SCAN model for finding hidden opportunities when you feel trapped by uncertainty. Before applying a framework to surface insights and options, you may need to check your attitude about uncertainty.

If taking a beat between thinking and action creates stress, you’ll resolve your uncertainty simply to feel settled. Feeling settled is not the same thing as making a good decision. If you can get comfortable pausing to explore the uncertainty, you may discover creative and compassionate solutions hiding in plain sight. We miss the surprises along the side of the road when we make a habit of rushing toward our destination. Times of uncertainty invite us to consider that we may be rushing toward a place we no longer want to be.

Scientist or Philosopher, The Dubious Distinction

Adam Grant published a new book. I published a new book too. Grant is a best-selling author, a top TED talker, and a highly regarded professor of organizational psychology at The Wharton School. I’m fairly popular with dozens of clients and colleagues.

Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, Daniel Kahneman, and Brené Brown enthusiastically endorse Grant’s new book. I can report that my sister Ann purchased a copy of my new book for each of her adult kids.

Grant’s book, Think Again, is about the power of knowing what you don’t know. My book, The Surprising Power of Not Knowing What to Do, is about discovering creativity and compassion in a time of chaos. We both believe that the future belongs to people who have the mental flexibility to think about how they think and the emotional maturity to question their conclusions and beliefs.

There’s an interesting and subtle difference between how each of us describe our recommended model of better thinking. Grant suggests we think more like scientists. Here’s what Grant wrote about thinking in what he calls scientist mode:

When we’re in scientist mode, we refuse to let our ideas become ideologies. We don’t start with answers or solutions; we lead with questions and puzzles… [Thinking like a scientist] requires searching for reasons why we might be wrong – not reasons why we must be right – and revising our views based on what we learn.

Adam Grant, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know (New York: Viking, 2021), 25.

I recommend that we think more like philosophers. Here’s what I wrote about thinking like a philosopher:

Training in philosophy prepares you to question assumptions, including your own… It’s reassuring to hold on to beliefs even if they no longer serve us, especially core beliefs that shape our identity. The faster things change, the more tempting it becomes to blame the change rather than our capacity to adapt. Without the ability to pause for philosophically detached reflection, we not only end up with rising levels of anxiety and divisiveness, we get stuck in our thinking.

Jay G. Cone, The Surprising Power of Not Knowing What to Do: Discovering Creativity and Compassion in a Time of Chaos (Dallas: Unstuck Minds Media, 2021), 57-58.

As I read Grant’s book, I thought about the difference between the scientist and the philosopher. Allow me to experiment with a distinction (adopting a scientist’s mindset) that I’ve been considering. I welcome your reactions. It seems to me that to the scientist, doubt is an adversary. To the philosopher, doubt is an ally.

To the scientist, doubt is an adversary. To the philosopher, doubt is an ally

I’m not saying that scientists want to eliminate doubt, it’s not an enemy to be vanquished. The scientist views doubt as a worthy adversary. An adversary that deserves respect. Scientific doubt spurs better answers. The philosopher hangs out with doubt. Philosophical doubt spurs better questions.

When it comes to finding a vaccine against Covid-19, I’m on team scientist. When it comes to finding a way to help people think through the ethics of vaccine distribution, I suggest inviting some philosophers to the conversation.

Practically speaking, it’s probably a distinction without a difference. Whether we think more like a scientists or more like philosophers, we can all benefit from thinking better and connecting better so the world becomes more creative and compassionate.

Introducing SCAN; How to Spot the Hidden Complexities that Keep Us Stuck

When you’re stuck, you need insights and options. Insights help you see your situation in new ways. Options help you restore confidence and momentum.

The Metal Detector versus the Vacuum Cleaner

We never get complete data about the world around us. Even though our senses constantly interact with information about the world, we can only pay attention to a fraction of the available data. At this moment, clothing, a chair, the floor, perhaps a device you’re holding all create sensations. Until this sentence redirected your attention, it’s unlikely you noticed the sensory data available to your skin.

We imagine that we move through the world like a vacuum cleaner picking up all the information in our path. In reality, we operate more like a metal detector. We are programmed to notice some things, and we sweep past a lot of other things that just don’t register. Some of the things we don’t notice might become the source of the insights and options we need.

SCAN

Remember that moment in the original Matrix movie when Keanu Reeves sees the Matrix? Reeve’s character Neo learns to perceive his world as cascading ribbons of glowing binary code. The true complexities of the matrix are revealed. Neo gets transcendently kissed, pummels Agent Smith with one hand behind his back, and rocks a pair of iconic sunglasses. Using the SCAN tool is less dramatic. On the plus side, you don’t have to be ‘The One’ to take advantage of disregarded or overlooked information.

SCAN stands for: Structures, Context, Assumptions, and Needs

  • Structures are the systems, processes, norms, and routines that define the environment in which we operate. Meeting norms and incentive systems are examples of structures.
  • Context describes the environmental factors outside the boundaries of our daily activities and responsibilities. New technologies and governmental regulations are examples of context.
  • Assumptions are the underlying beliefs of the individuals who want to make a change. Unspoken beliefs that our solution must be cost-neutral or that we can’t alter the manufacturing process are examples of assumptions.
  • Needs represent the underlying desires and motivations of people who might play an influential role in changing things for the better. A desire on the part of new-hires to have more autonomy at work or a growing preference among customers to do business with socially responsible organizations are examples of needs.

In the image below you see the four elements of SCAN represented as quadrants along two dimensions. Structures and Context provide information about the environment in which we operate. Assumptions and Needs provide information about the mindsets and motivations of people connected to our situation.

The horizontal dimension differentiates between elements that we can influence and elements that we can’t influence but may potentially influence us. We have the ability to change our structures and our assumptions. On the other hand, changes in our context and the needs of others happen without our intervention.

For example, our context now includes greater political and media attention on issues of racial justice. Heightened needs for fairness and equity have become a priority. The external influence of context and needs are bumping up against longstanding organizational assumptions about who deserves power and authority. Many organizations are beginning to reimagine their hiring, performance management, and promotions structures.

SCAN can help you avoid being blindsided by external forces that disrupt the status quo. When leaders and their teams routinely SCAN for insights and options, they notice opportunities sooner and become more adaptable to change.

SCAN can help you avoid being blindsided by external forces that disrupt the status quo. When leaders and their teams routinely SCAN for insights and options, they notice opportunities sooner and become more adaptable to change.

The other important thing to notice about the horizontal axis is that the things we can influence (Structures and Assumptions) are precisely the things that maintain stability. It’s more comfortable to preserve the status quo and operate according to our habits and routines. Stability makes it easier to scale up. Stability makes it easier to orient and train new-hires. When we maintain assumptions and structures, we can make improvements through efficiency and productivity. But, as the world continues to become more complex, uncertain, and turbulent, stability creates dysfunction by keeping things the same when what’s needed is change.

The things we can’t influence (Context and Needs) are precisely the things that create opportunity. Options and possibilities emerge from changes in society, technology, regulations, scientific discoveries, and generational priorities. We can look to what’s changing in society and the marketplace for a new way forward. At the same time, the pursuit of opportunities creates instability that can feel risky or threatening.

Let’s have a look at how the SCAN tool might help us think differently about a common challenge facing today’s organizational leaders.

Using SCAN to Improve Online Team Meetings

Keep in mind that conducting a SCAN does not give you an answer. Revealing hidden complexities is about widening the search area to increase the odds of discovering insights and options.

Suppose like a lot of leaders these days, you’re struggling to keep your distributed team engaged during virtual team meetings. You’ve made a few attempts at switching up the meeting processes, but things haven’t improved. You can tell that people are bored or distracted. You suspect that they are multi-tasking, or perhaps sending private, unhelpful chat comments to one another.

Insights and options will continue to be elusive unless you’re willing to think through the hidden complexities. It’s likely that some unexamined habits carried over from the weekly face-to-face update meetings need to change (Structure). There are probably new software applications and ways of working being introduced that you haven’t explored (Context). Perhaps some deeply held beliefs about meetings need to be challenged (Assumptions). Finally, investigating with empathy what really matters to people might help you figure out whether or not team meetings serve those who attend (Needs). The image below captures questions worth discussing with the team related to each dimension of SCAN.

The Unstuck Mind

You have two choices if making decisions in times of uncertainty feels overwhelming. You can reduce the uncertainty, or you can get comfortable feeling uncertain.

Our evolutionary impulse is to reduce uncertainty, even when it’s bad for us. A 2016 study conducted by researchers at University College London found that students who had a 50% chance of being shocked showed greater signs of stress than students who had a 100% chance of being shocked.

Speaking of stress, other researchers have demonstrated that when conditions become stressful, we’re quicker to reach conclusions. Under stress, we are also more likely to maintain allegiance to our premature conclusions. We don’t like uncertainty. And, unless conditions are ideal, thinking feels like a chore to be completed quickly. We shouldn’t be surprised that absolutism is on the rise and nuance on the decline.

There’s a vicious cycle at work here. Given our preference for reducing uncertainty, we take comfort in easy answers. The more we accept easy answers, the lower our tolerance for uncertainty. If you don’t use your muscles, they get weak. If you don’t use your mind, it becomes susceptible to nonsense.

If you don’t use your muscles, they get weak. If you don’t use your mind, it becomes susceptible to nonsense.

You know who is very happy to reduce uncertainty for you? Advertisers, politicians, fundamentalists, and your know-it-all relative or neighbor. Plenty of people and companies are happy to slip you easy-to-digest answers.

Moreover, we can now reduce complex ideas and share them with the world as social media headlines. Last I checked, the most common length of a Tweet is 33 characters. How much of your understanding of the world is based on your Twitter feed?

When I write a blog post, an algorithm will judge its readability. I will see a green happy face, or a red frowny face displayed at the bottom of my draft. Instead of feeling insulted, I’m meant to feel grateful. I’m being warned, let’s not burden people with complete sentences! I’m a fan of simplification in service of learning. Simplifying complex ideas should be a strategy for engagement, not a way to feel like you’re done understanding something.

The Surprising Power of Not Knowing What to Do

In my new book, I take the position that feeling uncertain about what to do is an opportunity, not a problem. Moments of uncertainty allow for creativity and compassion. Sitting with moments of uncertainty develops your stamina for dealing with chaos and turbulence. Instead of knowing what to do, our work is to find strategies for accepting what uncertainty has to offer.

Borrowing a tradition from my friend and colleague, Michael Reidy, I’ll end with a poem. Michael also deserves credit for bringing the poem to my attention.

Our Real Work

by Wendell Berry

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Copyright ©1983 by Wendell Berry, from Standing by Words

How Are You Thinking Today?

While scientists frantically work to find a safe, effective vaccine for Covid-19, I’m focused on boosting our immunity to an epidemic of closed-mindedness. I’m not talking about a closed-mindedness born of conviction. I’m talking about a closed-mindedness born of exhaustion. Our brains were not designed to cope with sustained chaos.

Current events have infected us with a malaise. The governing principles of civil society that anchor our identities and our aspirations have come unmoored. When our bedrock assumptions are threatened, we become susceptible to simplistic answers, arrogant leaders, and snake-oil salesmen. We are grateful for any port in a storm.

Some strive to reduce the turmoil and increase predictability, yearning for simpler times. I’m more interested in developing a fitness routine for the way we think. If we can boost our immunity to chaos, we can respond with creativity and compassion rather than paralysis and tribalism.

If we can boost our immunity to chaos, we can respond with creativity and compassion rather than paralysis and tribalism

The current epidemic of closed-mindedness leaves us vulnerable to lies and simplistic platitudes. The most dangerous virus is the one that makes us susceptible to dogmatism and attention-grabbing. Easy answers in difficult times are no answers at all. When our stamina for discernment has been lowered, we accommodate the most easily digestible, the briefest, the loudest, the most outrageous. We become susceptible to messages that light up our limbic system by appealing directly to our emotions. It’s no coincidence that we refer to attention-grabbing media as “viral.”

It seems almost too obvious to say, but for things to improve, something must change. What’s less obvious is that one of the things available to change is how we think. If you’re stuck in freeway traffic, you could improve your situation by having something outside your control change, like a tow truck clearing away a stalled vehicle. You could improve your situations by taking matters into your own hands. You could exit the freeway and pick an alternate route. You could also improve things by changing your attitude about your situation. Instead of thinking of yourself as stuck, you adopt the attitude that you’ve been given a break in your day to catch up on a podcast or audiobook.

Let’s work to prevent the spread of harmful thinking. If you are focused on answering the question, “What should we do?” you are vulnerable to people who pretend to have all the answers. In times of chaos, no one has all the answers. By definition, situations feel chaotic because the usual rules no longer apply.

The chaos, instability and turbulence we’re currently experiencing calls for a particular type of thinking. In truth, our world was becoming more complex and uncertain long before 2020. It’s worth considering whether our lack of stamina for thinking, our attraction to simplistic answers, and our shrinking attention spans are the causes rather than the results of our interlocking crises. Either way, our future may depend on the kind of unfettered thinking characteristic of an unstuck mind rather than the dog-eared playbook of incurious experts.

Scenario Un-Planning; How to get Unstuck by Starting from Where you Aren’t

When a team of strategists conducts a scenario planning exercise, they imagine, in great detail possible futures. Exploring alternative scenarios about the future can help an organization get unstuck. The problem however, might not be a lack of imagination about the future, but rather an inability to shed current, unproductive norms and routines. If dismantling the status quo feels both necessary and hopeless, a kind of reverse scenario planning might help.

In 1997 I worked as a director in the operations department of Pizza Hut. That year, Mike Rawlings became the President of Pizza Hut. In 2011, Rawlings went on to become the Mayor of Dallas, Texas. Before joining Pizza Hut, he had been an executive in an advertising agency.

Rawlings got the top job at Pizza Hut by having demonstrated his capability as a leader, what he lacked was specific experience running a global restaurant company. Like many businesses, restaurant companies rarely put individuals into senior leadership roles who have not had years of industry experience. Rawlings needed to establish credibility with an executive team of restaurant industry veterans and at the same time oversee the transition of Pizza Hut from a division of PepsiCo to a division of the newly formed Yum! Brands restaurant company. Rawlings had not been in his role long when the new parent company asked the heads of each of its three divisions, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC to reduce overhead spending by 10%.

Rawlings may not have known much about running a pizza company, but he knew a lot about the potential traps associated with restructuring an organization to reduce cost. He understood that if he had asked his department heads to recommend cuts, they would likely protect their own departments and propose that the 10% reduction come from someone else’s budget. To get a more balanced perspective, Rawlings formed a team of middle managers, each from a different corporate department. I was asked to represent the operations department. While the executive team prepared their cost cutting recommendations, we prepared our own analysis. Before the Pizza Hut executives finalized the specific overhead reduction changes, Rawlings asked us to make a presentation of our analysis and recommendations to the executives.

Our team decided to reframe the assignment. Instead of taking the existing organizational structure as a given and then looking for ways to trim overhead, the team changed the question. First, we asked ourselves, “Which role at Pizza Hut has the greatest impact on the value our customers get from doing business with us?” The answer to the first question was easy. Under the leadership of David Novak, Yum! Brands had built a culture focused on ensuring each restaurant had what it needed to create customer loyalty. The company went so far as to officially change the name of their corporate offices to “Restaurant Support Centers.” At least in theory, each restaurant general manager played the pivotal role in ensuring customer value and customer loyalty. We then posed a new question, “What would the organization look like if the only corporate jobs that existed were the ones needed by the restaurant managers?”

We’ve started to move past the shock and denial of a deadly virus, quarantines, and an economy in limbo. The good new? It is easier for us to separate in our minds what’s essential from what’s merely traditional.

We conducted the following thought experiment as an approach to answering the second question. Imagine that tomorrow, the restaurant support center disappeared, and the restaurants and their staff were the only thing left of the Pizza Hut organization. What would a restaurant general manager, who behaved like a savvy business owner, need in order to continue building customer value and customer loyalty?

The task team then redesigned the Pizza Hut organization from the ground up based on the roles and functions a restaurant general manager couldn’t operate without. In the end, the approach created a company that, on paper looked and functioned like a franchisor. We concluded that if Pizza Hut wanted restaurant general managers to behave like business owners, maybe the company should structure itself accordingly. We proposed an aggressive shift in the balance of company-owned versus franchised Pizza Huts, reducing the need for a significant number of operations, marketing and accounting roles. We estimated that our plan would lower overhead by almost 30%.

The executives were unwilling to approve such a dramatic transformation of Pizza Hut, but Rawlings had achieved his goal of challenging the thinking of his department heads with ideas from leaders within their own functions. Notably, Nation’s Restaurant News reported in October of 2016, nearly 20 years after we made our recommendation, that Yum! Brands decided to sell about 2,000 of its company-owned restaurants in order to cut $300 million in overhead by 2019.

The idea behind “scenario un-planning” is to imagine that none of the current structures and systems exist. Start by choosing a guiding mission around which to build. Next, have a brutally honest conversation about the structures, systems and processes that would be required to accomplish the mission. The point of the exercise is not to restructure the organization. The point of the exercise is to identify areas of alignment around what is essential to the mission, areas of disagreement about what may or may not be needed, and areas of opportunity for reprioritizing resources and investments.

Coming to terms with the current pandemic is a bit like having the “scenario un-planning” exercise get a bit too real. We don’t have to imagine life without status quo systems; we’re living it. We’ve started to move past the shock and denial of a deadly virus, quarantines, and an economy in limbo. The good new? It is easier for us to separate in our minds what’s essential from what’s merely traditional.

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 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.