The Unstuck Minds Compass: How to recognize and avoid thinking traps

Imagine you have a persistent and mysterious stomachache. Your family physician is stumped. Now imagine that you could convene a dream team of health professionals to sit together like a panel of experts and ask you questions about your condition. Maybe you would select a gastroenterologist, a psychologist, a nutritionist and a mind-body healer. Each expert takes turns posing questions about your condition. As you would expect, each of them asks questions based on their training and worldview. You will be drawn to some questions and you will reject others.

In the same way, the Unstuck Minds Compass comes at your most persistent dilemmas from different directions. Four different thinking systems ensure a comprehensive approach to understanding the nature of your dilemma. The four strategies of the compass don’t supply answers; they introduce questions you haven’t been thinking about. You will be drawn to some questions and you will reject others.

Critical Inquiry

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Critical inquiry helps us get unstuck by ensuring we don’t take problems at face value. For example, we can take medicine to relieve a headache. The medicine makes us feel better, but we are left wondering why we periodically get headaches. If we take action to resolve a problem and the problem returns, then we start looking for patterns. Critical inquiry helps us recognize patterns in our persistent problems and helps us explain why the patterns exist.

Critical inquiry helps us avoid solving the wrong problem.

Contextual Inquiry

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Contextual inquiry helps us get unstuck by encouraging us to look at the big picture. Sometimes we follow our comfortable routines without ever questioning whether the routines still make sense. For example, improving the durability of a video cassette is a waste of time if people stop buying video cassette recorders. Contextual inquiry helps us notice changes in the environment that alert us to what’s coming. Contextual inquiry allows us to reevaluate how we prioritize our attention and resources.

Contextual inquiry reduces the risk of missing something important.

Collaborative Inquiry

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Collaborative inquiry helps us get unstuck by drawing our attention to the networks of people and groups that might play a role in improving our situation. When ideas and feedback feel unwelcome or when sharing them feels unsafe, the organization can only recycle familiar opinions. Even a high quality strategy or solution won’t improve things if people are committed to maintaining the status quo. Collaborative inquiry reminds us of the power of social networks and the value of hearing what people are thinking and feeling.

Collaborative inquiry makes it easier for people to take concerted action.

Creative Inquiry

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Creative inquiry helps us get unstuck by provoking insights and surfacing hidden needs. Sometimes we get stuck because we insist on a business case for new ideas rather than encouraging experimentation and learning from failure. If the only ideas we are interested in are the ones that feel like a sure thing, we will only hear about ways of improving the status quo. Creative inquiry encourages us to question our assumptions about what people need and about our self-imposed limitations.

Creative inquiry increases the novelty of our options.

Using the compass helps you think differently about your dilemma while simultaneously teaching you how to deal more effectively with complexity and uncertainty. When people use the compass together they not only develop their thinking skills, they develop an appreciation for how others in the organization think and feel about the situation you want to improve.

Four Imperatives for Crafting Better Questions

Since I’m in the business of helping people ask better questions. I shouldn’t be surprised when someone asks me, “What makes one question better than another?” That’s actually a good question. Before I describe why I think it’s a good question, let’s have a look at some classic categories of second-rate questions:

Questions that are actually advice or judgment masquerading as a question: Shouldn’t you unplug the toaster before trying to unjam that bagel with your knife? Just because it’s good advice, doesn’t make it a good question.

Questions that beget questions instead of answers: What should we do? Unless the situation in which this question arises is dire, the appropriate response is, “that depends, what is happening and what do you want to have happen?”

Questions that constrain rather than liberate: Should we build it ourselves or outsource it?

Questions that make it unsafe to answer candidly: The boss asks forcefully at the conclusion of a meeting, “I don’t see any reason why we can’t meet this deadline, do you?”

I apply four criteria when evaluating the quality of a question. I refer to each criterion as an imperative. Better questions satisfy four imperatives.

Imperative 1: Will answering the question help you avoid solving the wrong problem?

To avoid solving the wrong problem you must recognize the influence of underlying structures and cultural norms. It’s tempting to solve problems as they arise without questioning the cause, but when the problem persists or regularly reemerges, efforts to solve each problem in isolation become counterproductive. I can take an aspirin to make my headache go away, but if the headache keeps coming back I will need to understand more about what’s causing it.

“What can I take to get rid of this headache?” is not as good as, “Why do I get a headache every time I drink red wine?”

Imperative 2: Will answering the question reduce the risk of missing something important?

Being attentive to our environmental context and the competitive landscape reduces the risk that we will miss something important. The overwhelming amount of information available to us conspires with the relentless pace of work to narrow the aperture through which we learn about the world. If we keep our heads down and focus only on our functions and our objectives, we may miss emerging trends that could make the way we are currently framing our questions irrelevant.

“How do we leverage social media?” is not as good as, “What influences how our future best customers make judgments about a brand?”

Imperative 3: Will answering the question make it easier for people to take concerted action?

The answers to our most important questions involve and impact others. Crafting questions that are considerate of people who will be impacted by the answer is not just an ethical thing to do, it avoids unanticipated conflicts in priorities and improves your answers by including diverse perspectives.

“How do I get people to focus more on our customers?” is not as good as, “What conditions encourage helpfulness?”

Imperative 4: Will answering the question increase the novelty of your options?

Questions that allow for multiple and diverse options inspire fresh thinking. Those who value learning from mistakes ask different questions than those looking for options that simply improve the status quo.

“How will that work?” or “What are the benefits and risks of that approach?” are not as good as, “If we experimented with that idea, what would we learn?”

#betterquestions