When Reacting is Re-Acting

A few weeks ago, I led a day-long workshop for seventy-five high potential managers who work for a global technology company. The managers, representing every region of the world where the company does business are enrolled in a two-year program consisting of a variety of activities and assignments. Once each year, the entire group gathers for a week of workshops and networking.

As a whole, the managers are smart, driven, action-oriented, competitive, and entrepreneurial. It’s easy to see why they’ve been identified as future executives; they embody the culture of the organization. My job was to teach them how to slow down, reflect on the thinking traps that might keep them stuck, and have them practice reframing the questions they had been asking about the situations they wanted to change. It did not go well.

I had worked with many of the leaders in the group before, so I singled one out that I knew pretty well and asked for some feedback about the session. He told me that his typical day consists of juggling multiple challenges. He’ll take an action to make progress on one challenge and if he hits a roadblock or a delay, he’ll refocus his attention on one of his other challenges. Sometimes an emergency erupts, and everything gets reprioritized. The idea of slowing down to reframe a challenge when you’re not making progress made sense to him in theory, but also felt unrealistic and counterculture. As with many organizations, action gets noticed, thinking might be mistaken for indecision.

While I was listening, the image came to mind of a plate spinner’s act that I remember watching on the Ed Sullivan show when I was growing up. I remember the act as mesmerizing and dramatic; now it feels quaint. It’s as if each day the leaders of this company attempted to keep china plates spinning on the top of narrow sticks; the priority of the moment, the wobbliest plate, attracts attention and determines a leader’s next move.

It may sound like I’m making excuses for the unsatisfying workshop experience, “If the participants weren’t so addicted to action, they might recognize the value of what I’m offering.” I’m not proud to admit that I did actually have that thought when I saw the ratings on the evaluation form. Upon reflection, I see now that I failed to practice what I’ve been preaching.

Who needs what?

A big part of the Unstuck Minds Method, which was the topic of the workshop rests on the foundational principles of Design Thinking. Design thinking asks us to empathize with and learn about the people we want to help and then build on insights about what they need (ideally needs they themselves don’t recognize). To be honest, I didn’t empathize with the leaders in my workshop, I wanted to fix them.

Another element of the Unstuck Minds Method is to recognize that our framing of the situations we want to change belies the assumptions and beliefs we hold about the situation and those involved. In the workshop, we teach people about Quicksand Questions, the framing of a challenge in the form of a question that gets you stuck. The more you work to answer a quicksand question, the more stuck you become. One category of quicksand question comprises questions of the form: How do we get them to change? Leaders often frame their challenges as seeking to take action that alters the behavior of others based on the leader’s needs. For example, “How do we get managers to spend more time coaching their teams?” or “How do we get our customers to follow us on social media?”

Ironically, I had designed a workshop containing an admonition to avoid quicksand questions built on a hidden quicksand question: How do I get the leaders of this company to respond thoughtfully to their challenging situations rather than react to them? Like the most dangerous quicksand, you don’t notice it until you’re stuck in it.

Reacting is Re-Acting

Compounding the error, I started emulating the leaders in my workshop as soon as it ended. My colleagues and I recognized that the session didn’t have the intended impact, so we immediately started problem-solving the instructional design. It took a few weeks and some emotional distance from the training to recognize that I had succumb to the very thinking traps I had been teaching people to avoid.

Reacting helps in urgent, familiar situations. On the other hand, reacting becomes counterproductive when we don’t fully understand the situation we’re facing. Reacting makes use of our habits and routines, that’s why I think of it as “re-acting.” When reacting, you operate in a mode that feels familiar and comfortable. When you go to a doctor with common, recognizable symptoms, the doctor re-acts (i.e. reenacts a familiar script). If the diagnosis and prescription don’t work, the doctor switches from reacting to responding. Responding requires more information about the current situation and a bit of reflection about alternative ways to interpret the current situation.

Here’s a question for busy leaders in plate-spinning mode: When should I stop reacting and start responding?

Leaders addicted to action, prefer to react. If the first solution doesn’t work, they try something else. As long as you’re learning from what you try, and you’re not squandering resources, reacting might be a good strategy. However, you don’t get to dress up reacting as prototyping or experimenting. Experimenting requires reflection on outcomes and thoughtful responses that control for what you want to learn.

Before I revisit the instructional design, I would be well served by taking a dose of my own medicine. I think the better question for me is: How might I help overwhelmed organizational leaders reduce the risk of missing something important, avoid solving the wrong problem, and increase the novelty of their options when they feel stuck for an answer?

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

Be Questionable!

I’m on a mission to expand what it means to describe someone as questionable. You might say I’m on a quest. By the way, both ‘quest’ and ‘questionable’ have their roots in the Latin, quaerere, to ask, or seek, and the ability to ask or seek has never been more important.

First, we are overwhelmed by the amount of information coming at us. Without the ability to question what we read, hear, and watch, we settle for the information that’s most easily digested, whether or not it’s accurate or relevant. To be more questionable is to be a more discerning consumer of information. Secondly, in times of volatility and uncertainty we need the ability to question our own assumptions. To be more questionable is to recognize that assumptions rooted in past experience may no longer serve us.

The customary use of questionable comes along with negative connotations. If, for example people describe you as being of questionable character, they don’t mean that your character deserves further investigation, they mean you are not to be trusted. My goal is to turn the accusation that you are questionable (at least in certain contexts) into a compliment. Maybe I’ll invent an award for the year’s most questionable leader. An award you’d be honored to receive.

It’s not too much of a stretch to destigmatize “questionable.” Note that the first definition of questionable in Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary carries no inherently pejorative connotation:

1 obsolete inviting inquiry

Obsolete? Sure. Extinct? Not if I have anything to say about it!

To be adaptable is to have the ability to adapt. To be questionable (in the near future and with the help of the internet) is to have the ability to question. Being questionable is a job requirement for philosophers, scientists, and journalists, why not leaders? As Professor Michael J. Marquardt noted in his 2104 book, Leading with Questions, “most of us are simply unaware of how important or pervasive our questions are to our way of thinking and acting.”

My own practice over the last several years backs up Professor Marquardt’s observation about the relationship between the questions we ask and the way we are thinking about the situations we want to change. In fact, I have been keeping a catalogue of questions leaders bring into Unstuck Minds working sessions. I like to compare the original questions leaders pose to the challenge definitions they develop as part of learning how to be more questionable.Certain habits of thought cause leaders to frame questions that unintentionally, but predictably undermine their desire for new insights and options. Often, the very question itself limits creativity, misdirects attention and resources, or places blame. I use the term, “quicksand questions” to refer to the ineffectual questions that leaders ask. A quicksand question is a challenge definition the asking of which gets you more stuck rather than less stuck.

For example, I worked with an HR leader responsible for changing her organization’s approach to performance management. The leader and her team felt stuck because they focused their efforts on answering the question, “how do we get our managers to conduct regular coaching conversations?” The team felt that regular coaching conversations would do more to shift the performance management culture than any other single behavior change. The strategy made sense, but the question put managers on the defensive and narrowed the focus to transactional interactions.

After applying the Unstuck Minds inquiry strategies to the dilemma, the HR leader began to consider the bigger picture of performance management. In the end, her team chose to focus on a different question: How do we help our employees realize their potential? It’s not that one question is more appropriate than the other question. The point is that if you feel stuck, altering your question might unlock new insights and options. The ability to alter your questions may be the most important leadership skill of the next decade.

Questionable people are skilled at improving their questions when they’re stuck for an answer.

Be Questionable; The Antidote to Expertise Addiction

Hi, my name is Jay and I’m an expertise addict. It’s been 30 minutes since I acted like a know-it-all.

I was raised to value intelligence, but somewhere along the way I confused intelligence with having a ready answer for any situation. I see now that aspiring to be the foremost authority on anything is a fool’s errand.

Knowing things is becoming an obsolete advantage

in 2011, IBM’s artificial intelligence platform Watson famously beat the best human players at Jeopardy. Ken Jennings, one of the humans who lost to Watson delivered a TED Talk about the experience in which he refers to himself as an “obsolete know-it-all.” Watson has redefined what it means to be a know-it-all, but it has not yet figured out how to parlay its vast stores of information into world-changing outcomes and predictions. For example, Watson already has consumed everything published on the subject of cancer but hasn’t yet improved patient outcomes.

Watson may have an answer for any question about cancer, but Watson still can’t tell the difference between a useful question about cancer and an unproductive question about cancer. I suggest that we cede knowing things to artificial intelligence (AI) and instead stake our future on developing our questionable intelligence (QI). Of course, I’m playing with the word, “questionable,” but my use of the word is consistent with its original meaning. Before “questionable” connoted something deprecatory, it simply meant something that may be interrogated or something open to dispute.

How do we create readiness for key roles in our organizations?

Earlier this week I had an opportunity to share my work at Unstuck Minds with the Leadership Development Council of the Conference Board at a meeting in New York. Eliška Meyers, The Program Director and I agreed that we would have the group fast cycle through the methodology on a relevant topic as a way of learning by doing. I asked Eliška for a headline question that council members would immediately recognize as a shared dilemma. We chose to focus on the question: How do we accelerate readiness for key roles in our organizations? Are you already thinking about how you would respond to the question? You may be addicted to expertise too. Let me suggest that we first probe the question for thinking traps.

First, the idea of “accelerating readiness” seems to suggest that we know what “readiness” looks like. If we know what it takes to be ready for key roles, then the question is ultimately about getting the right people into that future state faster. If we don’t know what it takes to be ready, then asking how to accelerate readiness doesn’t seem like the place to start.

It’s as if we’ve been preparing our future leaders in a conventional oven and now, we’re looking for the microwave. We get trapped by the question when we successfully find ways to speed up the process only to discover that we no longer have a taste for what we’ve prepared.

Another subtle trap in the question has to do with the idea of “key roles.” For the most part, our current organizational structures remain hierarchical and role specific. We tend to organize around highly experienced individuals who have tremendous authority to set direction and make investment decisions. One of the reasons people in Human Resources and Talent Development feel pressured is that in many cases our most highly tenured senior leaders are retiring and taking with them decades of accumulated expertise and experience that those left to fill their roles lack.

At the end of the session with the council, we considered a different question: How do we make our organizations less dependent on an individual’s talent and experience?

Counterproductive Expertise

If we can’t accumulate expertise through tenure on the job, what’s the next best substitute? Maybe we should start by questioning the value of accumulating expertise in the first place. Consider Jerry Useem’s July 2019 article for The Atlantic, At Work, Expertise Is Falling Out of Favor. Useem described the U.S. Navy’s “Minimal Manning” experiment in which a large number of specialized workers are being replaced with fewer problem-solving generalists. After describing several conversations with organizational leaders about the pitfalls of mastering a narrow specialization, Useem mused, “It would be supremely ironic if the advance of the knowledge economy had the effect of devaluing knowledge.”

David Epstein in his 2019 bestseller, Range; Why Generalists Triumph in A Specialized World, also makes the case that expertise can be counterproductive. Epstein offers examples and research that seem to fly in the face of recent advice based on Angela Duckworth’s work on Grit or Malcolm Gladwell’s writings on mastering a skill through 10,000 hours of dedicated practice. For example, Epstein writes about the work of Erik Dane of Rice University who coined the term, “cognitive entrenchment” to describe the downsides of domain expertise. Dane conducted research to demonstrate that accumulated domain expertise is associated with a loss of flexibility in problem-solving, adaptation and creative idea generation.

Be Questionable

Apply Questionable Intelligence to make sure you are asking better questions. Anyone who has been frustrated by the volume of useless options returned from a poorly worded Google search inquiry understands the importance of thinking clearly about what you want to ask. When experts frame questions, they inevitably infect the question with their world-views. If you go to an ear, nose, and throat Doctor (ENT) with a complaint about pressure behind your cheeks, you’ll be asked very different questions than if you went to a dentist with the same complaint. Unless that is, the dentist and the ENT had enough QI to set their expertise aside long enough to pose a few broad, open-ended questions.

If our future depends on leaders who can be effective under conditions of uncertainty and complexity, maybe it’s time society deemphasized knowing and expertise in favor of discovering and inquisitiveness.

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

Like many young adults with an undergraduate degree in Philosophy, my first job after graduation was in a restaurant. It wasn’t the profession my mother had in mind for me, but I enjoyed restaurant work. When I eventually became the General Manager of a restaurant, I never felt bored or unchallenged. There’s something very satisfying about ending each day with a sense of accomplishment. Hungry, sometimes cranky people came in, we fed them, helped them relax, gave them time and space to enjoy the company of their friends and family, and then they went home.

Repeat that process for a bunch of people and everyone is happy. Of course, when a lot of hungry people show up at roughly the same time, restaurant management boils down to two activities, preventing disasters and recovering from disasters. If you’re of a certain age, you might remember seeing plate spinners on variety TV shows. Check out this YouTube clip of Erich Brenn’s performance on the Ed Sullivan show. If you’re inspired by what you see, restaurant management might be a good career choice.

In a restaurant the lunch rush and the dinner rush are times of focused activity, thinking on your feet, urgent problem-solving, and frequent interactions. In the afternoon between lunch and dinner, the rhythm of work abruptly shifts. Between meal periods the manager plans, completes paperwork, and meets with staff or suppliers. I always found the time between the rush of the meal periods to be disorienting. I was addicted to the constant demands on my time that came from meeting other people’s needs. When I sat at my desk after lunch and before dinner, my needs (as opposed to the demands of others) dictated how I spent time. I’d be processing invoices, but I’d keep looking up to see if someone wanted me. I’d get up from my desk and pace around the restaurant hoping to be distracted by something that needed my urgent attention. I had more control over my time, but secretly I didn’t want it.

There are two problems with posing the question, “How do I get more control of my time?” First, it’s not your time, so you can’t control it. Secondly, you might not really want to control it.

It’s not “your” time

As I’ve noted before, we often get caught in thinking traps by the way we frame our questions. I refer to questions that limit, misdirect or place blame as “quicksand questions.” The harder we try to work the question, the more stuck we become. One issue with the question, “how do I get control of my time?” is that it assumes I have the ability to manage how I spend my time. It assumes that I can somehow make choices about my time without considering how other people I interact with manage their time. In reality, everyone who needs to interact is a free agent in a system of interrelationships. When I make a choice about how to manage my time, it impacts the choices other people have about managing their time, and vice versa. I can’t control my time any more than I can control my commute in rush hour traffic.

You might not want to control your time

You think you want to control your time, but just like when I was a restaurant manager, you may find that you miss the familiar pattern of reacting to demands. Having blocks of unstructured time can be scary. We’re suckers for the devices that we habitually check. We have a love/hate relationship with the tsunami of images, video and text incessantly pushed to us. When the flow of distractions gets interrupted unexpectedly, even for a minute, we don’t feel relieved, we panic or feel immediately bored. The more options we have for filling our time, the less capable we are of turning free time into productive time.

A better question and one daring solution

If thinking about “getting control” of your time doesn’t generate new and useful solutions, how else might you reframe the dilemma of feeling overwhelmed by the demands on your time? First, I would ask myself, “who places the most predictable and frequent claims on my time?” (If you have infants or young children at home or you are another form of caregiver, you are answering a higher calling. Unfortunately, the next suggestion won’t help you). Secondly, I would meet with those who want my time so that we could jointly answer the question, “what agreements can we put in place about how and when we reach out to each other to meet routine needs?”

Let me give you an example of an agreement you might make with your team and your manager. Consider a protocol around sending and receiving emails and meeting invitations. For knowledge workers, communicating and interacting fill our days. Try setting a permanent, automatic out-of-office message on your email application that reads:

Thank you for contacting me. I check my email in the morning between 7 and 8 and in the afternoon between 4 and 5. If you have an urgent matter that requires my attention please call me or stop by my office. If you’re inviting me to a meeting, please include the purpose and desired outcomes of the meeting in the invitation so that I can productively contribute when I attend.

Now, imagine what you might be doing between 8am and 4pm other than responding to emails and attending poorly planned meetings. Still want control of your time?

Practicing Uncertainty

Are you pro-life or pro-choice? Should governments regulate social media companies? Who is our ally and who is our enemy in the Middle East?

When you read each question above, did you think about your answer or did you think about your reaction to the question? All three questions have one thing in common: they are all terrible questions.

At Unstuck Minds, we call questions like the ones above, quicksand questions. Instead of encouraging productive dialogue, quicksand questions limit the conversation, misdirect our attention, encourage us to seek blame, and preserve the status quo. In short, quicksand questions keep us stuck.

We ask quicksand questions because we like simple answers. Complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity make our brains hurt. The technical term for the impact of imposing too much information on our working memories is cognitive load. We have two strategies available to us for dealing with the cognitive load we experience when dealing with an increasingly complex and uncertain world. We can oversimplify our challenges or we can develop our capacity for processing un-simple information.

Here’s a workout routine for teams that helps them stretch their capacity for uncertainty before taking on a complex challenge.

The Ethicist column appears weekly in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. The current “Ethicist,” Kwame Anthony Appiah continues the tradition started by Randy Cohen, who wrote the column for twelve years. People submit thorny, modern, every-day dilemmas that raise questions about the right thing to do. The Ethicist provides perspective on the issue and renders a conclusion. Cohen collected some of his favorite questions and responses in a book called, “Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything.” Here’s a sample question from one of Cohen’s columns:

My mother wants to hire someone to clean house and handle the laundry. To assure herself of this person’s integrity, she plans to leave loose money around as “bait” during the house cleaner’s first few days of work. Here in Brazil, those stray bills can constitute a significant percentage of a house cleaner’s wages. My mother sees this “trap” as a perfectly ethical precaution. Do you?

Inviting a team to discuss ethics questions not only gives team members a chance to hear how others think, it gives everyone a chance to develop their ability to play with questions that don’t have easy answers (you can find Cohen’s response here).

Considering how to respond to an ethics question requires a different capacity for problem solving than the skillset most organizational leaders feel comfortable using to analyze a problem. One key difference between responding to ethics questions and analytical problem solving is the role of ambiguity and variability. Like ethics questions, complex strategic questions require a high degree of tolerance for ambiguity and variability. Analytical problem solving on the other hand views ambiguity and variability as the enemy of the search for an effective and efficient solution.

Like learning to use an atrophied muscle, teams working on complex challenges may need to warm up their tolerance for variability and ambiguity. When we are unprepared to brave the tensions inherent in uncertainty, we get drawn into the status-quo quicksand.

Who Gets to Pose the Question?

Last week, my friend and colleague Michael Reidy shared a powerful insight with me. I had just completed an overview of the Unstuck Minds Method at an Interaction Associates gathering. During the overview I showed a slide contrasting questions asked by leaders before applying the Unstuck Minds method (left-hand column in the table below) and the corresponding reframed questions developed during various workshops over the last couple of years (right-hand column in the table below).

The left hand column lists questions the leaders started with, questions about situations where the leaders felt stuck. The premise behind the Unstuck Minds Method is that leaders, teams and organizations can get stuck simply by pursuing a flawed question. We refer to such questions as “Quicksand Questions.” By contrast, the questions in the right-hand column help us move forward in ways we haven’t considered. We call questions that allow for novel options, “Unstuck Minds Questions.”

Before I share with you what Michael saw, what do you notice about the difference between the Quicksand Questions and the Unstuck Minds Questions?

Michael pointed out that the questions on the left are asked from a position of power and authority. The people asking the questions on the left see progress as possible only when others are persuaded to change. By contrast, the questions on the right support the needs of those who lack formal authority, but without whom we can’t make sustainable progress.

Michael’s insight got me thinking about the role of power and control when it comes to posing questions. You need only watch a congressional hearing to see how status differences play out between the questioners and the questioned. It’s not just formal or political inquiry that introduces a power dynamic. Even the most innocent and sincere questioner can intentionally or unintentionally direct an interaction’s focus. Consider for example, the insatiable curiosity of young children.

Four-year-olds (and occasional precocious three-year-olds) ask a lot of questions. We talk about the power of the “beginner’s mind” or the curiosity of children who often pose the most interesting questions because they haven’t learned to limit their thinking by what makes sense (Have a look at the clip, “How Does Life Live?”).

We assume that the questions of children are motivated by pure curiosity. I’ve begun to wonder whether something else might also be going on. Imagine how empowering it must feel to suddenly be controlling interactions with adults. The four-year-olds who have been in the role of responders even before they had language suddenly have adults following their lead. The child poses a barrage of questions and the adults comply with responses.

The questions people ask about the situations they want to change reveal a lot about what they are thinking and feeling. Asking better questions may not simply improve the quality of our thinking. Asking better questions may reveal and diminish the hidden power dynamics keeping us stuck.

China, Black Holes, and Trump Supporters

As I write this post I’m sitting in my Beijing hotel room, the haze outside my window as impenetrable as the language. I arrived in China a few days ago to work with a group of leaders on the topic of adaptability and agility. It’s only now occurring to me that the participants in the program weren’t the only ones developing their adaptability and agility.

Speaking of “impenetrable,” this week astronomers using a global network of radio telescopes captured an image of a black hole. Heretofore, the black hole only existed hypothetically. Einstein’s equations predicted black holes and astronomers have detected indirect evidence of their existence. Now they’ve captured a glimpse of one, or more accurately captured a glimpse of the event horizon surrounding a black hole. The event horizon is the boundary, beyond which nothing, not even light can escape. It marks the border between our familiar universe and a place where all physical laws break down.

And speaking of a breakdown of laws, we are now in the second half of the Trump administration. Even as we become inured to the word, “unprecedented,” Trump continues to enjoy the support of millions of Americans. More and more it seems we are drawing geopolitical event horizons around groups of people; we cannot escape our event horizons and the rules we play by operate differently on either side.

I continue to feel disoriented by the state of our politics. The current White House seems like a black hole, except that information occasionally leaks out and we get a look at a place where the laws of decorum and maybe the laws of justice are breaking down. This week I also felt disoriented as I attempted to make my way around the Wangjing Sub-district of Beijing.

Interestingly, as I reflected on my own challenges with adaptability, I started to understand something about support for Trump that has eluded me.

I’ll explain what I mean with a slightly embarrassing story about what happened when I arrived.

Let me start by saying that I travel nearly every week for work and I’ve taken dozens of trips overseas. This week was my fourth visit to China. The difference is that in the past I’ve been pampered. Generally, when I visit Asia I’m part of an International group hosted by one of my clients. I’m greeted at the airport, transported to my hotel and there is always a helpful person nearby to translate and offer guidance. This week, I had to make my own way.

Being an experienced traveller and a neurotic human being, I planned meticulously. I downloaded useful Apps; I printed all my destinations in Chinese characters to show taxi drivers, I made sure that my phone and credit cards would all work. Still, I felt anxious and used up a lot of mental energy imagining what might go wrong. 

I landed at Beijing International airport and found my way to the taxi stand. I stood in a long queue of people; I looked like I didn’t belong and I felt like I didn’t belong (a useful experience for a white male Baby Boomer American who travelled to China to teach something about adaptability). A guy approached me and in broken English explained that he would take me to my hotel. I was well aware that this was an attempt to take advantage of me and yet in my jet-lagged, anxious state of mind, I agreed. I asked about the price and he kept saying, “meter price.” When we arrived at the hotel, he showed me a card with a price on it (the meter was never turned on). When I objected to the price, his English got worse. In the end, I paid ten times the appropriate taxi fare. My driver was an opportunist who made me an offer that I would never have accepted if I hadn’t been stressed out and disoriented. In a situation where nothing was making sense, I went with something that made sense; even while knowing it wasn’t good for me.

We make bad decisions when we experience stress and being disoriented is a particular kind of stress. I anticipated feeling disoriented because I chose to travel to a place where many of the norms I take for granted don’t apply. I was prepared to feel out-of-place and I still let someone take advantage of me.

Imagine feeling disoriented not because you chose to travel to a foreign land, but because your home no longer felt familiar. You look around and suddenly notice that the rules have changed; the most popular and influential people don’t share your values. The people in positions of power make fun of people like you. It’s as if you are standing in a line and suddenly feel unsure that waiting in the line will get you what you want. Someone appears who has learned to speak enough of your language that you feel a bit more in control. At some level you understand that he’s only looking out for himself, but at least the situation makes sense to you.

I realize now that the appeal of preserving our routines and our priorities is not simply about conservatism. Sometimes when you’re worn out and worried, even a huckster can feel like a port in a storm.