How to Scope a Business Leader’s request without being Annoying

A leader walks into a bar. She says to the bartender, “I’ll have a beer.” The bartender replies, “What problem are you trying to solve?” The leader walks out.

A couple of weeks ago, I worked with an aerospace company whose Human Resources department was shifting to a new service delivery model. Like many HR departments, they want to alter the way line leaders see the role of HR and make use of HR services. For the last several years, HR departments in large organizations have restructured, retooled and retrained so that business leaders stop viewing HR professionals as order takers and start collaborating with them as strategic business partners.

HR professionals aren’t the only experts who feel constrained by requests from decision makers. IT professionals are often asked to build solutions without due consideration of systemic impacts or even a conversation about more efficient non-technical options. I had breakfast with a marketing professional the other day who was working on a new template for creative briefs submitted by internal clients requesting design support. Her team felt the template needed updating so that business leaders stop submitting lists of specifications and instead describe desired impressions and the intended audience.

What problem are you trying to solve?

Consultants have been taught to ask their clients, “What problem are you trying to solve?” as a way to shift the conversation away from order taking. Asking about the nature of the problem rather than discussing how to implement a request allows the expert to problem-solve with the leader rather than simply enact the leader’s solution. Programs, task teams and new processes that originate from uncritically implementing a business leader’s request, often result in wasteful activity and misaligned priorities. After all, even if you are experiencing familiar symptoms and you tell your doctor you need an antibiotic, you can bet that the doctor is going to ask a few questions and conduct a few tests before writing the prescription.

In theory, it makes perfect sense to slow leaders down to ensure the right problem gets solved. We want to make full use of our functional experts who may have interesting perspectives or an alternative the leader hadn’t considered. At the very least, a functional expert can gather data so that leaders make informed decisions before taking action.

In practice, many leaders feel as though they have given due consideration to their situation and feel confident about the efficacy of their request. As Peter Block pointed out decades ago in his pioneering work Flawless Consulting, the consultant might want to establish a collaborative relationship with the client, but the client might simply want an extra pair of hands to get work done. Some people who walk into a bar want a suggestion from the bartender. Some people know what they want. The best bartenders know the difference.

Try This

The next time you find yourself across the desk from a leader placing an order for a solution and all the while you’re thinking, “That won’t work,” buy yourself a little time to plan a scoping conversation by making the following proposal: I’d like to schedule 30 minutes with you to learn more, so that I don’t make the wrong assumptions about what needs to be done.

Design the scoping conversation around four questions. The questions make use of the Unstuck Minds Compass model and will help ensure that you walk away from the scoping conversation with an agreement on the strategic question that will guide the work.

As an example, let’s say the head of a manufacturing group made the following request, “I want to put all of my supervisors through diversity training.”

1. Contextual Inquiry: What’s changing?

You will need to understand the leader’s motivation for investing time, energy and resources to change the current situation. In particular, you’ll want to know whether the need has been building over time or if it’s in response to something new. Listen for and ask about factors outside of the leader’s functional area.

For our example, you might learn that the leader has been hearing about sensitivities of younger workers to things like implicit bias. Perhaps the leader has been paying attention to media coverage of topics like “White Privilege” and the “Me Too movement.” The leader may also be thinking about demographic shifts creating a wide range of generations all working together in a manufacturing facility.

2. Critical Inquiry: What’s holding things in place?

Next, you’ll need to learn about aspects of the current situation that have become the source of dissatisfaction. Given what you learned about what’s changing, what is it about the status quo that has become unsustainable? What existing habits or routines will create tensions between the way things are and the way things are going?

For our example, you might learn that many of the plants have inadequate locker room facilities for women. You might hear a story about an argument that broke out about which cable news channel was being broadcast in a break room. Maybe the leader received an anonymous complaint about a plant supervisor who starts his weekly safety meetings with a prayer.

3. Collaborative Inquiry: Whom will we organize around?

Now that you understand the context of the situation and its relationship to the status quo, it’s time to focus the assignment. Any solution that depends upon people altering their behavior must consider the specific population being asked to change and how the change connects to their needs.

In our example, we might determine that focusing on all people managers in the manufacturing group makes the most sense. Maybe we learn that there is a wide disparity of comfort with the topic of diversity and inclusion among the managers. Deeper inquiry might reveal undercurrents of resentment and feelings of injustice below the surface of discussions about how we include and exclude people based on the circumstances of their identity.

4. Creative Inquiry: What question will guide our work?

Having a guiding question rather than a set of static outcomes allows for new information to emerge that can be incorporated into our definition of the challenge. A question points us in a direction. An Unstuck Minds question eliminates the thinking traps that limit and misdirect.

Our example started with a question about implementing a request: How do we get the manufacturing supervisors through diversity training?

After using the Unstuck Minds Compass to scope the issue, we might choose to ask ourselves a different question: How might people managers in our manufacturing facilities help our employees feel welcome and respected?

Once we have a strategic question to guide our work, we can describe success and identify the elements of our response. One element may include training, but we now know what needs the training should address and what other changes can be included that will put the training into a broader, more sustainable context.

Four Superpowers you need to Avoid Misdirection

Here’s the situation…

For nearly 50 years, Interaction Associates has been delivering workshops, facilitating meetings and consulting to individuals, teams and organizations to improve the way people lead, plan and collaborate to get work done. Until recently we conducted our work in various rooms around the world where people had gathered to learn, connect and solve problems. In the last few years, many of our clients have told us that they no longer intend to bring people together for learning experiences. Instead, they want to bring the learning to their employees through web-enabled collaboration platforms like WebEx® Zoom® and Adobe Connect®.

How do we re-design our programs so they can be delivered virtually?

If you’re among the nearly dozen subscribers to the UnstuckMinds Blog, you should know that simply answering the question above is like diving headfirst into quicksand. First, the question ignores the adaptive challenge faced by our veteran consultants being asked to facilitate virtually. I have previously written about the emotional impact of meeting our client’s requests to conduct virtual training. Secondly, the question contains two of the question traps I’ve written about: The question includes a veiled solution and is framed too narrowly.

I used the example of re-designing for virtual learning at a recent workshop to illustrate how the way we frame our questions can misdirect us. The purpose of the workshop was to teach leaders how to ask better questions using the Unstuck Minds Method. When I applied the method to transform the challenge into a better question, I developed an insight into an aspect of the situation we have not been paying attention to – more on that in a moment.

The Unstuck Minds Method synthesizes four well-researched thinking systems: strategic thinking, systems thinking, social network analysis and design thinking; it’s like the Justice League of thinking systems. Each dimension of the method applies a corresponding thinking system in pursuit of new information, new insights and new options. Each thinking system brings its corresponding “superpower” to rescue us when we get stuck.

The dimensions are represented as compass points to reinforce the idea that when we’re unsuccessfully dealing with a challenge, it’s often our orientation to our problem that is preventing us from getting unstuck.


Dimension Thinking System Superpower
Contextual Inquiry Strategic Thinking Reduce the risk of missing something important
Critical Inquiry Systems Thinking Avoid solving the wrong problem
Collaborative Inquiry      Social Network Analysis      Make it easier for people to take concerted action  
Creative Inquiry Design Thinking Increase the novelty of our options

Using the Unstuck Minds Method on the example of virtual training that I brought to the workshop led me to a useful insight. Face-to-face leadership development workshops meet two distinct kinds of needs, a “connection” need and a “development” need. Technology opens up options for meeting the development need, but often at the expense of the connection need. Bringing people together for traditional classroom learning experiences is not just about the transfer of knowledge, skills and tools. Organizations benefit from the cross-boundary exchange of ideas and the strengthening of social networks when diverse groups share an experience together.

With respect to the development need, technology overcomes one of the most persistent disadvantages of traditional classroom learning experiences. Those of us who facilitate development workshops can never be certain that what people learn in the classroom will translate into behavior change on the job. Technology makes it possible to equip leaders with the tools and skills they need without taking them “offline” to learn them. For example, before I conduct an important and potentially contentious meeting, I’d love to access a checklist and a video on my smart device and maybe schedule quick FaceTime interaction with a coach rather than find the relevant tools in the participant manual gathering dust on my bookshelf.

When you tease apart the connection need from the development need, you end up with two different questions. Instead of asking, “How do we re-design our programs so they can be delivered virtually?” We could be asking:

  1. How might we help out clients create transformative experiences that enhance and sustain cross-boundary collaboration?
  2. How might we help leaders access tools and expertise when they need it most?

Unjust Deserts?

When I started traveling for work, I resented the airlines for creating social hierarchies favoring those who pay more or fly more. Something about the overt unequal treatment of people rubbed me the wrong way. In those days, I would proclaim to my friends and colleagues that if I ever I qualified for a first class seat I would refuse it out of principle. Instead, I would offer it to someone infirmed or perhaps to a parent traveling with an infant. I would gallantly swap my seat for whatever seat the less fortunate traveler had been assigned. I would not become a pawn in the airline’s twisted plot to create addicts of their frequent fliers.

Fast-forward thirty years. I now qualify for American Airline’s top tier status. I get upgraded to first class about 75% of the time. I’m treated deferentially. The more onerous travel becomes for the occasional flier, the more my status distinguishes me. By the way, I have never once given up my first class seat. What’s worse, the resentment I once reserved for the airline sometimes manifests as impatience with people who board too slowly like the infirmed or parents traveling with infants. I’m not proud of abandoning my earlier principled stance. I am, on the other hand astonished by how quickly I got used to the blatant preferential treatment.

I qualify for special treatment by the airline because of my job. A few of us on every commercial flight have an advantage over the planeload of other passengers even though everyone onboard needs to get from point A to point B. Some passengers in first class have paid extra for the comfy seat, free food and deferential treatment. Many of the passengers in first class are road warriors whose company or clients pay about the same fare as everyone else on the plane.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the advantages I enjoy and often take for granted; I’ve been thinking about whether or not I’ve earned all those advantages. For example, I’m just over six feet tall, white and male. It would be impossible to list all the advantages I’ve enjoyed in my lifetime because society favors certain of my traits.

There is a dynamic relationship between “access” and “advantage.” My unearned advantages have made it easier for me to access earned advantages like a good education and promotions at work. Earned advantages afford me preferential treatment when competing with others for access to even more limited and valuable advantages and opportunities. For others, the virtuous cycle becomes a vicious cycle when a lack of advantage prevents access, which in turn puts opportunity for acquiring advantages out of reach.

I got inspired to turn my attention to the topic of earned and unearned advantage after reading an anecdote in Eugenia Cheng’s excellent new book, The Art of Logic in an Illogical World. Early in the book, Cheng shares a story about commuter reactions to the new green markings painted on the platforms of the London Underground. The markings let waiting passengers know where the train doors will open so they won’t stand in the way of people exiting the train. Cheng noted, “Apparently some people were upset that these markings spoilt the ‘competitive edge’ they had gained through years of commuting and studying train doors to learn where they would open.” This story led Cheng to an insight about affirmative action, “…If we give particular help to some previously disadvantaged people, then some of the people who don’t get this help are likely to feel hard done by.”

Helping those who have been previously disadvantaged has been in the news recently owing to a high-profile lawsuit against Harvard University based on their affirmative action practices in admitting students. Putting the politics of affirmative action aside, I tried applying the Unstuck Minds Method to the questions we ask about affirmative action. The Unstuck Minds Method helps people identify thinking traps that prevent them from discovering new options. We generally pose questions about our dilemmas and then focus our energy and attention on generating and debating solutions. The Unstuck Minds Method helps us determine the extent to which a misleading or incomplete question might be responsible for our inability to find a solution.

The practice of affirmative action attempts to correct for a long history of systemic and institutional bias against minority groups and women who seek equal access to limited opportunities. Our questions about affirmative action focus on improving things for those who have been disadvantaged by discrimination. When devising affirmative action practices, we generally ask some version of, “How do we level the playing field for the disadvantaged?” The question is clear and evocative, but it also misses an important aspect of the problem.

While we work to remove barriers that unfairly target minorities and women, we also need to ask some uncomfortable questions about our relationship to our unearned advantages. American Airlines is making an economic decision by establishing tiers of service and rewarding frequent fliers. As a consequence of their system, I become habituated to better treatment. After a few years I start to believe I deserve better treatment. When I start to identify with the treatment I’m getting; that’s when I fall prey to a thinking trap.

When I conflate my unearned advantages with who I am, “leveling the playing field” starts to feel like an existential threat.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we give up on removing institutional discrimination. I am suggesting that until the conversation feels personal, we may not get enough of the people who have the power to enact change to engage in the conversation in any meaningful way. It’s not unlike getting people motivated to work on climate change. We need regulations and we need personal commitment to change our daily habits.

Here is a question I would like to include in our public conversations about affirmative action: How might increased awareness of our unearned advantages spur a call to action?

Consultant, heal thyself

Earlier this month I facilitated a meeting for a group of physicians who are members of a state medical society. The Governor of the state established a consortium for the prevention of prescription drug abuse in response to the national opioid crisis. The consortium in turn, reached out to the medical society to convene members for the purpose of establishing protocols, exchanging best practices, and aligning on a point-of-view to share with legislators that would ensure meaningful regulation.

My blood pressure goes up when I’m in a room with one doctor, so you can imagine how I felt about facilitating a meeting with 20 doctors. Nevertheless, I had agreed to help them tackle an important topic. We needed to make the most of a day-long meeting of professionals volunteering their valuable time. The expertise in the room wasn’t going to do anyone any good without a process that ensured shared understanding and produced actionable alignment.

Working with problem-solving groups is itself an exercise in problem solving.

Smart, highly skilled people who generally solve problems by themselves don’t automatically adapt to the challenges of collaboration. One of the challenges of collaborating during a problem solving exercise is slowing the group down enough to confirm that they agree on the problem before they start generating solutions. Doctors in particular, think fast and have been trained in a diagnostic methodology; they move from symptoms to causes and then prescribe or operate.

A challenge like the opioid crisis doesn’t present itself in the way a patient might show up with symptoms. A public health emergency is not just a more complicated set of symptoms requiring a differential diagnosis. Complex social problems can’t be outsmarted. Chasing down causes might help us feel more in control, but the causes are not static conditions waiting to be discovered. Asking what’s causing the opioid crisis is like asking what causes religion (no Marxist pun intended).

Upon reflection, I’ve come to realize that a tension between competing research methodologies hid below the surface of our work together that day. The doctors had been trained as scientists. Science presumes that objective observation and analysis can lead to universal causal laws. I had suggested a collaborative process based on a social theory approach called, participatory action research. Participatory action research presumes a dynamic relationship between understanding something and changing it. By contrast, science presumes we need to understand something before we try to change it.

While we made respectable progress and agreed to a few clear action steps, I am only now coming to realize the mistake I made in designing a process for the meeting. Because of my anxiety about showing up as an authority, I inadvertently acted like a doctor. I treated the group as a patient. I diagnosed their group dynamics and prescribed process fixes. Alternatively, I could have recognized that together we represented our own complex social network. I might have been more open to the way our challenges and shared understanding emerged through our dialogue. Had I been more attentive to and less judgmental about the group’s natural tendencies, we may have made even more progress.

Tangled up in Q: Questions that limit, misdirect and keep us stuck

I got a Ph.D. in 2015, which means I wrote a really long paper that no one will ever read (except for the people who were paid to read it). Like a lot of doctoral candidates, I conducted a disciplined and comprehensive research study to demonstrate something most people would consider intuitively obvious. Ultimately, my research led to the conclusion: The questions people ask about a situation they want to change reveal a lot about what they’re thinking and feeling.

I know it doesn’t sound like much, but it turns out that paying attention to how people frame their questions provides a window into thinking traps that may be preventing them from getting unstuck.

When leaders pose questions reflexively about situations that are complex and stressful, they can fall prey to the Inquiry Loop. The Inquiry Loop explains how thinking traps can feel like trying to find your way out of a forest only to realize that you’ve been walking in circles.

InquiryLoopGraphicLABELSThe Inquiry Loop suggests that you won’t get any new information if you don’t change your questions. You won’t change your questions if you don’t recognize the influence your assumptions have on what you choose to learn about. Finally, you can’t alter your assumptions without new information.

One way to break free of the inquiry loop is to change the questions you’re asking. Better questions could lead to new information and new information could lead to an insight. An insight has the power to transform our assumptions. The revised assumptions make it possible to listen differently, generate different questions and surface even more information. In short, a better question can turn a vicious cycle that keeps us stuck into a virtuous cycle that opens up options.

Lately, I’ve been working with leaders to help them improve their questions. I have come to recognize distinctive patterns in their questions; patterns that undermine their desire to find comprehensive, novel and widely accepted solutions. Many of the counterproductive questions that all of us tend to ask when we feel stuck fall into one or more recognizable categories. Here are four categories of questions that often lure us into a thinking trap.

1) The lure of the veiled solution

Organizational leaders are expected to have a point of view about any and all situations. Leaders also have a bias for action. We shouldn’t be surprised that when feeling stuck or challenged by a complex situation, leaders quickly form opinions and then set about implementing their conclusions. The urge to fix things often shows up in the way we pose a question about a situation we want to change. For example, when confronted with complaints that support functions feel left out and underutilized, a leader might start with the question:

How do we improve communication between line leaders and their support functions?

The question includes a point of view about how to respond to complaints about feeling left out and underutilized, but is a lack of communication really at the heart of the matter? Maybe line leaders feel overly regulated when they involve support functions so they intentionally work around them. A lot of unproductive work gets generated when people rush off to solve the wrong problem.

2) The lure of the false dichotomy

False dichotomy questions contain “either/or” assumptions. The question gets framed to limit (sometimes intentionally) answers to one of two opposing options. The problem is that real-world options are rarely if ever, mutually exclusive. False dichotomies have rhetorical impact, but almost always contain a logical fallacy. Imagine the politician that declares, “Either vote in favor of this legislation or condemn this country to a future of lawless anarchy.”

Here’s a typical false dichotomy question that could lure us into a thinking trap:

Should we bring in someone from outside the company to head up the marketing department or promote someone from within?

Are those really the only two alternatives? What if we hire someone from the outside to become a chief of staff to an internal hire that runs the department?

3) The get-them-to-change lure

When a situation feels stressful or frustrating, it’s not uncommon to assume outside forces are preventing you from achieving your goals. Sometimes, when we feel stuck and can’t control all the variables influencing our dissatisfying situation, we assign blame. If only our suppliers would lower their prices. If only our employees would act with accountability. If only our sales people would forecast the pipeline more accurately. In some respects the “get-them-to-change lure” is a special case of the lure of the veiled solution. In this case, the solution is for the identified group or individual to change their behavior. As an example…

How do we get our customers to use the tracking feature on our website instead of calling their sales rep when they need information about their orders?

When we accept a “get-them-to-change” framing of a dilemma, we end up thinking of people as automatons. Solving our problem becomes an exercise in figuring out the programming required to alter the behaviors we find troublesome.

4) The lure of the distorted scope

The scope of a question can be too narrow or too broad. When we experience a problem in a specific way, we may arbitrarily narrow our focus. Let’s say our employee engagement survey shows a decline in the scores related to “trust in leadership.” We would be limiting ourselves by asking the too narrow question, “How do we improve our trust scores on the engagement survey?” Alternatively, we could err in the other direction by asking the question, “How do we improve trust around here?”

The first question sends us off to analyze responses to survey items. The second question gives us no place to start.

For help improving question that may be suffering from one or more of the categories described above, take a look at Four Imperatives for Crafting Better Questions and How to Fix a Bad Question

Question your Answers

There is an important difference between getting unstuck and finding the answer.

Remember when you were solving word problems in high school algebra? Do you remember that feeling of being stuck? Going to the back of the textbook for the answer did not help you get unstuck. The goal of getting unstuck is to reorient your relationship to the problem, which makes it possible to find an answer.

Getting unstuck liberates us from our thinking traps and restores momentum. Fundamentally, getting unstuck means learning something new.

To get unstuck, we need one or more of the following

  • New data,
  • New perspectives
  • New insights.

The Unstuck Minds Compass reorients your relationship to your most persistent challenges by equipping you with four strategies for recognizing potential thinking traps and loosening their grip. Taken together, the four strategies provide data, perspectives and insights that change the way you define the problem. A single question headlines each strategy of the Unstuck Minds Compass. Let’s use each question to work an example.

Imagine that you are part of an employee engagement task force sponsored by your organization’s Human Resources (HR) department. The team has concluded that one key to greater employee engagement is frequent, ongoing coaching conversations between direct reports and their managers. The task force has implemented several initiatives to encourage coaching conversations. After each program or training course, employee focus groups report sporadic improvement, but the improvements peter out within weeks. Meanwhile, the employee engagement scores haven’t improved. The task force has defined the problem as an inability to get managers to conduct regular coaching conversations with their employees. The team feels stuck.

The Four Questions of the Unstuck Minds Compass

  1. What is the bigger picture?

Contextual Inquiry encourages us to zoom out and consider what is changing in the environment that we haven’t paid enough attention to. Let’s say that by asking about the bigger picture, we learn that…

  • Lower unemployment rates and aggressive recruiting are making it harder to retain our most talented employees
  • The increasing importance of learning how to adapt to a volatile and complex business environment might mean that mastering tried-and-true practices has become a lower priority for leadership development
  1. What is causing our dissatisfaction with the current situation?

Critical Inquiry directs our attention toward the underlying and hidden systemic issues that might be responsible for the situation we want to change. Let’s say that by asking about the causes of our dissatisfaction, we learn that…

  • Coaching in our organization is perceived as punitive rather than a way to build trust, rapport and capability
  • Our managers don’t care as much about the employee engagement surveys as the leaders of our HR department do
  1. What needs and perspectives are we missing?

Collaborative Inquiry asks us to consider the influences of social networks and diverse life experiences on our challenge. Let’s say that by uncovering needs and seeking out diverse perspectives, we learn that…

  • Millennials and their managers have misaligned priorities and values when it comes to performance expectations and career planning
  • We discover that our highest potential, early career employees view their current role as the place they’ll learn the skills they need for their next role
  1. How else might we define our challenge?

Creative Inquiry challenges us to question our assumptions and consider alternative ways to frame our problems given the data, perspectives and insights we’ve gathered by responding to the first three questions.

Perhaps we have come to realize that focusing on changing the behavior of our managers may be part of the problem. We originally defined our challenge as, “How do we get our managers to conduct regular coaching conversations with their employees?” Maybe we should consider defining our challenge as, “How might we help our employees realize their potential?”