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.

Influence Aikido

Aikido is a Japanese martial art form with spiritual roots that can be traced back to Shintoism. Aikido emphasizes harmony and unity. Aikido practitioners learn to defend themselves while simultaneously protecting their attacker from injury.

Consider the difference between aikido and boxing. The purpose of Aikido is to reconcile disharmony. The purpose of boxing is to overpower your opponent. Which practice most closely matches your assumptions about influence?

In The West, we tend to think of influence as persuasion. When we equate influence with persuasion, we seek out techniques designed to make an impression and overcome objections. We develop our ability to verbally spar by learning how to jab and when to counterpunch. Advanced techniques include lowering your guard by pretending to listen when in fact you’re simply inviting your opponents to expose the weakness in their arguments.

In theory, we don’t have opponents at work; we have colleagues. In some cases, we want to influence our colleagues because we hold incompatible opinions about something. Most often, we want to influence our colleagues by being included in their thought processes. The lawyer wants to consult with decision makers before they sign a contract. The engineer wants their concerns about safety or quality to be taken seriously before promises are made to a customer. The HR business partner wants a leader to consider the implications of an organizational change on employee engagement, capability, and trust before setting the change in motion.

Setting aside structural or cultural explanations for why someone with authority might not seek out or even welcome input from an expert, what will it take for your input to become influential? If you frame your goal as persuasion, you’ll adopt techniques for packaging your point of view. If you frame your goal as reconciling disharmony, you’ll approach interactions with curiosity and empathy. I have written about “collaborative influence” in a white paper called, “How to Change a Mind; Yours and Others.” I have also proposed a thought framework that differentiates forms of influence in a blog post.

To get you started, here are three questions you can consider before attempting to influence someone at work:

  1. Under what conditions are you most open to changing your mind?
  2. Under what conditions are the people you hope to influence most open to changing their minds?
  3. How might you create the conditions everyone needs that makes mind changing easier?

Gives and Gets; The Road to Disengagement

It’s that time of year when goals are set and performance contracts renewed. The official corporate clipboard awaits this year’s scorecard. Santa is not the only one who keeps a list.

Consider your most important relationships: family, life-long friends, partner or spouse. It would be bizarre to judge the relationship based on a scorecard that tracks what you get compared to what you give. In fact, when you stop being grateful for having someone in your life and start comparing what you give to what you get from that person, it’s a sign that the relationship is deteriorating.

If you manage others or work in a function responsible for improving relations between employee and employer, it’s likely that you want people to feel a stronger emotional connection to their work. What happens to the relationship when success gets defined in terms of an exchange of value?

In 1923, the scholar, philosopher and political activist, Martin Buber published his most famous work, I and Thou. The essay contrasts two ways of relating to the world: The I-It relationship and the I-Thou relationship. An I-It relationship presumes a distinction between subject and object. In an I-It world, we move around like billiard balls bumping into one another and experiencing temporary exchanges. We are tempted to perceive the world and talk about the world in an I-It way because that’s how things seem to us. We experience ourselves as self-contained and impervious to the stuff we encounter.

Despite how it seems, Buber suggests that reality is not about subjects (us) being separate or apart from what we experience as objects (not us). Rather, as we encounter others and things we enter into a dialogue, a transformation. An I-Thou way of relating reveals what we share rather than what differentiates. Describing the I-Thou relationship is a challenge for our language and our Western ways of thinking. Suffice to say that in those moments when we feel transcendent connections, when we lose ourselves in an experience we’ve had a close encounter of the I-Thou kind.

When we define a work relationship in terms of what gets exchanged between employee and employer, we highlight our boundaries rather than our mutuality. We reject our interdependence. Our I-It work relationship is not much different than the one between a thirsty person with money and a vending machine with beverages.

If it’s true that younger workers crave purpose and meaning, we may need to reevaluate how we evaluate. Rather than asking your boss: What incentives and compensation will I get for meeting and exceeding my objectives this year? Try this question instead: How will we share responsibility for each other’s success this year?