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?”

The Four Influence Modes

People have been interested in influencing one another long before modern organizational structures blurred lines of authority. Aristotle laid out his theory of persuasion in the 4th Century BC. One of the bestselling books of all times, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People was written in 1936 and is still readily available. Today, Dale Carnegie and Associates, Inc. will sell you targeted versions of the classic like, How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age or How to Win Friends and Influence People for Teen Girls. Suffice to say; those of us schooled in Western intellectual traditions have come to believe that influence is something we do to others and the more skilled we become, the more others will be attracted to us and to our ideas.

In our organizational lives, the desire to increase agility and decrease cost challenges us to collaborate in ever more ambiguous and complex working relationships. In an attempt to move faster, organizations have removed layers of authority hoping to empower those closest to the work to make daily operating decisions without seeking permission along a chain of command. As a consequence, it is not uncommon for authority over investments, processes and the allocation of resources to be shared or unassigned.

The volatility of today’s business environment demands quick action and adaptability, but when no one can answer the question, “How will this decision get made?” the desire for agility bumps up against our preference for clarity.

When your rank, role, or status does not dictate your decision-making authority, action results from some combination of influence and cooperation. When the responsible parties cannot influence each other, decisions either get escalated to over-burdened functional executives or they tumble through an endless consensus cycle that wrings out accountability and commitment.

I want to offer for your consideration a framework that examines four modes of influence. While each mode represents a legitimate approach to influence, the distinctions among the modes may reveal hidden obstacles to moving forward. Each mode assumes a particular mindset about influence and a particular skillset to employ the mode effectively. Distinguishing among the influence modes will also surface incompatible approaches.

 

Slide2Coercive

  • Catchphrase: Do as I say
  • Source: Power imbalance
  • Strategy: Find the fear; exploit weakness

Coercive influence has limited applicability in modern organizations. It might be useful in a police interrogation or among religious fundamentalists, but influencing someone by focusing on authority or a power imbalance violates the morality of human dignity. If people respect your rank, role or status, coercive influence becomes benign compliance. When you exploit your rank, role or status to get your way, people will submit in the short run, but in the long run, they will expend their discretionary energy seeking ways to undermine or work around your demands. Coercive influence works when people have something to fear. Bob Woodward and his publishers made a very deliberate decision to call his most recent book, Fear: Trump in the White House.

When reaching conclusions or moving to action under coercive influence, there is only one acceptable option. The rules defining right and wrong are prescribed or dictated.

Slide2Persuasive

  • Catchphrase: Lend me your ear
  • Source: Rhetorical excellence
  • Strategy: Draw on credibility, emotion and logic

Persuasion is a form of influence that derives from a mechanistic model of human interaction. Person A holds belief x and uses the tools of persuasion to get person B to adopt belief x and to be willing to act on belief x. We typically think of politicians and organizational leaders as people who rely on rhetorical excellence to influence others. Persuasive influence works best when one person communicates to many people. The exact same rhetorical skill used in a more intimate setting or during a one-on-one conversation suddenly feels manipulative. People in an audience don’t expect to be heard from. People in a meeting do.

When reaching conclusions or moving to action under persuasive influence, there are only as many options as there are participants in the discussion.

Slide2Collaborative

  • Catchphrase: Better together
  • Source: Trust
  • Strategy: Build on shared interests and share responsibility for success

When we move from persuasion to collaboration, influence gets reframed. In the collaborative influence mode, influence is no longer something one person does to others. The collaborative mode and the emergent mode regard influence as change caused through interaction. In collaborative influence both parties are open to a “third way.” Collaborative influence rejects the notion that I am only influential when I convince others to see it my way. In collaborative influence, both parties explore their needs and interests and success depends on finding a way forward that meets shared needs and interests.

Under collaborative influence, multiple options emerge from an exploration of mutual interest.

Slide2Emergent

  • Catchphrase: Be here now
  • Source: Care
  • Strategy: Co-create safety for change through dialogue and improvisation

When it comes to the language of influence, it’s hard to think about influence without imagining a protagonist. Like collaborative influence, emergent influence rejects the conception of influence as something that one person does to others. Entering into emergent influence assumes that all parties care about each other’s needs and interests. In emergent influence mode, the potency of my influence is directly proportional to my openness to being influenced by others.

Under emergent influence we are only constrained by the depth of our desire to serve others.

 

What would you accept as evidence that you’re wrong?

Virtual instructor led training will never replace in-person classroom training.

When I facilitate a discussion about the challenges of leading organizational change, I often use a personal example. I mention that Interaction Associates, the training and consulting firm where I work, has been developing modules of instruction that can be delivered through web conferencing platforms. Our clients want virtual training and we are responding.

To emphasize the challenges of organizational change, I bluntly describe my aversion to participating in webinars, which is exceeded only by my aversion to leading webinars. I then ask participants to imagine that they are my bosses and that they would rather help me adapt than replace me.

By the way, if you are one of my clients and I’m scheduled to lead a virtual learning session for you, don’t worry… keep reading. The point of this blog post is to share what I’ve learned about making it easier for people to be wrong so that they can avoid getting stuck. Spoiler alert: I have turned the corner on my resistance by better understanding its source.

We have learned from the work of Kahneman and Tversky that when people consider options and outcomes, “Losses loom larger than gains.” From William Bridges work on “Managing Transitions” we understand that people experiencing change will first consider what they are losing before they can accept a new beginning. Ron Heifetz warns us not to ignore the adaptive aspects of change (aspects that require us to transform our repertoires) by only focusing on the technical aspects of a change (aspects that we have the expertise to deal with). The more a change threatens something a person considers core to their identity, the greater the resistance.

For those of us with a more analytical bent, our resistance often masquerades as well-reasoned conclusions. We experience the fear associated with the threat of loss, but we’re more comfortable with rationale than raw emotion and by the way, so are our organizations. We build theories to justify our opinions, and then we interpret the inevitable missteps that accompany any large-scale change as evidence that we were right all along.

In 1959, the philosopher Karl Popper introduced the concept of “falsifiability” as a way to distinguish a legitimate scientific claim from a pseudo-scientific claim. For Popper, an empirical scientific system is one that can be refuted by evidence. Borrowing the concept of falsifiability can be useful when people raise reasonable sounding objections to hide their fear of loss.

Ask someone who argues in support of the status quo two questions:

  1. What should we accept as evidence that we’re wrong about making this change?
  2. What would you accept as evidence that you’re wrong about preserving the status quo?

If we want to have a conversation about the emotional impact of change, then it’s best not to argue about whose theory of emerging trends is more accurate. Simply give people the time and space to express and empathize with each other’s reaction. If we want to have a conversation about the most reasonable course of action given our hypotheses, we should be prepared to look for falsifying evidence, not just confirmatory evidence. If I can’t imagine discovering evidence that I’m wrong about one of my theories, then it’s not a theory; it’s something I take on faith.

If you’re a leader or manager and you’re dealing with a pain-in-the-ass employee like me, consider allowing your employee to pontificate, and then acknowledge that they may have a point. If the employee has a reputation as an alarmist, they’re unlikely to sway others. If the employee is respected and trusted, he or she will come around or opt out because that’s what people with integrity do.

Sometimes being stuck is like recognizing that we’ve stepped into quicksand and we struggle unproductively to free ourselves. Sometimes being stuck is like standing still while the ground beneath us turns to quicksand. At first we feel comfortable and settled. We scoff at the frenetic activity around us. We’re content to stay put. What we need is a better question to wake us up to the sinking feeling that we may be left behind.

Consultants on Balconies Getting Comfy

Netflix recently released Season 10 of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. If you haven’t seen the show, its title is its premise. The episodes run for about 15 minutes. At the beginning of each episode, Jerry picks up his guest in an exotic car meant to capture the spirit of the featured comedian. Jerry and his guest drive around, grab a cup of coffee, sometimes eat a meal, sometimes run an errand all the while chatting about whatever interests Jerry. Often, what interests Jerry most is philosophizing about stand-up comedy.

In the first episode of the current season, Jerry’s guest is Zach Galifianakis. After picking up Zach in a Volkswagen Thing (fun, inventive, unique, irreverent… like Galifianakis, get the idea?), the comedians end up getting their requisite coffee in a donut shop. Zach becomes nostalgic about his pre-fame days when he could spend uninterrupted time observing people in nondescript places. He explains that after the success of the Hangover movies, he feels that he lost the ability to simply hangout in ordinary places and observe. He recalls wistfully, “I got to sit and watch people… and that’s where I got everything.”

After watching Jerry and his guests discuss how comics get inspired, one gets the impression that stand-up comics split their attention as they go about their lives. The comic blends in with the rest of us Earthlings attending to the activities of daily living while simultaneously watching life from some detached, alien perspective.

For example, as Jerry and Zach are driving past a couple of elderly gentlemen greeting each other on the street, Jerry observes, “There’s two old friends. See that hug? Those guys have known each other a long time. They’ve eaten the exact same food. That’s why they’re the exact same weight.”

Facilitators and organizational development consultants also exploit the power of the detached perspective. For leaders, a detached perspective is more difficult, but no less important. Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky in their 2002 book, Leadership on the Line compare leading to dancing, ask leaders to imagine the difference between the experience of being on a dance floor and being on a balcony overlooking the dance floor:

Achieving a balcony perspective means taking yourself out of the dance, in your mind, even if only for a moment. The only way you can gain both a clearer view of reality and some perspective on the bigger picture is by distancing yourself from the fray. (p. 53)

Consultants often provide leaders with a balcony perspective because the consultant is less attached to the specific ideas and opinions surrounding a challenging organizational situation. A consultant acting as a meeting facilitator on behalf of a leader can focus on the process of the meeting and the way participants interact to ensure the meeting leader gets full advantage of convening stakeholders with diverse points-of-view.

Of course, just as leaders can get stuck on the dance floor and miss the big picture, consultants can get stuck on the balcony. Too much time on the balcony and helpful insights can become unproductive criticisms. Consultants who get comfortable on the balcony risk becoming like the “cold and timid souls” in Theodore Roosevelt’s famous speech who, “…know neither victory nor defeat.”

When Dennis Rebelo and I were students at Saybrook University working on our doctorates we developed a reputation as captious bystanders during our program’s residential conferences. At some point we started referring to ourselves as Statler and Waldorf, the cranky, wisecracking hecklers that would sit in the balcony during The Muppet Show and amuse themselves with insulting comments about whatever was happening on stage. We were never sure which of us was Statler and which was Waldorf, but we embraced the nicknames and the personas.

To be fair, Dennis gets antsy if he spends too much time on the balcony. He is a busy guy with a string of accomplishments. Check out his latest project called StoryPathing™ designed in part, to help people during transitions develop their identity through the power of narrative. I, on the other hand, get very comfortable on the balcony. Sometimes, when I facilitate meetings, the dynamics playing out in front of me can distract me from intervening and redirecting the discussion.

The view from the balcony can help a team get unstuck.

If you don’t have access to a consultant or facilitator… or a stand-up comic, you can still benefit from a detached perspective. In every group and during every meeting someone at some point in a process or discussion is paying more attention to how things are going (balcony) than to the work at hand (dance floor). Moreover, the person most likely to have a useful opinion about how things are going may be the one who seems disengaged or even anxious about participating.

If you have created an environment in which people feel safe expressing their thoughts and feelings, you can simply pause the meeting or process and ask people for feedback. If not, follow the example of Jerry Seinfeld and take a coffee break. Simply stop the action for five or ten minutes and talk to someone whose opinion you respect and who has not had much to say. When attempting to learn from someone who has been on the balcony, don’t ask, “What should we do?” Instead, ask, “What are you seeing?”

Organizational Quicksand, Part 2: Getting Unstuck

Last week’s blog post introduced differences in the way organizations turn thinking into action. I organized the distinctions by contrasting two attributes of an organization’s culture: The organization’s tolerance for ambiguity and the organization’s preferred influence style. In this post, I want to flesh out the distinctions a bit more and then consider how becoming attentive to your preferred mode of turning thinking into action can help you get unstuck.

The mode of turning thinking into action characterized by a low tolerance for ambiguity and a preference for influence by persuasion, I call “operate” mode. Operate mode moves to action quickly and discussions often feel like competitive sales pitches. Operate mode eschews process and structure. Rule following is seen as time consuming. Operate mode has a bias for trusting the judgment of a passionate, forceful leader who will bend the future to his or her will. Operate mode sees little value in taking the time to build consensus through processes that tap into the organization’s collective wisdom. When in operate mode, introducing nuanced distinctions among options will be judged as unproductive “navel gazing.”

Operate mode serves an organization well when it produces something customer’s value. As long as there is a market for an operate mode organization’s products and services, moving fast and selling hard works. When the value proposition changes because customers’ needs have evolved, operate mode can get an organization stuck.

The mode of turning thinking into action characterized by a low tolerance for ambiguity and a preference for influence by alignment, I call “regulate” mode. Regulate mode is methodical and consistent. Discussions in regulate mode feel formal and predictable. Regulate mode places a high premium on years of experience in the company. If a process or methodology doesn’t dictate how best to handle a situation, the organization will follow a leader who has dealt with the situation in the past. In regulate mode, people want information before they act. In regulate mode, influence takes the form of presentations with a lot of detail about what is happening and how it will happen. New ideas don’t get surfaced casually when in regulate mode. One needs to prepare carefully before suggesting something new, provide evidence that the idea is workable and a business case that demonstrates the idea is worthwhile.

Regulate mode serves an organization well when the customer value proposition includes risk mitigation. As long as a regulate mode business is seen as a trustworthy option, customers will pay a premium for its products and services. When innovations provide customers with faster or cheaper yet equally good alternatives, regulate mode can get an organization stuck.

The mode of turning thinking into action characterized by a high tolerance for ambiguity and a preference for influence by persuasion, I call “debate” mode. In debate mode, skill, expertise and intellect are highly valued. Discussions in debate mode feel stimulating to those who want a rigorous exploration of a topic. Taking action in debate mode feels less important than considering every angle. Authority in debate mode is correlated with expertise. Debate mode embraces ambiguity because it allows every situation to be analyzed and litigated anew.

Debate mode serves an organization well when the customer value proposition is based on superior product quality or service excellence. As long as minor adjustments or extensions to existing products and services continue to be seen as valuable, there will be customers for debate mode businesses. When new market needs require agile responses, debate mode can get an organization stuck.

The mode of turning thinking into action characterized by high tolerance for ambiguity and a preference for influence by alignment, I call “relate” mode. In relate mode, collaboration is highly valued. Discussions are characterized by a desire for shared understanding; leaders seek alternative points of view and include people with diverse backgrounds and beliefs. Opportunities to act emerge when something looks interesting. In relate mode, people put their trust in their colleagues’ ability to marshal resources to get the job done. Because relate mode requires empathy and curiosity, relate mode organizations have long standing affiliations with customers, clients and other strategic partners along their supply chain.

Relate mode serves an organization well when customer loyalty is paramount. As long as customers and business partners value their relationship with the organization, the relate mode business will be presented with new opportunities. When customers and business partners retire, change jobs or otherwise reorient their priorities, relate mode can get an organization stuck.

When your thinking to action mode becomes a trap

Like many overused skills, your organization’s default thinking to action mode can turn counterproductive when you fail to notice that the usual response to challenging situations fails to make things better. For example, if you prefer to work in operate mode and your customers have become disenchanted with your offer, thinking up new ways to persuade your customer to make a purchase signifies being caught in a thinking to action trap.

The Unstuck Minds Compass™ is comprised of four strategies for changing the way you think with others about persistent problem or daunting opportunities. The strategies introduce questions about your situation that you may neglect to ask if you have been trapped by your preferred mode.

  1. Contextual inquiry helps a stuck team zoom out by introducing questions about what is changing in the environment.
  2. Critical inquiry helps a stuck team zoom in by introducing questions about interrelationships within an organizational system.
  3. Collaborative inquiry helps a stuck team by directing their attention to informal social networks and the thoughts and feelings of diverse stakeholders.
  4. Creative inquiry helps a stuck team by questioning assumptions and focusing attention on insights about unmet needs.

Each strategy provides a helping hand when you notice that the usual mode of turning thinking into action has started to feel like being mired in quicksand.

For organizations stuck in operate mode, collaborative inquiry comes to the rescue by providing missing perspectives. To get unstuck, operate mode leaders will have to learn how to be influenced by what they hear when talking with stakeholders and they will need to develop the capacity to remain open to additional input even if it means postponing action.

For organizations stuck in regulate mode, creative inquiry comes to the rescue by providing novel options. To get unstuck, regulate mode leaders will have to get comfortable letting go of the need to see a business case for every idea someone wants to raise. Regulate mode teams will need to spend time openly questioning the assumptions behind existing routines and methods.

For organizations stuck in debate mode, contextual inquiry comes to the rescue by providing a way to prioritize the big picture over getting all the details right. To get unstuck, debate mode stakeholders will have to learn how to question whether settling a point of contention or getting additional input will make a meaningful difference in terms of choosing a course of action.

For organizations stuck in relate mode, critical inquiry comes to the rescue by providing a way to set standards for objectively evaluating opportunities. To get unstuck, relate mode teams will have to learn how to say, “no” even when something looks interesting. To get unstuck, relate mode leaders need to analyze options to determine what makes the most sense for the future and then invest in executing on the strategy better than anyone else.

Organizational Quicksand: Four modes of thinking together they may be holding you back

Getting stuck in the way we are thinking is like finding ourselves in quicksand; applying our habits and routines just makes things worse.

I want to describe four categories of organizational quicksand. Each category represents a routine mode of translating thinking into action. The four modes emerge from comparing and contrasting two dimensions of an organization’s decision-making culture: An organization’s tolerance for ambiguity and an organization’s influence style.

The first dimension describes the organization’s tolerance for ambiguity. An organization has a low tolerance for ambiguity when it sees ambiguous situations as threatening or stressful. An organization with high tolerance for ambiguity prefers situations with multiple and sometimes contradictory interpretations. A low tolerance for ambiguity culture seeks a concrete answer and sticks to it. In a high tolerance for ambiguity culture one often hears people say, “it depends.”

The second dimension describes the organization’s preferred influence style. The influence style dimensions represent a continuum of receptivity to the opinions of others. I refer to low receptivity to the opinions of others as a “persuasive” style. I refer to high receptivity to the opinion of others as an “alignment” style. Exchanges of strongly held viewpoints characterize persuasive cultures. Listening, questions and high involvement characterize alignment cultures.

For the last several years, I have been paying attention to how ambiguity tolerance and influence style characterize the way people in organizations think together. I want to describe four of my client organizations, each one emblematic of one of the four categories. Like many habits that have become traps in times of change, it’s easy to see how the modes of translating thinking into action served each organization well. Now, the modes of thinking have become a type of quicksand making it hard for each organization to adapt.

Org Quicksand Traps

Operate Mode

The “Operate” mode influences by persuasion and has a low tolerance for ambiguity. The operate style describes well a global technology company that I have been working with for over ten years. The company prides itself on having an entrepreneurial culture despite its size and scope. Leaders in the company think fast and act fast; weighing alternatives just slows things down. Leaders in this company don’t engage in dialogue about ideas, they “pitch” ideas to each other and make deals in order to move things forward. The operate mode turns to quicksand when leaders need to question their assumptions and collaborate in new ways with their employees and customers.

Regulate Mode

The “Regulate” mode influences by alignment and has a low tolerance for ambiguity. The regulate style aligns through systems, rules, regulations and procedures. I have a long-standing relationship with a multi-national engineering and construction company. Leaders in this company tend to have backgrounds in civil, mechanical and chemical engineering. There are clearly delineated ways of doing things, which has made the company reliable and a safe bet for customers who are making big investments in complicated projects. The regulate mode turns to quicksand when leaders resist experimenting with innovative ideas.

Relate Mode

The “Relate” mode influences by alignment and has a high tolerance for ambiguity. The relate style values inclusion and involvement, diversity is seen as strength and success often emerges organically by leveraging opportunities. I work with a global retailer that has a distinctive buying model, which mirrors its distinctive culture. Leaders in this company listen to each other and to their customers and suppliers. They avoid codifying procedures preferring to stay attentive to opportunity. The lack of routine makes it hard for relate-mode organizations to develop key talent. The relate mode turns to quicksand when becoming distracted by new possibilities competes with a need for strategic focus.

Debate Mode

The “Debate” mode influences by persuasion and has a high tolerance for ambiguity. Spending time in a debate mode culture often feels like being at an academic conference. I work with a materials science company that manufactures a variety of products, which feature various applications of their proprietary materials. The organization values expertise while rejecting authority as a basis for decision making. The most compelling point-of-view supported by the best logic and data wins the day. The debate mode turns to quicksand when circumstances require a rapid response without making time to consider everyone’s opinion.

Each of these organizations has been successful because of their respective cultures. Today, each of these organizations senses the need to adapt to changing market conditions and an unfamiliar competitive landscape. Applying comfortable modes of translating thinking to action can be counterproductive when the ground that once provided a firm foundation for decision making starts to shift under our feet.