You Can’t Schedule a Time to be Agile; Getting things done while figuring things out

How many of you use some form of a Lean Six-Sigma process in your organizations to problem-solve, reengineer processes, and make improvements?

How many of you use some form of a human-centered design or user-first design process in your organizations to innovate?

How many of you have a strategy formulation process to set direction, analyze trends, uncover market forces, and identify emerging technologies?

Each methodology represents a useful approach to finding opportunities and solving problems. At the same time, each methodology conceals two underlying and debilitating assumptions. First, we assume that reengineering, innovating, and strategizing are distinct processes. Secondly, we assume that each process can be scheduled and undertaken periodically.

Sometimes reengineered improvements arise from the application of design thinking. Sometimes a design thinking exercise will surface an opportunity that has the potential to influence strategy. Sometimes a strategy formulation exercise feels divorced from the realities of what it will take to reengineer the systems required to bring the strategy to life. An agile organization must access a variety of tools so it can respond and adapt while it invents and plans.

Perhaps there was a time when it made sense to employ process reengineering, innovation, and strategy exercises on special occasions. We no longer have the luxury to pick and choose a time to think about how to make things better or plan for the future. Isolating time spent figuring things out from time spent getting things done only works when conditions are stable. Otherwise, by the time you have things figured out and you’re able to operationalize your conclusions, the assumptions on which you based your thinking may no longer pertain. An agile organization treats problem-solving and opportunity identification as a management routine.

The Unstuck Minds Heuristic

A heuristic is a simple method or procedure that allows for self-discovery, exploration or problem-solving in order to improve performance. For example, if you have a method for fitting suitcases into the trunk of a car (e.g. put the largest cases in first), you’re applying a heuristic. I remember explaining to my daughters that I estimate a 20% tip at restaurants by moving the decimal one place to the left and then doubling the number to the left of the decimal. Once you have a heuristic that works, you can share it with others; heuristics are rules-of-thumb that create learning and performance shortcuts.

If you accept the premise that an agile organization needs leaders who can reengineer, innovate, and strategize on a routine basis, you’ll need to provide your leaders with a powerful heuristic. Leaders will need something memorable and useful that doesn’t require the intervention of an expert.

Four Questions to ask when you’re Stuck for an Answer

Consider asking the following four questions anytime you sense a loss of momentum, the return of a familiar problem, or an opportunity just out of reach:

1) What’s changing?

Zoom out like a strategist to notice what is happening in the environment. What is your competition doing differently, what political or economic policies might shift that could influence your organization or your customers? What emerging technology could undermine your organization’s value proposition?

Think about what is becoming more important and less important. Think about what is becoming more available and less available. Think about what is becoming more popular and less popular.

2) What’s keeping things the same?

Zoom in like a systems thinker to notice the interconnections that define the status quo. Ask yourself about existing systems and processes that may have turned counterproductive. Look into the ways people are rewarded, recognized, incentivized and punished. Ask about what has become comfortable to do that no longer adds value.

Play out the consequences for people of maintaining the status quo versus altering the status quo. What do the habits and routines suggest about the organization’s priorities?

3) Who needs what?

Apply the curiosity and empathy of a design thinker to discover the needs, wants, worries, and priorities of the people who will adopt any solution that gets developed. Instead of creating carrots and sticks so people will comply with a solution developed by a few leaders, find a solution that makes it easier for people to apply their passions and aspirations. Trust that when you make it easy for a lot of the right people to get what they need, insights and options will emerge.

Once you accept that new ideas will surface by focusing on what people need, choose the individual or group to put at the center of your efforts. Once you select the people to focus on, take time to understand and empathize with their desires and motivations. When you shift your problem-solving priority from arranging the world to work for you to helping people you care about get what they need, you’ll be ready to define your challenge.

4) How will we define our challenge?

Once you define your challenge as an open-ended question about how to make the world work better for people you care about, you will immediately see new and interesting options. As I’ve written in a previous blog post, there’s a big difference between the solution set for the challenge: How do I get my teenage daughter to keep her bathroom clean? And the solution set for the challenge: How do we reduce the amount of nagging at home?

When you’ve defined your challenge and identified solutions, you can use the work you did in steps one and two to evaluate which solutions will work best. Prioritize solutions that take into account what is changing and counteract what is keeping things the same.

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.

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.