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?

The Playground and the Playing Field

Success on the playing field is winning. Teams square off against one another in a well-defined activity with a definitive endpoint. No one on a team succeeds unless the team succeeds. Players have roles, they are expected to develop expertise in their roles, and they are accountable to one another for specific tasks. Performance is measured, reported, and there are consequences when performance outcomes don’t meet expectations. Some authorities judge the quality of play, other authorities dictate what constitutes allowable play. On the playing field you have opponents. James Carse describes a game played on a playing field as a Finite Game. A “finite game” according to Carse, “is played for the purpose of winning.”

Success on the playground is joy. Individuals choose activities and make use of the available equipment. On the playground, we play alone or with others. We can be challenged to accomplish a skill or overcome a fear, or we can simply create and imagine. We can agree to adopt roles in a spontaneous joint project, but no one is waiting for the project to produce any outcome. There are no authorities on how to play on the playground. Carse describes the game played on a playground as an Infinite Game. An “Infinite game” according to Carse, “is played for the purpose of continuing to play.”

How much of your work feels like being on a playing field and how much feels like being on a playground?

How much of your organization’s purpose is about winning and how much of your organization’s purpose is about thriving so that play continues?

Strategic Agility is a hot topic these days. Whatever we mean by “strategic agility,” the concept is fundamentally about the tension between being prepared (strategic) and being quick to adapt (agile).

Strategic agility seems useful on the playing field. You would want to have a game plan and you would want to adapt and respond when conditions change, or when your opponent does something unexpected. When success is winning, strategic agility may provide a competitive edge.

Strategic Agility seems counterproductive on the playground. Developing a plan for how you engage on a playground suddenly changes your relationship to other players and to the nature of your play. When activity becomes part of a larger plan, play becomes a means to an end; players become allies or obstructionists.

When organizations see all activity as moves on a playing field, everything feels like a competition. Meetings become arenas in which people move ahead or fall behind. People covet resources, take credit, and place blame. When organizations see all activity as moves on a playground, harmony trumps decisiveness. People avoid conflict while harboring resentments.

In our organizational lives, we need wins to thrive and we need to thrive in order to win.

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.

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.

Have a D.I.E.T (Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity Talk)

Download a free D.I.E.T. Deck at Unstuck Minds/ D.I.E.T. Deck

I’m a 60-year old, white, heterosexual, cisgender male. I’m not apologizing; that’s just how it has turned out for me.

I mention the circumstances of my existence and identity because I want to offer something useful to promote diversity, inclusion and equity on our teams and in our workplaces. I make this offer in spite of my identity and circumstances (or maybe because of my identity and circumstance).

I’m experimenting with a card deck of questions that you can download for free at Unstuck Minds. I’m imagining that a facilitator or team leader would bring people together, shuffle the cards and place them face down on a table. A group of people who want to better understand and appreciate one another would take turns picking a card and reading the question out loud. Any member of the group with a personal experience to share in response to the question speaks up with an answer and/or an example. The leader or facilitator closes out the session by asking for insights.

I have listed the questions below if you’d rather not bother downloading and printing off the questions in the form of cards. I would love to hear what you think of the questions and how you use them. I will happily update the deck based on new questions that people submit or revise questions based on suggested edits. Bookmark this blog post so you can submit new questions in the comments section. Indicate whether you like or dislike the questions so we can decide which new questions get included in an updated deck.

D.I.E.T. Deck Questions

  • What do you believe is among the first things people you meet at work notice about you? What would you rather they notice about you?
  • In what retail store do you feel most at ease? Why?
  • You’re walking into your first meeting with a team of people you’ve never met. The others have been working together for a year. What do you most want the team leader to do to help you feel like you belong?
  • What do your co-workers not get about you… that you wish they did?
  • What language was spoken in the home you grew up in that is not spoken at work?
  • What did a memorable teacher do to make it easier for you to learn when you struggled with a subject or topic?
  • Which of your colleagues is worn out by a non-stop series of interactions? How do you know?
  • When you board public transportation and walk down an aisle to find a seat, what do you assume the people who are seated think when they notice you?
  • What do you wish recent college graduates understood about what it takes to be successful?
  • What do you wish people who will be retiring in the next 15-20 years understood about people just entering the workforce?
  • How would you feel about being forced to use a bathroom designated for a different gender?
  • How important is it for a cafeteria at school or work to accommodate dietary restrictions (e.g. allergies to the presence of certain foods, religious dietary laws, diets based on health or ethics, etc.)?
  • What assumptions grant you an unearned advantage over others (e.g. “Tall people are good at basketball,” so you get chosen to play based on your height – Thank you for this example, @Stephanie Walton)?
  • What do you need to use that is designed badly for someone like you?
  • What do you have in common with someone at work who is very different than you, something you were surprised to discover?
  • What’s an example of something in our organization that is rigged against people like you?
  • What’s an example of language or jargon used by a group at work that seems designed to exclude others?
  • What do you “just deal with” at work, even though it puts you at a disadvantage?
  • Bonus Question: What’s the name of the person who cleans the toilets at your workplace? What else do you know about them?