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I speak later today at UX Lisbon 2018, Here are my notes from the sessions so far (will update after each talk so hit refresh to get the latest).

1. Confusion, stupidity and Shame, Richard Banfield

Part One: Fight Club

We think that failure is the end of the lesson, but kids just keep doing stuff. It’s how they learn how to walk and talk, mostly by doing terribly, but it’s never a reason for them to stop trying. He wanted to remind us that’s the best way to learn.

Fall seven times, get up eight times (which would make a great tattoo). But as adults we forget to get up.

The first rule of failure is to talk about failure. – Perry Hewitt.

Adults primarily are embarrassed by failure, so they prevent learning and encouragement from happening. (The Flight Club reference is about secrets and the danger of keeping your feelings about failure a secret).

Identity / Responsibility

Missing a quote on quote slide, slide right. Your identity is not the design you create. Other people will simply ask “so what is s/he going to do next?” – the dramatic stakes of the result of a project are in our own minds.

By owning a failure and saying “I made a mistake” you claim ownership of it and allows you to move on.

Part Two

Most of us think we are responsible for our success, Privledge, genetics, timing, parents, friends, education, luck.­ These factors are more likely to explain why he are here than hard work. Go to Bangladesh and watch people work manual labor jobs to see real hard work.

Tatoo: you are not special, get back to work

“Failure is yours, and success is your team’s” – Tess Cooper

When looking at a portfolio, he often asks candidates “so how did your team contribute to this?” and they respond with surprise, as the premise is “this is my portfolio”.

Movie “The Bear” – Most people lost in the world, they die of shame” – Charles Morse (Anthony Hopkins).

Book recommendation: Deep Survival

When you want to do something new and you talk about your idea, it polarizes people. Even if it’s a good idea. You should be prepared for résistance even if your idea is good.

“A genius is a crazy person who turned out to be right” – Tim Minchin

Designers have a personal investment in their ideas, they take negative feedback of an idea as personal.

Book recommendation: The subtle art of not giving a f*ck

What problems:

  • Excite you
  • And are worth solving
  • Are u willing to sacrifice for?
  • And you will work on when it’s hard?
  • And when other people hate your ideas?

Epilogue

He told a story about having a grand new vision for his team, which he presented in a big presentation, but which didn’t go anywhere.

“Hold a funeral for your best ideas. After you grieve, will you miss them?” – Paul Bellow

His wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, and he immediately went into problem-solving mode, which is natural for designers. But in many situations problem solving is not the most useful place to start. Connecting with others and generating a context for help might be more important (which is hard for self-reliant people to prioritize first).

Failure isn’t so bad when here’s someone there to catch you. (His wife is doing well now, as is his company).

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Creative abrasion is Jerry Hirshberg’s term for the kinds of friction that helps develop better ideas. Hirshberg, a former design manager at Nissan, realized that some kinds of resistance are useful in the creative process and should be deliberately created by the leader of a team. This could be a timely critique, a barrage of difficult questions or even a temporary reworking of team processes and roles.

This works against the romantic fantasy many have for an ideal creative workplace. Somehow we all have a latent desire for a workplace free of annoying meetings and frustrating bureaucratic processes, where we could just show up at the office, pronounce our epiphany, and have the entire organization immediately swirl around us in support. But Hirshberg suggests good ideas, and good people, need to be challenged to develop and grow. A good idea can withstand critique and hold up, or improve in quality, when compared against other good ideas, while weaker ones will be revealed and fade away.

In his book, The Creative Priority, Hirshberg documents various kinds of abrasions, including:

  • Hiring divergent pairs: teaming people who see the world differently to work together on the same project
  • Embracing the Dragon: finding false constraints and challenging them (also see: Idea Killers)
  • Creative questions: thoughtful questions can reframe the problem that needs to be solved
  • Blurring discipline boundaries: our invented taxonomies for knowledge blind us from new ways to think about problems and solutions

He also noticed how his choices as manager would sometime generate dual responses from his team. It both made them uncomfortable and had effects that they appreciated, and this duality signified to him that his abrasions were having the desired effect. For example, when Hirshberg made his team’s  prototyping process much faster:

Jim McJunkin, a meticulous designer from Texas, felt that “God is in the details and the nuances, and these take time to resolve.”… But McJunkin then countered himself with the observation, “I like the imposed haste. I’m a perfectionist, and it’s a nice counterbalance to my workstyle… there’s something provocative in the unfinished-ness of the models,” a statement that implicitly acknowledged the added value of the modelers’ creative instincts in these spontaneous interpretations. (p. 44)

Jim McJunkin noted that “it is the abrasion of tiny air molecules that creates the beauty of a shooting star, without which it would be just another rapidly moving, cold and anonymous piece of rock.”

However, too much friction, or friction of the wrong kind or at the wrong time, can be just as bad, or worse, as not having enough. Hirshberg is clear the goal isn’t to force heated debates or make people upset (although that may happen at times). Instead, it’s the deliberate use of energy to make a kind of forcing function, that pushes people to dig deeper, rethink harder and explore alternatives they would be unlikely to choose to otherwise.

Deciding the right kind of friction to apply is a subtle skill that many managers never master. It depends heavily on understanding the culture of the team, the personality of each individual, and the ability to make friction something interesting and that raises curiosity, rather than feeling like a penalty. It’s also heavily dependent on timing: much like working a campfire, you have to use different kinds of friction and fuel to start it, grow it, or to just keep it going.

The legendary research lab at Xerox Parc, where the GUI, Ethernet and the laser printer were invented, was led by Bob Taylor, and his approach to management might be one of the labs greatest creations. Alan Kay, who worked for him, said about Taylor: “His attitude kept it safe for others to put aside fears and ego and concentrate objectively on the problem at hand.”

Taylor encouraged open criticism and debate, in a weekly meeting in a room filled with beanbag chairs. The goal wasn’t to tear other people down, but to push, inspire, and challenge everyone to explore their ideas deeply. Taylor put the ideas, and ideas about ideas, at the center, and moved politics, posturing, and hierarchy to the perimeter. Taylor was likely an excellent facilitator of discussions, helping make sure there was just the right amount of friction.

All too often managers hear about a concept like creative abrasion and rush to apply it, without fully understanding how it works. Hirshberg shares this story:

After hearing about [creative abrasion] at a meeting at NDI, a group of executives from Salomon, the great French ski equipment manufacturer, attempted to apply it. When they returned to San Diego from France a few months later for a design review of the ski boot concepts we were developing for them, one of the vice presidents said, “Well, we have the abrasion part down pat!”

This reveals that the notion of friction applies to the manager’s own work as well. It’s inevitable that the use of friction as a tool will force questions about how a company or team are organized and the process that managers use. This is healthy and can lead to progress, but for insecure managers who fear change, it’s also terrifying. Creative abrasion can be seen as slowing things down or working inefficiently when it should instead be seen as one of the few ways to provoke better and more original thinking to happen.

But even if all the strategies suggested in this book were invoked and followed religiously, creativity would still sit uneasily within bureaucratic bounds… None of the procedures is designed to make it a comfortable, obeisant, timely, well-oiled cog in traditional or enlightened bureaucratic machinery. Instead, the strategies were conceived to help overcome the knee-jerk resistance that inevitably accompanies the creative process, and to recognize the unease as a sign of its probable health.

Hirshberg’s book is a worthy read, especially for design managers or R&D lab leaders, as many of the stories he uses to illustrate his ideas come directly from his management experience.

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People who design things for a living depend on optimism. To do their job well, whether it’s designing websites or automobiles, they must believe they have the talent to make things that are better than what currently exists in the world. The problem is that this optimism, when combined with immaturity, creates a shallow view of how organizations work. Designers claim, and often with good reason, that they understand human behavior better than others, but their distaste for what they call politics reveals they’re ignorant of one of the most natural behaviors people in groups have. Designers who hate, or don’t comprehend, politics betray their own ideas by not recognizing how politics defines the landscape they must work on.

A major part of the confusion is that the word politics is used in two very different ways:

  1. Politics (n): the things self-serving, manipulative people do.
  2. Politics (n): the process of making decisions that apply to members of a group.

When someone says “I hate working in Stan’s organization, he’s so political” they’re using the first definition, and they specifically mean the abuse of power to serve someone’s self-interest or the creation of a culture of fear and dysfunction. These are bad things, for sure, but often the word politics is used in a lazy way, by someone who simply doesn’t understand why their ideas get shot down, or why they’re not given the power they think they deserve. Rather than examining the culture they’re in (who is thriving here? what are they doing that I am not? Do I need new skills or a new job?), they blame the very concept of politics.

The big lesson many designers are in denial of is that human nature is political (2nd definition above). The fields of sociology, anthropology and psychology are largely about the complex challenges of people trying to get along with each other (and themselves). Put simply, when you organize people to do something, whether it’s throwing a party or starting a company, each individual has their own opinions on the right way to do it. And they have preferences for who they like to work with and what tasks they like to work on. This means no matter how talented a project leader is some people will not get everything they want. This motivates people to influence those with power or to try and take it for themselves (and if raises, promotions and prestige are at stake the tendency for people to forget their ideals increases). There are of course many ways to express ambition, some much healthier and more transparent than others, but politics are everywhere people are.

  “Every management act is a political act… in some way [it] redistributes or reinforces power.” — Richard Farson

Blaming “politics”, in the abstract, is a convenient way to avoid taking responsibility for solving problems. The same is true for pointing fingers at “management,” “engineering,” or “marketing” and saying how stupid they are (See: The Fallacy of ‘They Don’t Get It’). Pointing fingers doesn’t make them any less stupid or ineffective, and deflects any personal responsibility for learning how to be more persuasive, collaborative or thoughtful in how you approach working with them (which may be part of the problem). And who knows, it’s possible that with a careful eye, it might just be that what you see as incompetence in others is just a smart person constrained by similarly difficult political factors as your own. Of course some workplaces are truly broken, but that mostly raises the goal of finding yourself a new place to work. When a designer, a natural optimist, is pessimistic about who they work for and with, it’s time to move on.

Designers love to talk about their mastery of problem-solving skills, but politics is just another kind of problem-solving: people problems. If you approach organizational problems with the same optimism, discipline and creativity that you approach a design or engineering problem, you can find alternatives to explore and use them to make better decisions. And this is the grand irony of designers complaining about politics: designers should be great at the combination of problem-solving and understanding people, yet so often they can’t escape their frustration that these problems even exist. It’s immature to expect an entire organization, or species, to suddenly work differently simply because you’ve arrived, yet this is often what designers do. The twisted joke is that often everyone wants more power and thinks they are most deserving of it, yet (designers) can’t see that the people who frustrate them the most are acting on similar feelings to their own.

The greatest factor in your political experience of an organization is your boss. A good manager will buffer you from organizational drama and set you up to succeed, while a bad one will amplify the worst problems an organization has. For designers, this means the heaviest political burdens land on the most senior designer in their organization. It’s their job to pave the way for all the people who work for them, establishing relationships with other powerful people in the organization. But sadly design as a profession suffers from the Peter Principle. The problem of overpromotion is universal in the working world, but design is a specialized enough field that often the people who become design directors, or executives, are far better at designing than directing, leading or managing. In the best cases they know their primary job is to be an ambassador of design to the CEO and other executives, to form partnerships, align goals and gain influence that can be transferred down into their own organization. But even as an individual designer without much support from above, there are still many things you can do.

The way forward is that politics, even in the healthiest organization, is based on your reputation. The same organization will feel very different if you have a great reputation for getting good work done vs. having a terrible one (or no reputation at all). This means earning trust and cultivating respect from your peers and superiors is the path. This is far more productive than allowing your audible frustrations at “politics” in meetings be the primary way people know you. And much like designers study users, they can also study their coworkers and superiors. By asking simple questions, much can be revealed that makes healthier politics possible:

  • What does my boss value? What problems is she trying to solve? How can my talents help solve them?
  • What problems is her boss trying to solve? How aligned are they? (Is the real problem between my boss and my skip-level manager?)
  • Who in the organization frustrates them the most? Why? (Powerful people have their own politics to deal with too)
  • Who among my peers is thriving here? Why? (If no one is thriving, also ask why)
  • What can I learn from them?
  • Who frustrates me the most? Are my goals aligned with theirs? Why not? Who sets their goals? Do they have a good relationship with who sets mine? Who is the boss of all of them and why haven’t they fixed this problem yet?
  • Is my work simply low priority and what I see as “politics” is really just a prioritization decision?
  • Who has more influence than I do, that I trust, who can lend me their ear for advice?
  • What realistic expectations do they think I should have for the culture here?
  • What political skills are my weakest? How can I become a better facilitator? negotiator? persuader?
  • Who has a good reputation that I can partner with to pitch an idea and use their reputation to help grow mine?
  • Is there a manager here that I’d be better suited working for?
  • Or is it just time for me to find a new place to work?

—————-

References:

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Sunday was my birthday and to help celebrate my success at avoiding death in this universe I’m giving my latest book away to all of you fans and readers on Kindle today, Tuesday 4/17.

You don’t have to do anything special. Just go here on over to Amazon, and “buy” the book for $0.00. Do it! It’s fun! And it’s a delightful and practical short read on how to work better with your own ideas.

As of this morning, it was at #300 for all of Kindle – can you share this post to help see how high we can go? Thanks!

Here’s what some folks I respect said about the book:

“You’ll find a lot to steal from this short, inspiring guide to being creative. Made me want to get up and make stuff!”  – Austin Kleon, author of How To Steal Like An Artist

“A fun, funny, no-BS guide to finding new ideas and finishing them. Instantly useful.”– Ramez Naam, author of the Nexus Trilogy

“Concisely debunks all kinds of misconceptions about the creative process in a book that’s no-nonsense, fun, and inspiring.” – Mason Currey, author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

“This book will undoubtedly increase your abilities to invent, innovate, inspire, and make things that matter. It’s fun, it’s funny, and it’s phenomenally effective.”  Jane McGonigal, author of the New York Times bestsellers Reality is Broken and SuperBetter

Get The Dance of The Possible on Kindle now.

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[This is an excerpt from the book The Dance of The Possible: the mostly honest completely irreverent guide to creativity. If you enjoy it, imagine how much you’ll like the whole book?]

The great surprise for people with good ideas is the gap between how an idea feels in their mind and how it feels when they try to put the idea to work. When a good idea comes together it feels fantastic. Good ideas often come with a wave of euphoria, a literal dopamine high, and we’re joyously overwhelmed by it. It’s natural in that instant to overlook the dozens of questions that must be answered to bring the idea to life. We easily postpone those questioning thoughts, believing that if we can come up with the big idea surely we can conquer all the little problems too. An epiphany is a powerful experience, but the myth of epiphany is that it alone is all you need.[1]

When we do sit down to work on the details of an idea, the euphoria fades away. The act of thinking about how to bring the idea into the world is far less fun than the magical feeling of the idea’s arrival. It might take an hour or a day, but soon the tasks at hand feel surprisingly ordinary. While the 30-second summary of your science fiction screenplay is still fantastic, it doesn’t eliminate the effort required to write three, or more, complete drafts to flesh the idea out into its final form. Even if your idea was for your job, perhaps an inspiring new proposal you have for your boss, the work of drafting the required project plans and obtaining budget approvals just isn’t very interesting. This is the effort gap. No matter how great your idea is, there will be energy you have to spend, often on relatively ordinary work, to deliver it to the world.

The instinctive reaction to the realization that your amazing idea has led to ordinary work is to retreat. We feel we are doing something wrong if delivering on the idea isn’t as stimulating as finding the idea itself. Somehow we believe the feeling of euphoria should remain throughout the entire project, and when it doesn’t, and we have to choose to put effort in, we assume something is amiss. In the movies they often skip from the discovery of the idea to fame and fortune, but in real life we have to close that distance ourselves.[2] Or perhaps more honestly we simply don’t want to work that hard, preferring to return to the thrills of thinking up more ideas rather than doing anything about them. There is nothing wrong with this, as dreaming for dreams’ sake can be fun. The problem is when we torture ourselves by denying the fact that we have less ambition than we wish we had.

Many people suffer from creative cowardice and a fear of commitment. They are afraid of closing the effort gap. They want to be creative but without any risks. They know there is a chance they can put in weeks of work and have the project fail. So they prefer the shallow perfection of keeping the idea locked in their minds, taking it out only to stroke their ego and annoy their friends. When someone else produces something with a similar idea, perhaps a movie or an invention, they’ll claim false possession, exclaiming, “I thought of that years ago!” But the only way to possess an idea is by closing the effort gap and actually putting something out into the world. Coming up with the idea, it turns out, is often the easy part.

Sometimes the problem is the recognition that while the idea is excellent, and you’re willing to put the effort in, the skills you have aren’t good enough to deliver on it. The natural assumption is that the capacity to have the idea is the harder part, and if the idea is good it implies you have all the required abilities. Sadly, like many common assumptions of our silly little brains, the reality isn’t as kind. For example, while I can imagine
performing quadruple backflip dives and singing five-octave melodies, that imagination has no bearing on my body’s ability to do those things. This is the skill gap, the distance between the skills your idea requires and the ones you have. Often it’s only through putting effort into a project that we
discover our skill gaps.

When we see work from our heroes, it’s easy to forget they once had skill gaps too. We imagine they were born with the abilities we know them for. The problem is our view of other creators is inverted. We know them after they became famous and after they learned their craft. The works we know best are rarely an artist’s early works but rather those considered masterpieces. When we see a Georgia O’Keeffe painting in a museum, or a J.R.R. Tolkien novel in the bookstore, we see the creators at their best and likely in their prime. We don’t see their many experiments, their
uncertain output during the long years they developed the skills they’d become famous for. As Steven Furtick said, “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” We have to go out of our way to find their behind-the-scenes work, and often we forget it even exists.

Ira Glass, host of This American Life, explained how these skill gaps work against us[3]:

“Nobody tells people who are beginners, and I really wish someone had told this to me… all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste.… there’s a gap… for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good…. It’s not that great.… It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you…. A lot of people never get past this phase.… they quit.

And the thing I would say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years [of this]…. Everybody goes through that…. And the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work… it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.”

Many talented people never develop their skills because they hate the feeling of this distance. They’re embarrassed and tortured by it. They expect to
improve at a pace born only from wishful thinking, and when they fail to meet it they despair. They lack the commitment required to find out, through practice, exactly how much skill they might be capable of. Instead they want an easy and guaranteed path despite the fact that none of the heroes they compare themselves against ever had one. The tough news that Ira Glass hints at is that it’s easier for our
ambitions to grow, as that happens simply by consuming good works, than it is for our skills to improve, something that requires dedicated effort.

One way to stay motivated in closing skill gaps is to study the history of masters you admire. The early works of Claude Monet and Jackson Pollock are drastically different from the styles they became most famous for. Brad Pitt’s first “acting role” was in a chicken
costume for a Mexican fast food restaurant.[4] Michael Jordan, the basketball legend, was cut from his junior varsity basketball team. And who knows how many lousy plays young Shakespeare wrote that he burned, or poems Emily Dickinson tore apart and buried in the dust? Honest biographies of nearly every famous musician, writer or entrepreneur will share in painful detail how they worked to close the skill gaps in their careers.

Once you’ve developed your skills, how you choose to use them is a matter of style. Style, or quality, gaps are the most subjective of all. Unlike effort and skill gaps, a quality gap is a subjective opinion of the quality of what is made. When J.K. Rowling filled five pages of made-up Q words, it wasn’t because of a lack of skill. There was a specific quality, a feeling, a tone, an effect she wanted that she struggled to obtain. Each word still didn’t feel quite right, so she’d come up with another one (put another way, she solved a quality gap by creating and closing an effort gap).[5] Depending on what idea you have in your mind, even if you work hard and have the right skills, you will still experience quality gaps as you work on projects.

Some legendary creators struggled with their own opinion of their work, even after their public success. No matter how popular they became, they felt their work was flawed, inferior and immature, never reaching the standards set in their own minds. Woody Allen rarely watches his films once they’re
finished, and thinks little of Manhattan and Annie Hall, two of his most famous works. Bruce Springsteen once called the Born To Run album “the worst piece of garbage” he’d ever heard, and didn’t want to release it.[6] Nabokov hated many of his novels, and had thrown the manuscript for Lolita into a fire.[7] Franz Kafka and Emily Dickinson both gave instructions to have all their work destroyed when they died. Artists are often victims in a way of their own perceived quality gaps. They struggle to match the ideas in their minds to what they can manifest in the world.

Some very successful creators never close the quality gap, at least not on every project, and you likely won’t either. This is fine, perhaps even good. If you want to keep growing it demands that when you finish a project you’ll see it differently than when you started. And in the very things you find lacking or wish you had done differently you find the motivation for the next project, and the one after that. To be perfectly satisfied with something you made likely means you didn’t learn anything along the way, and I’d rather be a little disappointed with projects now and then than experience the alternative of never learning anything at all.

These three gaps, effort, skill and quality, will be constant companions. Have patience in how you deal with them. Consider yourself part of a
challenging trade where it takes time to develop your craft and that development never ends. If you truly believe in your ideas and potential, you should be willing to stay the course and commit to the long, and only realistic, path to fulfilling your ambitions.

If you can, take pleasure in making things for the sake of making them: what a gift to have the time to make at all! If you were born 200 years ago, or to different parents in a different country, you wouldn’t have the time to feel bad about your work, because you wouldn’t have the wealth and time required to try. If you feel love for your craft, honor it by showing up, even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard. Working when it’s hardest often teaches rare lessons that will earn you easy rides now and then. Take pleasure in small progressions when you see them, and know those hard-won gains are the only way anyone in history has ever achieved anything noteworthy—for themselves or for the world.

[This is an excerpt from the book The Dance of The Possible: the mostly honest completely irreverent guide to creativity. If you enjoyed it imagine how much you’ll like the whole thing?]

[1] Scott Berkun, “The Myth of Epiphany”.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ira Glass on Storytelling, part 3, and How To Find Your Voice

[4] Jonny Black, “Brad Pitt Facts,” Moviefone, October 17, 2014.

[5] The divisions between effort, skill and quality gaps break down eventually. In a way, all gaps are effort gaps, as work must be put in to fill gaps of any kind. But at times it can be useful to ask: do you need to put in more effort? Invest in skill development? Or simply have more patience to get to the quality you desire?

[6] Louis P. Masur, “Tramps like Us: The Birth of Born to Run,” Slate, September 22, 2009, l.

[7] George Lowery, “Vladimir and Vera Nabokov had ‘mystifying’ relationship, Schiff Says,” Cornell Chronicle, June 23, 2006, .

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On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the lovely archive). This week’s question came via email from J.B.:

How can I learn to ask better questions?

To ask a good question requires two things: an insight and gumption. The root of all worthy questions is a desire to fill in a gap in your understanding of something. The insight in good questions comes from seeing that gap, finding its edges and forming a question from them that can serve as an invitation to others to fill it. But a question can’t ask itself. You need gumption, or the courage to ask the question to someone. Many people have good questions, but never find the courage to speak up and share them.

Part of the fear around questions is the worry that we will expose a truth that someone, perhaps even ourselves, doesn’t want to be brought to light. This is part of why meaningful conversations are uncommon. Most conversations in life are a kind of social grooming, a way to feel accepted and make others feel the same. We are social creatures and naturally avoid the risk of standing out, a fear that somehow asking a question will reveal our true nature, and we will be judged as stupid, wrong or unworthy. Since the most powerful questions don’t have easy answers, we tend to play it safe and avoid asking them.

What’s strange is it shouldn’t be hard to accept that there are many different answers in the world to some of our biggest questions. There are 6 billion people, in 196 nations, practicing 4200 different religions on planet earth. Most of them can’t possibly agree with each other on many important subjects. Logically, rationally, diversity is everywhere and we shouldn’t be afraid of exploring different ways to be and live. But the problem is our brains are designed for life in small tribes. We’re biased towards behavior that works well in small uniform communities, even if we now know about the wider and more diverse world that we live in.

If ignorance means simply being uninformed, then curiosity means you are interested in your own ignorance and to want to do something about it. Questions are the most direct and nimble manifestation of curiosity. Even asking 5 whys, which depends on gumption more than brilliance, uses persistent curiosity to force deeper thinking. Once you see questions as tools for exploration, you’re likely to ask more of them of more people, increasing your skill at crafting good ones.

But my favorite way to think about better questions is.. a list of questions! At any moment in life when you want to question something, pull up this list and you’re guaranteed to find inspiration for better thinking. This list is adapted from the work of Richard Paul and the Foundation for Critical Thinking.

The three different kinds of questions:

  • Those with one right answer (factual questions). “What is the boiling point of lead?”
  • Those with better or worse reasoned answers. “How can we best address the most significant problems of the world today?”
  • Those with as many valid answers as there are preferences (mere opinion). What is your favorite thing to do on vacation?

Questions for clarification:

  • What do you mean by____ ?
  • Is your basic point _____ or ______  ?
  • How does_____ relate to_____?
  • Could you put that another way? Or explain it to a smart person who knows nothing about this subject?
  • What do you think is the main issue here?
  • How does this relate to our discussion?

Questions that probe assumptions:

  • How do you know this to be true?
  • Is how you feel about this more powerful than how you think about it?
  • How did your source know this to be true?
  • Were there other equally reputable sources with a different opinion?
  • How can you verify or disapprove that assumption?
  • What would have to change for your position to change?

3. Questions that probe reasons and evidence:

  • What would be an example? a counter-example?
  • What is_____ analogous to?
  • What do you think causes _____ to happen? Why?

4. Questions about perspectives:

  • What is another way to look at this? (whose point of view can we try to take?)
  • How would you answer the complaints and requests they’d likely have?
  • Can/did anyone see this another way?
  • What would a wise person you respect but who disagrees with you say?

5. Questions that probe consequences:

  • What are you implying by that? Where is the end-point of your line of thinking?
  • What effect would that have and for who? Who would it be good for? Bad for?
  • Would that necessarily happen or only probably happen?
  • What is an alternative?

6. Questions about the question:

  • Can we break this question into smaller ones that are easy to work through?
  • What hidden assumptions are in this question?
  • Will it be easier to answer this question if we each go away and do some research and then return?
  • Is this question clearly stated? Do we understand it? Is there a better question to ask?
  • How would (someone we mutually respect for their wisdom) try to answer this question?
  • Do we need more or better facts to answer this?

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On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the lovely archive). This week’s question came via email from S.P.:

I often feel overwhelmed by the news I read. How can I better manage my responses?

The news is of course defined by what is new, but the implication has always been that somehow we are informed about the world by consuming “the news” and good citizens are informed ones. Yet as news shifted in the 1970s from being a public service to a business, the organizations that provide it had new preferences for what to share, and how to share it. Neil Postman wrote,  “I do not mean to imply that… news deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result.”

Of course, we are more upset or fearful than entertained when we hear of another school shooting or violent crime, but the reasons why it is chosen are similar. It’s the power of drawing attention that drives media as a business and it’s easier to gain attention for negative reasons than for happier ones. For example, the top trending story will never be “mostly the world, and your neighborhood, is doing better than, or the same as it was yesterday” despite how often this is true, since it’s not a dramatic story. In a sense, it’s not considered newsworthy even if it’s more important to know than the most recent homicide (or all of the “new” things that happened that week). This alone makes news a distortion of reality that is hard for many to notice. Some news sources are more balanced than others, but the news is never neutral. News has an obsession with the immediate present and your life should not.

More profoundly, when a report of a homicide headlines the news, we tend to assume crime is worse. If the crime were in a nearby neighborhood, we might be less likely to visit wherever the crime occurred, or may even avoid going out into public at all. But in reality, the crime rate in that area might be the same as it has been for years, or even be at an all-time low, but the constant news about it shapes our perception more than the reality. Put another way, the individual incident can’t tell you anything about what the trends are. And it follows that an individual news story can’t likely tell you much about the context either. It’s common for no context to be offered or possible trends mentioned. We mostly consume microunits of news, headlines and skimmable paragraphs, free of any greater meaning or information to help us put the “news” into a coherent world view that would actually make us more informed.

The top news event on any given day can mean one of two things:

  1. Something important and profound with lasting consequences may have happened
  2. Something that easily draws attention but has little substance on any trend changing occurred

Reporters often take the stance that they can’t know which one is right for a particular event since it just happened. They would claim that it’s only over time that hindsight lets us understand what really happened and to see which events signified real change. Sometimes that’s true, but that suggests we’d all be better off reading the news once a week, when journalists have made more sense of what happened and have a thoughtful context to offer. But we crave novelty, and media businesses thrive on providing it. Few of us have the self-control to resist the ways media tempts us to consume right now.

But even when reading breaking news, there are simple questions that, if asked, help put the top news of the day into a context that helps us be truly informed. These questions include:

  • What is the source? Who paid for this to be written?
  • What assumptions are you confirming are true, but aren’t in this news itself (see confirmation bias)?
  • Why did this get your attention? What feeling did it generate? Did reading/hearing more than just the headline change that feeling?
  • Is there another story from an equally reputable source that puts this news in a different context?
  • How is this event any different from the last time an event like it occurred?
  • What pattern, if any, does this event form with similar ones over the last week/month/year/decade/century?
  • Does this event fit, or is an outlier, to the primary accepted theories for what is happening in this field/city/community/profession?
  • What alternative explanations or meanings can this event signify (including the possibility that the event alone signifies nothing)?
  • How many other similarly probable events occurred today? Or occur each year?

What other questions should we be asking of the news we read? Leave a comment with suggestions. Thanks.

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On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the lovely archive). This week’s question is from Crysel [44 votes]:

What is the real motivation for creativity?

For most of history people did not use the word creativity very much. They just invented and discovered things in the course of their lives without applying special labels to them. But something strange happened to in modern times. We developed a romance around the notion of creativity. Most people today think of it as an extra layer of cognitive powers, that only special people have. This is untrue and there’s an easy way to prove it.

Imagine you are getting ready to work. You stop at your door to do your pre-airlock check for your phone, your wallet and your keys. You realize your keys aren’t in your pocket. Oh no! And at this moment an important sequence of cognitive events takes place.

  1. Your brain instinctively tells you to look by the door in the place where you usually put your keys when you come home. So you go and look, perhaps at the basket on the shelf right by the door where they usually go. And they are not there!
  2. Now your brain thinks a bit more. Maybe they fell? So you check on the floor and behind the basket. Not there!
  3. And here is where the magic starts: your brain starts getting increasingly creative. You look under the basket. You look in the hallway outside. You look in clothes you haven’t worn in days, or weeks. Then you check the basket again (perhaps the keys magically reappeared since the last time you looked?).
  4. You consider increasingly unusual explanations for where your keys are. Maybe you left them at the restaurant last night (which is unlikely since you got into your apartment)? Or someone broke into your place and stole them! (which also doesn’t make sense as if they broke in they don’t need your keys). And on and on your brain will go inventing and trying out solutions.

The lesson here is that when suitably motivated your brain will be creative all on its own. During step 3 above you did not have to engage in a brainstorming exercise or put on a magic hat of ideation. Your mind will, when motivated and presented with a hard problem, generate inventive, unusual and unorthodox ideas. This helps explain why our species has survived despite not being very strong or very fast. We are good at solving problems and when we are motivated can persist in trying to solve even very hard ones.

Now some people hear this and say that looking in strange places for keys isn’t really creative because most of those ideas are failures. But that’s just it. Creative work is very much like looking for keys. You have to do the work to explore many alternatives, many of them unsuccessful, until you arrive at a worthy idea. Even the most brilliant writers and artists write first drafts and draw early sketches that they eventually throw away. They learn much from those “failed” ideas and those lessons help make their second, third and final drafts better than the last. Working with ideas is never an efficient process. It’s messy and uncertain no matter how talented you are.

All this means that when we don’t feel creative often all that’s missing is a strong enough motivator. Sometimes we have demotivators in our own minds, like fear of being judged by others or fear of failure and it’s only by becoming more self-aware that our natural creativity can be free to surface. Other times we’re in cultures or teams that penalize creative thinking. But even in the best situations remember that creativity is a kind of work. You have to burn extra calories. And most of the time we, and our brains, prefer to be efficient and do the least amount of work necessary. But when we are suitably motivated, perhaps out of fear (losing your keys) or passion (solving a problem you care about deeply), our brains have most of the tools we need already built in.

References:

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On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the lovely archive). This week’s question came via email from Pavel Pavia [43 votes]:

Are engineers more creative than designers?

Both answers (“Yes they are!” and  “No they are not!”) are naive. It’s a minefield to compare massive groups of people against each other especially around a sloppy word like creativity. We all likely know some engineers who are very creative and some who are not. We also know some designers who are very creative and some who are not. I can’t even imagine trying to average them out into two neat little piles and have the resulting comparison be of much use. But what then? Why can’t we have some fun? ok – FINE.

Let’s start by ditching the word creative. It’s a romantic word and the wrong one. When someone hires an engineer or a designer they want a problem to be solved. The creative ability we’re talking about is to develop ideas that solve problems into working solutions. Do good engineers and designers both do this? YES. They might be different kinds of problems, and they may use different tools, but both show up at work with the intent to problem solve, not “problem create’ or “problem multiply” (although such people do seem to exist, unfortunately).

The first argument is usually an anecdote about how “all the designers/engineers I’ve worked with suck” and to that I say you might be right. You’ve probably never worked in a healthy, successful organization that respected both roles and hired talented people to play them. But they’ve always existed – look at the teams that made the best products you admire and I bet there was a team of both excellent engineers and designers working together. Until recently it was only in elite companies that these investments were made, but that’s changing.

The next argument is often someone pointing out that designers are really just planners, since they can’t actually build their plans themselves. They need an engineer to go and built it. But so what? Why is the ability to build something necessarily superior to the ability to conceive the plan? It might be superior, but it might be inferior. I don’t think Beethoven could play the trombone, but he could write the plan for what they (and dozens of other instruments) should do, and that’s why we know his name and not his trombone player.

But I’m not taking sides here. Not really. To succeed at solving problems you need both the plan and the ability to build it.  The hard part is that depending on what the problem is, it can be either conceiving the plan or the ability to build it that is more difficult. And people are bad at recognizing when the most important challenge is in a domain that isn’t theirs (“If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail”). Engineers are notorious for dismissing designers because of their own ignorance of what the customer’s true situation is (and the related potency of the designer’s plans), and designers are notorious for dismissing engineers because of their own ignorance of what the engineering constraints truly are.

The running sardonic joke in all this is designers and engineers tend to share more personality traits than not. Which include:

  • Passion for aesthetics (debates on visual style mirror debates on code style)
  • Preference for control (engineers love their control over bits similarly to how designers love control over pixels)
  • Reverence/Arrogance for idea purity (that there is a right way to do certain things)
  • A desire to make great things that help people

Which means many of the conflicts between designers and engineers are about bad management, the lack of a leader providing shared goals that unify these traits towards a common cause. Both trades are about problem-solving and when motivated can help each other with their individual tasks. Framed properly, and properly motivated, designers can have insights that help solve engineering problems and vice versa. All that’s required is some respect, shared goals and a curiosity to discover other ways to approach solving problems.

It’s useful to go back to a time when the distinction between designing something and engineering something didn’t exist. For most of the history of invention, people did it all themselves. When Archimedes or Archytas  invented the screw (which is a mind-boggling act of genius), was he designing or engineering? Would anyone at the time have cared in the slightest what label was given? John Roebling, the architect of the Brooklyn Bridge, knew that to make something great required both great engineering and great design. He couldn’t build a beautiful, functional, enduring bridge without them both. He and his team would switch between thinking more like designers and more like engineers whenever necessary, as they were unconstrained by the strict delineations we’ve created for ourselves in modern times, and we should all consider doing the same.

Related:

[Note: Pavel’s actual question was “What is the reason for which we believe that the people who dedicate to the arts are more creative than the engineers?” but as I wrote an answer it morphed into a simpler question.]

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On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the lovely archive). Yes I know it’s Thursday, but better late than never. Here’s this week’s question:

I have a new boss who I don’t trust yet. How can I make sure they’re looking out for me?

The term “set up to succeed” means a person has been given most of what they need to do their job well. A good boss does more than just set goals and give assignments: they should see themselves as responsible for ensuring good work happens (See: Lefferts Law of Management). First, they think through the steps that need to happen for someone to do a project and where the challenges are going to be. Second, they invest their own time clearing a path for those tasks to go more easily (so higher levels of performance are possible). A good boss builds a runway for you so that you can smoothly take off. Alternatively, you know you’re being set up to fail if you’re assigned a project with impossible odds, conflicting goals or a fraction of the resources required. When there are major obstacles on the runway, or no runway at all, your manager isn’t doing their job.

Here’s a simple list of questions you can ask to see how well set up you are to succeed (or fail). They can be used to structure a conversation with your boss about what you need and why.

  1. Do I have the right skills? If you’re told to pilot a Boeing 747 but have never flown even a paper airplane, whose fault is it if you fail? What training and mentoring is provided to help close skill gaps? Does your boss understand what you can and can not do as well as what the project requires?
  2. Do I have the right resources (budget, staff)? You may have the right skills, but if you don’t have enough time or money to do the work, you’ll fail anyway. The goals of the project might need to change if the available resources can’t.
  3. Are there clear goals (and non-goals)? Clarity on desired outcomes is one of the most important things a leader provides. Does everyone understand and agree on how you’ll know when the work is done and that it was done right? A non-goal is something that’s easily assumed to be a goal, but should be avoided.
  4. Do the people you depend on have the motivation to help you? You may need several people to get work done before you can do yours. Will they prioritize your requests? Help make sure you have what you need? A good boss will have talked to other staff in the organization about your tasks and created an agreement for how you all will work together.
  5. Are senior management’s goals aligned with the ones you have been given? Your odds of success are much higher if your individual goals line up with those around and above you. If they don’t, you’ll be working against the grain of your organization. A good boss has made sure the right senior staff know about your projects and that all the goals line up.
  6. What roadblocks are in your way that you do not have the power or skills to resolve? Who has been made aware of them? Who has the power you need to resolve them? Has your boss worked with you on a plan? Have you warned the right people of what may happen if the roadblock is not cleared?

Incompetent managers often unintentionally set up their employees to fail. They don’t realize they are giving conflicting goals, poorly allocating resources or that they’re asking people to take on work that is politically sensitive and possibly damaging to their reputation. This means you have to advocate for yourself, first by thinking through the challenges you’re going to face and second by involving your boss in helping you clear them out of your way.

Of course, depending on the job you have, and how senior your role is, you may be expected to identify and solve many problems on your own. Some organizations call this “Dealing with Ambiguity” or “Organizational Agility” and think of it as a skill. It’s true that stronger employees can handle more challenges on their own. However, the reason why managers are paid more is that they have more responsibility and power for making good work happen. If they do nothing to help their staff succeed, they’re simply not doing their job.

What other ways have you seen managers set up their employees to succeed or fail? Leave a comment.

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