Tag: Problem Solving

Solve Problems Before They Happen by Developing an “Inner Sense of Captaincy”

Too often we reward people who solve problems while ignoring those who prevent them in the first place. This incentivizes creating problems. According to poet David Whyte, the key to taking initiative and being proactive is viewing yourself as the captain of your own “voyage of work.”

If we want to get away from glorifying those who run around putting out fires, we need to cultivate an organizational culture that empowers everyone to act responsibly at the first sign of smoke.

How do we make that shift?

We can start by looking at ourselves and how we consider the voyage that is our work. When do we feel fulfillment? Is it when we swoop in to save the day and everyone congratulates us? It’s worth asking why, if we think something is worth saving, we don’t put more effort into protecting it ahead of time.

In Crossing the Unknown Sea, poet David Whyte suggests that we should view our work as a lifelong journey. In particular, he frames it as a sea voyage in which the greatest rewards lie in what we learn through the process, as opposed to the destination.

Like a long sea voyage, the nature of our work is always changing. There are stormy days and sunny ones. There are days involving highs of delight and lows of disaster. All of this happens against the backdrop of events in our personal lives and the wider world with varying levels of influence.

On a voyage, you need to look after your boat. There isn’t always time to solve problems after they happen. You need to learn how to preempt them or risk a much rougher journey—or even the end of it.

Whyte refers to the practice of taking control of your voyage as “developing an inner sense of captaincy,” offering a metaphor we can all apply to our work. Developing an inner sense of captaincy is good for both us and the organizations we work in. We end up with more agency over our own lives, and our organizations waste fewer resources. Whyte’s story of how he learned this lesson highlights why that’s the case.

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A moment of reckoning

Any life, and any life’s work, is a hidden journey, a secret code, deciphered in fits and starts. The details only given truth by the whole, and the whole dependent on the detail.

Shortly after graduating, Whyte landed a dream job working as a naturalist guide on board a ship in the Galapagos Islands. One morning, he awoke and could tell at once that the vessel had drifted from its anchorage during the night. Whyte leaped up to find the captain fast asleep and the boat close to crashing into a cliff. Taking control of it just in time, he managed to steer himself and the other passengers back to safety—right as the captain awoke. Though they were safe, he was profoundly shaken both by the near miss and the realization that their leader had failed.

At first, Whyte’s reaction to the episode was to feel a smug contempt for the captain who had “slept through not only the anchor dragging but our long, long, nighttime drift.” The captain had failed to predict the problem or notice when it started. If Whyte hadn’t awakened, everyone on the ship could have died.

But something soon changed in his perspective. Whyte knew the captain was new and far less familiar with that particular boat than himself and the other crew member. Every boat has its quirks, and experience counts for more than seniority when it comes to knowing them. He’d also felt sure the night before that they needed to put down a second anchor and knew they “should have dropped another anchor without consultation, as crews are wont to do when they do not want to argue with their captain. We should have woken too.” He writes that “this moment of reckoning under the lava cliff speaks to the many dangerous arrivals in a life of work and to the way we must continually forge our identities through our endeavors.”

Whyte’s experience contains lessons with wide applicability for those of us on dry land. The idea of having an inner sense of captaincy means understanding the overarching goals of your work and being willing to make decisions that support them, even if something isn’t strictly your job or you might not get rewarded for it, or sometimes even if you don’t have permission.

When you play the long game, you’re thinking of the whole voyage, not whether you’ll get a pat on the back today.

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Skin in the game

It’s all too easy to buy into the view that leaders have full responsibility for everything that happens, especially disasters. Sometimes in our work, when we’re not in a leadership position, we see a potential problem or an unnoticed existing one but choose not to take action. Instead, we stick to doing whatever we’ve been told to do because that feels safer. If it’s important, surely the person in charge will deal with it. If not, that’s their problem. Anyway, there’s already more than enough to do.

Leaders give us a convenient scapegoat when things go wrong. However, when we assume all responsibility lies with them, we don’t learn from our mistakes. We don’t have “our own personal compass, a direction, a willingness to meet life unmediated by any cushioning parental presence.

At some point, things do become our problem. No leader can do everything and see everything. The more you rise within an organization, the more you need to take initiative. If a leader can’t rely on their subordinates to take action when they see a potential problem, everything will collapse.

When we’ve been repeatedly denied agency by poor leadership and seen our efforts fall flat, we may sense we lack control. Taking action no longer feels natural. However, if we view our work as a voyage that helps us change and grow, it’s obvious why we need to overcome learned helplessness. We can’t abdicate all responsibility and blame other people for what we chose to ignore in the first place (as Whyte puts it, “The captain was there in all his inherited and burdened glory and thus convenient for the blame”). By understanding how our work helps us change and grow, we develop skin in the game.

On a ship, everyone is in it together. If something goes wrong, they’re all at risk. And it may not be easy or even possible to patch up a serious problem in the middle of the sea. As a result, everyone needs to pay attention and act on anything that seems amiss. Everyone needs to take responsibility for what happens, as Whyte goes on to detail:

“No matter that the inherited world of the sea told us that the captain is the be-all and end-all of all responsibility, we had all contributed to the lapse, the inexcusable lapse. The edge is no place for apportioning blame. If we had merely touched that cliff, we would have been for the briny deep, crew and passengers alike. The undertow and the huge waves lacerating against that undercut, barnacle-encrusted fortress would have killed us all.”

Having an inner sense of captaincy means viewing ourselves as the ones in charge of our voyage of work. It means not acting as if there are certain areas where we are incapacitated, or ignoring potential problems, just because someone else has a particular title.

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Space and support to create success

Developing an inner sense of captaincy is not about compensating for an incompetent leader—nor does it mean thinking we always know best. The better someone is at leading people, the more they create the conditions for their team to take initiative and be proactive about preventing problems. They show by example that they inhabit a state rather than a particular role. A stronger leader can mean a more independent team.

Strong leaders instill autonomy by teaching and supervising processes with the intention of eventually not needing to oversee them. Captaincy is a way of being. It is embodied in the role of captain, but it is available to everyone. For a crew to develop it, the captain needs to step back a little and encourage them to take responsibility for outcomes. They can test themselves bit by bit, building up confidence. When people feel like it’s their responsibility to contribute to overall success, not just perform specific tasks, they can respond to the unexpected without waiting for instructions. They become ever more familiar with what their organization needs to stay healthy and use second-order thinking so potential problems are more noticeable before they happen.

Whyte realized that the near-disaster had a lot to do with their previous captain, Raphael. He was too good at his job, being “preternaturally alert and omnipresent, appearing on deck at the least sign of trouble.” The crew felt comfortable, knowing they could always rely on Raphael to handle any problems. Although this worked well at the time, once he left and they were no longer in such safe hands they were unused to taking initiative. Whyte explains:

Raphael had so filled his role of captain to capacity that we ourselves had become incapacitated in one crucial area: we had given up our own inner sense of captaincy. Somewhere inside of us, we had come to the decision that ultimate responsibility lay elsewhere.

Being a good leader isn’t about making sure your team doesn’t experience failure. Rather, it’s giving everyone the space and support to create success.

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The voyage of work

Having an inner sense of captaincy means caring about outcomes, not credit or blame. When Whyte realized that he should have dropped a second anchor the night before the near miss, he would have been doing something that ideally no one other than the crew, or even just him, would have known about. The captain and passengers would have enjoyed an untroubled night and woken none the wiser.

If we prioritize getting good outcomes, our focus shifts from solving existing problems to preventing problems from happening in the first place. We put down a second anchor so the boat doesn’t drift, rather than steering it to safety when it’s about to crash. After all, we’re on the boat too.

Another good comparison is picking up litter. The less connected to and responsible for a place we feel, the less likely we might be to pick up trash lying on the ground. In our homes, we’re almost certain to pick it up. If we’re walking along our street or in our neighborhood, it’s a little less likely. In a movie theater or bar when we know it’s someone’s job to pick up trash, we’re less likely to bother. What’s the equivalent to leaving trash on the ground in your job?

Most organizations don’t incentivize prevention because it’s invisible. Who knows what would have happened? How do you measure something that doesn’t exist? After all, problem preventers seem relaxed. They often go home on time. They take lots of time to think. We don’t know how well they would deal with conflict, because they never seem to experience any. The invisibility of the work they do to prevent problems in the first place makes it seem like their job isn’t challenging.

When we promote problem solvers, we incentivize having problems. We fail to unite everyone towards a clear goal. Because most organizations reward problem solvers, it can seem like a better idea to let things go wrong, then fix them after. That’s how you get visibility. You run from one high-level meeting to the next, reacting to one problem after another.

It’s great to have people to solve those problems but it is better not to have them in the first place. Solving problems generally requires more resources than preventing them, not to mention the toll it takes on our stress levels. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

An inner sense of captaincy on our voyage of work is good for us and for our organizations. It changes how we think about preventing problems. It becomes a part of an overall voyage, an opportunity to build courage and face fears. We become more fully ourselves and more in touch with our nature. Whyte writes that “having the powerful characteristics of captaincy or leadership of any form is almost always an outward sign of a person inhabiting their physical body and the deeper elements of their own nature.”

Using Language to Change How We Think

What kind of thinking leads to better outcomes?

That’s the question that Roger Martin addresses in his excellent book Diaminds: Decoding the Mental Habits of Successful Thinkers. Changing how we think isn’t easy, though.

The world is awash in complexity. Nearly every decision we make is uncertain. There is no one way to look at uncertainty. There are as many ways of seeing, experiencing, and representing problems as there are people. Each person, in turn, brings their own mental models.

Successful thinking integrates several radically different models while preserving the thinker’s ability to act decisively. The successful thinker is an integrator who can quickly and effectively abstract the best qualities of radically different ways of seeing and representing; in doing so, that person develops ‘a better lens’ on the bewildering phenomenon we call the ‘world.’

Integrators attempt to hold two, often contradictory, ways of seeing the world. Rather than fearing the ensuing tension, they embrace it.

This is reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who said:

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.

But that view is not out of reach to the layperson. It’s also not new. Thomas C. Chamberlin, President of the University of Wisconsin from 1887 to 1892, proposed the idea of “multiple working hypotheses.” In an article published in Science, he wrote:

In following a single hypothesis, the mind is presumably led to a single explanatory conception. But an adequate explanation often involves the co-ordination of several agencies, which enter into the combined result in varying proportions. The true explanation is therefore necessarily complex. Such complex explanations of phenomena are specially encouraged by the method of multiple hypotheses, and constitute one of its chief merits.

Martin believes that “thinkers who exploit opposing ideas to construct a new solution enjoy a built-in advantage overthinkers who can consider only one model at a time.”

This is not either/or thinking, it’s using a broad-based education to push past the limits of binary thinking and into new ways of combining things. Another of Martin’s books, Opposable Mind: Winning Through Integrative Thinking, defines integrative thinking as:

The ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and, instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each.

Martin argues that this type of thinking is both identifiable and learnable. Changing how we think is possible.

Thinking is Habitual

What we think is often made up of habits or, as Martin calls them, “repetitive and recurrent units of mental behavior that occur on very short time scales.” Most of our mental models and internal stories work by matching patterns — they close off ideas as soon as one fits without attempting to falsify it.

In an evolutionary context, this makes a lot of sense. If you see a lion, you run. This is fairly well established. You don’t ask a lot of questions or attempt to discern if the lion is friendly or not. Our minds are optimized to think and act quickly. This is system one thinking at its evolutionary finest and it’s fairly inexpensive as far as mental habits go.

Think about how we respond when asked a question of the sort – why did you do X? Our inclination is to respond with a ‘because’ answer, which rarely includes our reasoning. If you made a decision, you would offer a reason “this was the best decision given the information” and not “it caused me to avoid someone I’ve been trying to avoid.”

Habits are not all burdens. Often, as Martin points out, they “make thinking bearably simple” But we need a way to describe them if we are to understand them. In Diaminds, Martin writes:

Mental habits work in conjunction with one another to make up patterns of thinking, which are analogous to patterns of behavior in that they are reliably reproducible and yield predictable results in similar circumstances. It is a commonplace that ‘marketing people’ and ‘engineering people’ process information in different ways. But in what ways are they different? and what difference do their differences make?

This is where the language of cognitive science comes in handy as a language for describing patterns of thought. Thus one finds that ‘marketing people’ pay attention to a lot of information – they are informationally broad in their thinking patterns. They are constantly foraging the world for new bits of information and comparing that new information with parts of their existing database – which they keep around in working memory – in order to arrive at action prescriptions or decision rules. But they spend less time than engineers thinking about each piece of information and about how the various pieces fit together. In other words, compared to engineers, marketers are logically shallower in their thinking approach.

By contrast, one finds that ‘engineering people’ are informationally narrower but logically deeper in their thinking styles. They seek out far less information than do their marketing counterparts; then, having gathered it, they strive for logical consistency among the various pieces of information they deem relevant. For instance, they look for ways in which what they believe connects to what they know. They look for the logical implications of what they already know or believe in order to decide what new beliefs to hold out for testing. They look for connections of the logical and causal type among facts and quasi-facts, rather than just associations and correlations.

Aware of this difference, we can ask: In what circumstances should logical depth dominate informational breadth and, vice versa? In what situations is more thinking better than more foraging or more asking, given that one can only think (or forage) more if one forages (or thinks) less?

The point is to get marketing people and engineering people to think together to create better thinkers. We want to combine the broad thinking the marketers bring to bear on the problem with the logical depth the engineers bring to come up with better solutions.

Mental Habits: A Deep(er) Dive

Martin defines a mental habit as “a pattern of thought that is so entrenched and feels so natural that it has become unconscious and therefore goes unnoticed.” Elaborating on this, he writes:

What we look for when looking for a mental habit is a consistently recurring way in which these explanations are produced, a guiding rule or principle that remains unchanged no matter what the specific explanation.

These thoughts are unconscious and feel natural.

Consider the ‘place responsibility for negative effects elsewhere’ habit.

You arrive late to a meeting. While the reasons vary from situation to situation, you likely never tell the truth but rather blame something else. The traffic was bad. My alarm clock didn’t go off. You rarely hear anyone say, ‘I was late because I forgot to check the room for the meeting.’

This, in Martin’s words, is the difference between responsible and defensive behaviors.

Systematically producing responsible (rather than defensible) causes for one’s behavior – even when it would be easy to produce irresponsible ones – is likely to feel effortful and to require an exercise of the will.

Consider the mental habit of ‘certainty entails truth’, also known as over-influence from precision.

A CEO asks his CFO if he is sure about the data in the report. If the CFO responds with a no, the CEO thinks he is incompetent. Or maybe the CEO asks the lead on an important project what the odds are they can hit the deadline. The person responds with 80% and the CEO’s next question is “how can we hit 100%?”

As unconscious and intuitive habits, these are often hidden from us and often come from our desire to feel good. Over time, however, these habits become our reality. We believe in the validity of these explanations and this affects how we think about ourselves and the world around us, and how we approach problems. The words we speak become the way we think.

Eminem had it wrong when he said, “I am whatever you say I am.” He should have said, “I am whatever I say I am.”

Tinker With your Thinker

Designing and controlling our mental habits is possible because of thinking.

Thinking – especially thinking in words and sentences – is a form of internal communication. In thinking, you-in-the-present communicates with you-in-the-future. But though thinking is a private and covert activity, it is influenced by external interactions – in particular, by how you communicate with others. Communicative patterns become mental habits. The implication is that counterproductive – closed, oblivious, disconnected, narrow, hermetic, rigid – ways of communicating are thereby internalized and become counterproductive ways of thinking.

The key to changing how we think, then, is to switch from intuitive to deliberate thought, observe our patterns of communication, and then change the way in which we communicate. As Heinz von Foerster put it, ‘If you want to think differently, first learn to act differently.’

Communicating differently with others and yourself is the key to changing your mind.

What does this look like in practice?

… how one thinks is an internalized version of how one communicates – indeed, it sheds light on how one communicates. The systematic placing of responsibility elsewhere for ills and mishaps is a locally effective social strategy – one that is often rewarded by nods of understanding and (potentially false, but who looks that closely?) expressions of sympathy. It also helps one avoid being placed on the spot by difficult ‘why?’ questions. It feels good to get understanding from others and to avoid such difficult moments. In time, this way of communicating becomes a script.

There is one problem: it is difficult to produce the message convincingly without at least half-believing it. Most humans are reasonably good at identifying liars and dissimulators, even if they are not professionally trained to do so. … But a solution is at hand: make a habit of the way you communicate part of the very fabric of thinking. ‘Place responsibility for ills elsewhere’ thus becomes a mental habit, not just a social and communicative habit.

In the end, changing our patterns of thinking becomes about changing the language we use for internal and external communication. We need to move to ‘I was late for the meeting because I forgot to check the room number’ instead of ‘I was late because of something outside my control.’ By addressing problems honestly (especially when they are ambiguous), we change how we think. This isn’t new.

Our ‘mind design principle’ for new and more successful mental habits is thus a simple one: because thinking is self-talk, talk and thought are linked. To change patterns of thinking, change patterns of talking.

Diaminds: Decoding the Mental Habits of Successful Thinkers is a fascinating exploration of how we think and offers a new way to improve our ability to think.

Retrograde Analysis: Working Backward to Solve Problems

We’ve talked a lot about inversion — solving problems backwards. In this short video, grandmaster Maurice Ashley walks us through retrograde analysis, which is a method to solve game positions in chess by working backward from known outcomes.

To look ahead, it pays to look backwards.

After reading this sentence, you will realize that the the brain doesn’t recognize a second ‘the.’

The second time around you realize you missed the second the the first time. But if you read the sentence backwards, you’d catch it.

Doubling Bacteria

Ashley gives another example. Consider the doubling bacteria problem. Bacteria double every 24 hours. It takes 30 days to fill a lake. On what day was the lake half-full?

This problem is easiest solved backward. It becomes easy.

Cards

Finally, Ashley uses a card game. There are six cards in this game numbered 1 through 6. Whomever has the highest card wins. You pick a card and it says the number 2. I pick a card and offer a trade. Most people look at their card and say, 2 sucks. Looking only at this problem statistically, you’re best to trade your card. However, assuming no trickery on my part, that may not the right move. To solve the problem, invert. If I had a 6 would I trade? No. What about the number 5? … Odds are I have a pretty crappy number if I want to trade.