Solving the Wrong Problem

I work for a growing but still small tech start-up in the healthcare space based out of the bay area. The company has a great mission and is amazing to work for, but we have certainly had a lot of growing pains and unanswerable questions over the last four years that I have worked for the company. One of the biggest challenges we have faced is making sure we answering the right questions and getting the right solutions to the right problems in place.

 

Michael Bungay Stanier looks at these types of problems and takes them on in his book about coaching, The Coaching Habit. His book is full of recommendations to be a more effective coach and manager, and one of the benefits of his techniques is an improved understanding of the problems and questions that organizations must face. In the company I work for, things have always been in flux, and that means that sometimes it is hard to know what the real issue is and where we should be focusing all of our energy. If you polled the entire office about what the biggest problem is right now, you would get different answers from everyone. Bungay Stanier described the situation like this:

 

“You might have come up with a brilliant way to fix the challenge your team is talking about. However, the challenge they’re talking about is most likely not the real challenge that needs to be sorted out. They could be describing any number of things: a symptom, a secondary issue, a ghost of a previous problem which is comfortably familiar, often even a half-baked solution to an unarticulated issue.”

 

Effective leaders don’t just jump in when a team is discussing the issues they are facing and they don’t just take on all the problems in an attempt to solve everything themselves. Good leaders try to drill deeper to understand what is really at the heart of the collective issues facing the team, and then work to empower the team to tackle the problems they face. In my next post I’ll describe the conversation that Bungay Stanier recommends to help us find the right problem to solve, but for now I’ll describe the question he uses to get to the heart of the issue, “What’s the challenge?”.

 

In my career I have solved a lot of problems and fixed a lot of issues, but often times I have spent a lot of energy on problems and issues that end up not being very important. Something might be a little bit off and something might be an inconvenience, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I need to spend a lot of effort fixing that individual thing. Perhaps what everyone complains about is frustrating and annoying, but it may just be part of a larger problem or something that would go away altogether by solving a bigger picture item. This is definitely an area where growth is possible for me, and is something that all organizations struggle with, especially if we are quick to action and don’t make real efforts to dive further. Asking ourselves and our team, “What’s the real challenge?” and looking upstream from the stated problems to possible larger causes is one way to make sure the work we do matters and is one way to galvanize our team around the most important solutions.

Instant Problem Solver

We all have a part of ourselves that thinks it knows the answer to every problem out there. Not just our own problems, or the problems with the work we do, or the problems with our own families and relationships, but everyone’s problems. The truth is, however, we really don’t know nearly as much as this part of our brain believes and when we try to solve everyone’s problems, we really just create bigger traffic jams. In his book The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier names this part of our brain “The Advice Monster” and he explains what happens when we let the Advice Monster run our brains.

 

“When people start talking to you about the challenge at hand, what’s essential to remember is that what they’re laying out for you is rarely the actual problem. And when you start jumping in to fix things, things go off the rails in three ways: you work on the wrong problem; you do the work your team should be doing; and the work doesn’t get done.”

 

The bottom line is that when we jump into instant problem solver mode, we usually are not being as helpful as we imagine we are. Because we are approaching the other person’s issue with our limited knowledge of what we think their problem is, we focus in the wrong direction. Instant problem solver mode solves the problem we want to solve, and not the actual problem that the other person is facing.

 

The alternative that Bungay Stanier suggests is to spend more time listening to others and see what solutions they come up with before we decide that we know what their problems are and before we decide that we know how to fix them. The instant problem solver manages to find solutions that create more work for themselves and make their day to day life a little bit more difficult. When we resist the instant problem solver urge, we let the person or team we work with identify solutions they can implement for the problems they face. The individual grows and has an opportunity to adapt a new solution, and our time remains clear for additional problem solving.

Asking Fake Questions

I’m not sure where it comes from, but for some reason we like to give advice by asking questions. It is so common that we see it on tv shows and in movies, read it in books, and I’m sure we do it to our children. We ask questions like “Have you thought about…”, “What about…”, or “Did you consider…” and even in the most recent The Black Panther movie there is a funny scene where one character says, “Why didn’t you…” to which the character she questioned had to respond, “Because we didn’t think of that.”

 

Michael Bungay Stanier in his book The Coaching Habit encourages us not to give advice by asking questions. The questions are not real questions and are more of rhetorical questions built to make us look helpful. Bungay Stanier would argue that in the end, these questions are not really us trying to get more information or clarification, but  just a way for us to be more subtle about the way we give advice. I actually think that the example above from the Marvel movie is a perfect example of why Bungay Stanier doesn’t like these fake questions. In the movie, the character asks her question, and the respondent has to admit that he was short sighted and when he does, the questioning character responds with smugness and a look that says “haha I’m smarter than you”. It is great for the movie and the characters involved, but our lives and relationships are not Marvel cinematic imaginations. We actually have to live with the people around us and cultivate meaningful relationships with them, and condescension and smugness through fake questions is not the best approach to building meaningful relationships.

 

“Stop offering advice with a question mark attached” is Bungay Stanier’s recommendation because the questions are meant to make the coach look smart rather than to help the person we are coaching find the answer they are looking for. He recommends that we ask probing questions to get the person we are speaking with to describe more of the problem or issue they are facing and to be more detailed in explaining what approaches and solutions they have tried. By getting them to further expand on their issue and listening longer, we may find that they have already tried the solution that we want to give to them wrapped in a comforting fake question. If we find that the person really has not considered our question, then we can give them our advice, but we can do it without the magician facade of a mysterious question that makes it look as though the individual simply missed the point and never considered the right thing. Bungay Stanier would suggest that we just give the advice and say, “I recommend xyz” or “one thing you have not mentioned is xyz, and in the past I have found that to work for me in these situations.” Ultimately, we want to avoid being in a place where our advice is not clear and where we elevate ourselves over another person when coaching.

Aware of Advice

Yesterday I wrote about our internal advice monster. That part of us that is waiting for a conversation and a situation where we can jump in and show how smart and interesting we are by providing someone with great advice for fixing their car, lowering their blood sugar, booking a hotel room, or finding new music to listen to. Whatever the situation is, our brains are always monitoring the environment listening for a chance to contribute some sort of helpful advice and insight.  In the post from yesterday I also wrote about the work of Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson who suggest that we evolved to show off our mental tool kit, not because we want to be helpful, but because we want to show off our interesting knowledge and demonstrate the value we provide to our tribe.

 

Michael Bungay Stanier encourages us to build greater awareness of our advice monsters in his book The Coaching Habit. He writes about the importance of listening rather than providing advice and says, “An intriguing (albeit difficult) exercise is to watch yourself and see how quickly you get triggered into wanting to give advice. Give yourself a day (or half a day, or an hour) and see how many times you are ready and willing to provide the answer.” Bungay Stanier’s book helped me see just how often I slip into advice giving mode without actually realizing it. Trying not to jump in and give everyone advice is difficult, and once you begin to look for it you see just how common it is. I had not realized just how often I wanted to give advice, even if the thing I was giving advice about was not something anyone was interested in or was not a central part of the conversation I butted my way into.

 

The key to Bungay Stanier’s advice is the development of self-awareness. Much of our day and many of our habits and routines happen on autopilot. We hardly recognize how frequently we give advice because it is not something around which we have any self awareness. Paul Jun introduced me to the idea of awareness as a flashlight, focusing in on a specific point, or backing out to reveal more things that were previously hidden in the shadows. The more we focus on our advice monster, the more that we recognize how much of our advice giving behavior was hidden to us, always ready to spring to action, but never actually something we recognized. This exercise will help us learn more about ourselves and help us improve our conversations, plus it will also help us develop self-awareness skills that can translate to other areas of our life. Before I began to focus on self-awareness, I was oblivious to how often I do things like mindlessly give advice, and I would have challenged the idea that I give advice out of habit without actually intending to help anyone, but after improving my self-awareness I am more willing to believe that unwarranted advice giving is something I do all the time. The great thing about Bungay Stanier’s advice it that it helps you see the elephant in the brain described by Simler and Hanson, and helps you develop self-awareness skills that can be applied to other areas of life.

Advice Monster

In his book The Coaching Habit, Michale Bungay Stanier suggests that we all have an advice monster living inside us.  The advice monster knows what is best for everyone. It knows how to solve the worlds problems. It is a genius and has no faults. It knows other people so well that it doesn’t need to listen to their problems or thoughts because it already has everything figured out for them ahead of time. In fact, the advice monster knows other people better than other people know themselves and it understands social problems and infrastructure problems and monetary problems better than experts and academics who spend their whole lives and all their time working through and thinking about such problems.

 

The short and more accurate description of the advice monster is this, the advice monster is a jerk. It lives inside us and wants to pop out and shout at every moment. And this idea of the advice monster is backed by science. Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson explain why humans evolved to have advice monsters living inside of us. Speaking takes energy, and sharing advice and insights from what we learn overtime gives away our hard earned knowledge basically for free. We should have evolved to be stingy speakers and eager listeners, hungry to take in valuable information about where there is good food, about what dangers lie ahead, and about who to follow on Instagram. But instead, we evolved to speak and shout knowledge about for everyone to hear.  When someone else is talking rather than listening we spend all our time thinking about what we should say next, rather than listening for any helpful info they can give us.

 

The evolutionary explanation from Simler and Hanson is that we are simply showing off when we speak and we evolved to do this. We evolved to show off our mental  toolbox. The things we have learned, the observations we have made, the dots we have connected, and the insights we take from what we see and learn are valuable, and we want to display that to the group we belong to so that others will see us as valuable allies. We have an advice monster because we are political social animals, and to survive as part of the tribe we needed to show our value, and what better way to be valuable than to have novel information about building tools, about where food can be found, and to be able to tell stories that help improve group unity.

 

Unfortunately today, the advice monster is ruining lives and destroying relationships. Coaches today cannot simply let their evolved advice monster run the show, or the people they coach will never grow. Bungay Stanier offers a quick haiku to describe the way we should be coaching once we cut out our advice monster:

 

“Tell less and ask more.
Your advice is not as good
As you think it is.”

 

Expanding on the idea of the advice monster, he writes, “We’ve all got a deeply ingrained habit of slipping into the advice-giver/expert/answer-it/solve-it/fix-it mode. That’s no surprise, of course. When you take the premium that your organization places on answers and certainty, then blend in the increased sense of overwhelm and uncertainty and anxiety that many of us feel as our jobs and lives become more complex, and then realize that our brains are wired to have a strong preference for clarity and certainty, it’s no wonder that we like to give advice. Even if it’s the wrong advice–and it often is–giving it feels more comfortable than the ambiguity of asking a question.”

 

Listening doesn’t feel good because it doesn’t engage our evolutionary biology. Nevertheless, it is the way to actually solve other people’s problems. We never truly understand them and their problems as well as we think we do, and certainly not as well as they do. The key is to ask questions and encourage others to find the answers they already know exist. This pushes the advice monster aside and helps us actually be useful for the person we are supposed to be helping.

And What Else?

Yesterday I wrote about our tendency to view situations and decisions in the world as binary, and how the reality of the world is often more complex and nuanced than our decision making structures would suggest. Michael Bungay Stanier offers a way to get beyond binary views in his book The Coaching Habit. His solution is simply to ask the question, “And what else?” to get new ideas flowing and to break out of the simple this-or-that mentality that so many of us often stumble through.
In his book he writes, “…What would happen if you added just one more option: Should we do this? or This? or not? The results were startling. Having at least one more option lowered he failure rate by almost half, down to about 30 percent.
    When you use, “And what else?” you’ll get more options and often better options. Better options lead to better decisions. Better decisions lead to greater success.”
As almost everything in Bungay Stanier’s book, his advice and research is geared around professional and business coaching situations, but the takeaways can be expanded upon and used in more areas of life. His research shows that businesses perform much better when they consider a third option and are willing to look beyond the binary perspective. It is reasonable to think that other areas of our life would improve if we became better at recognizing when we were in a binary mindset and asked ourselves if there was a different option or even if we didn’t have to make a decision at all. When we start to become more comfortable with slightly larger perspectives, by making a choice between three options rather than just two, we start to see that the world has more possibilities than we originally recognized, and we start to be able to live a little more flexibly. Recognizing that our vision is limited, especially if we only give ourselves two possibilities for how the world is shaped, is key for growth and learning. Asking what else is a first step to challenge our thoughts and begin to expand our worldview.

Binary Decisions

One of the things I try hard to stay away from is believing that any given situation is ever just a binary — a this or that, one thing or the other, situation. There is a lot of nuance in our lives and in almost any situation we have multiple options available to us that often exist on a continuum. Very rarely in our life is something either a yes or no decision and very rarely can anything be defined as a purely either/or option. Whether it is parenting styles, diets, exercise, politics, or cooking, we almost always live somewhere in a middle place defined by lots of gray. But this makes life complex, and our brain likes finding patterns, so we tend to reduce things to binaries to create simpler realities for our minds to sort out.

 

Michael Bungay Stanier looks at what this tendency of ours leads to in the world of business in his book The Coaching Habit and references research from Chip and Dan Heath in their book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work. Their research looked at a business study from Paul Nutt who found that 71 percent of organizational decisions within a company were treated as binary, either this or that decisions. In the world of business, where a company needs to be competitive and make strategic decisions toward the future, nearly three fourths of all decisions were approached simply yes or no questions, cutting out middle ground options and narrowing the choices and potential alternatives available to managers and leadership. Bungay Stanier continues to quote the research from Nutt in Chip and Dan Heath’s book by saying that teenagers make decisions based on binaries at roughly equivalent levels.

 

To make better decisions in our lives we have to recognize that the world is not black and white. Someone is not either good or evil. Any given thing is never 100% perfect or terrible and we need to approach the world with much more nuance for real decisions, actions, and outcomes to make sense. If we fail to make broader considerations and look at more options, then we limit the possibilities around ourselves. Our decision making will be reduced if we chose to see the world and our next steps as either/or decisions and we won’t develop an accurate picture of the world around us. This is a challenging way to approach the world, and we sound less sure of ourselves, but we develop a more reasonable and compassionate view of other people and events in the world when we can live with more nuance and avoid the temptation to reduce everything to binaries.