The Problem with Problem-Solving

What is here now, when there is no problem to solve? Loch Kelly

Recently I’ve begun my morning meditation by asking myself this question, offered by Loch Kelly in a three-minute practice . It’s had a dramatic effect on my ability to “drop in”—to let go of the noise and chatter in my head. Simply asking the question allows me to “arrive,” almost magically, as I begin my morning meditation. And, when the chatter ramps up, as it is wont to do, I ask the question again and, again, the noise subsides.

While this one question may have different effects on everyone who tries the practice, its power has helped me to become more aware of how deeply we are wired to be problem-solvers and how that limits us in an increasingly complex world.

When I work with leaders, especially when our focus is on becoming better coaches, the single hardest thing for most of them is to step back from immediately fixing or problem-solving. Developing the capacity to listen without fixing is a continuous, intentional practice. It is not surprising to me that this is the case. After more than twelve years of working as a coach it still requires intention for me—and I can still be pulled into fixing mode.

Here’s the thing. Being problem-solvers got us far, as individuals and as a species. Being told you’re a good problem-solver is a compliment and knowing you’ve figured something out can make you feel pretty good about yourself. We can resolve things, move projects forward, help people. It’s what we’ve spent most of our lives being trained to do and to be. What could be bad about that?

To answer that question, I want to draw on a critical distinction—the difference between complicated and complex. Operating in complexity means we’re in the terrain of the unpredictable. Solutions are emergent; we navigate and experiment our way towards them and things are likely to shift as we go along. Complicated means we are traveling more “plannable” and predictable territory—and problem-solving can be exactly the right approach. In our VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) reality, more and more of what we face as leaders and what the people around us are facing falls into the domain of complexity.

When I share this distinction with my clients (which I almost always do—it’s that useful,) the most profound moment is often when they truly get that, in complexity, problems can’t be “solved” and that much of their time as leaders is spent in the complex domain. Realizing that our problem-solving brains can become an obstacle to thriving—and potentially even to surviving (more on that later) can be both liberating and terrifying. It’s freeing to know you’re not supposed to have the answer—in fact, you can’t. And, at the same time, it can be terrifying to realize that you need new ways of dealing with the challenges you face. If complexity means that the problem-solving mind I’ve cultivated for my whole life is not what I need to thrive in this new reality, what happens next? Going a level deeper still, the question becomes “Who am I?” since, for many of us, our identity is grounded in our skills as problem-solvers.

Back to my morning meditation. The moment when I ask myself the question “What is here when there is no problem to solve?” is the beginning of the answer to both the question of what to do next and the question of who I am. I relax into a sense of expansiveness, spaciousness. I can become more patient with not knowing. Once I can allow myself to not know, I am able to listen and to be present—to myself, to my family and to my clients. I don’t try to “solve” my problems or jump in with solutions to theirs. I know that we can navigate this together. I can ask a question that allows me to operate in complexity with greater ease: “What’s next?”

My coach training was led by Doug Silsbee, whose final book was Presence-Based Leadership. (For more on Doug and his work, here’s my tribute to him.) Doug’s claim was that Presence is the meta-capacity of leadership. I find myself re-arriving at this conclusion over and over in my work with leaders. I also realize that presence requires training and continued practice. As Doug suggested, throughout his body of work, the path towards being comfortable with not knowing and being able to genuinely thrive in complexity is through Presence.

This is why my work continues to focus on supporting my clients as they develop the capacity to be present—and continuing to develop this capacity in myself. It’s also why I spent the last year studying to be a somatic coach, working with embodiment. The work required to embrace complexity, to be present, to genuinely release the belief that we should have all the answers to all problems, is not exclusively head learning. Left to their own devices, our heads will continue to engage with problems as we’ve been taught in school and at work throughout our lives. To change a habit this deep, we need to access and re-train our whole self.

We can recognize the sensations we feel, the shapes our bodies assume, the thoughts we have when we are gearing up for conventional problem-solving. And we can learn to pause and, decide if that way of being fits the situation we’re in—and, if not, we can learn to shift. We can take a breath, note the sense of urgency, acknowledge it, shift the way we are holding our body, and respond differently. We are not forcing ourselves to shift, we’re noticing one pattern and choosing a different one. We can genuinely appreciate—and draw on—our problem-solving minds and bodies when they are what’s needed and choose a different way of being when we are facing complexity.

As Amanda Blake, another teacher and coach whose work is grounded in embodiment says: “Awareness creates choice; practice creates capacity.” The more we practice this shift, the more available it becomes to us, until, after perhaps thousands of repetitions, it becomes the way we are in the world. Luckily, we have lots of opportunities to practice!

The challenges we are collectively facing are profound and highly complex. I believe that learning to shift from problem-solving to being truly present in the complexity of those challenges is critical capacity for our society and world. For me, the kind of practice and awareness I’ve described here is the most accessible, though not necessarily easy, path towards presence—and with it surviving and even thriving in the complexity that surrounds us.

Mood Check

[Note to readers: Mood Check is the second in a series of posts I’m writing as I study at the Strozzi Institute for Embodied Leadership. My hope is that these posts spark curiosity and encourage you to explore even more. The first one introduced somatics and the way that I am learning to understand what somatic leadership means.]

Every day, several times a day, during the workshops at the Strozzi Institute, we did a mood check. All twenty-eight of us quickly shared our mood at the start and end of the day and after any practice that might have changed our moods. While I’ve used mood checks as a facilitator before, I had never done them this consistently. I got more curious about this practice–why it was so foundational and how it could be brought into our daily lives.

In a previous course I attended, one of the Strozzi instructors shared a two-part question about mood that I use frequently in my coaching:

  • What is your mood?
  • What’s telling you this is your mood?

I’ve discovered that when I ask these two, related, questions of myself or my clients, we naturally notice our bodily sensations. Turns out that we name moods based on what our senses are telling us. A mood check, then, is an embodied practice. It gives as a moment to ask ourselves: “What is happening right now? And how am I making that assessment?”

So, why is that useful? First, if you are convinced, as I am, that “somatic literacy” is a good and important thing, the beginning of being able to shift, this is a way to start developing that literacy. It’s not something that we are likely to have learned growing up so we need to educate ourselves. Simply noticing and naming what is happening to us at the level of sensation and how a collection of sensations creates a mood has been powerful for me. I am observing my somatic literacy grow–the range of moods I name expands, the granular awareness of what makes up that mood is more accessible to me–I feel less awkward with the exercise.

Once you name a mood, a few things become possible. First, you have more choice. Given this mood, what actions do or don’t make sense? Is this the right time for a challenging conversation? If I don’t stop to check in with myself, I am much more likely to plow through reflexively than act consciously, reflectively. I am more likely to drift “below the line” in the language of the 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership. (For more on that concept, here’s the link to one of my favorite short videos of all time.)

As part of our practice at the Strozzi Institute, we would do a mood check and then, right away, engage in an activity that was physically vigorous for a couple of minutes. We’d then do a second mood check. The words we chose to describe our moods would, more often than not, change. Becoming aware of mood gives you a chance to shift or generate moods—and, as this exercise demonstrated—rather quickly. A quick walk, a tiny bit of physical activity, a few breaths–any of these can be enough. My personal go-to between coaching sessions practice is either to take a 3-5-minute walk with the dogs or, during this past rainy Los Angeles winter, doing one of the online Zumba routines I’ve discovered. The latter, especially the Bollywood ones, have turned into a rapid, fun way to shift my mood (and no one has to see me!)

Another benefit of a mood check is that it’s a way to expand your emotional vocabulary. When I lead this process in a group, I “forbid” the moods “good” and “tired” and insist that people dig deeper, search more. I do this for myself as well. Naming emotions is a powerful way to build one’s emotional intelligence—in Daniel Goleman’s model it falls in the quadrant of self-awareness. And, it allows for a granular, ground-level self-awareness that supports our capacity to move from awareness to self-regulation—which is the next quadrant of emotional intelligence.

Doing regular mood checks isn’t difficult—like most simple practices, the hardest part (at least for me) is remembering. An app like Mindjogger can be helpful. Program it to ask: “What’s my mood?” several times a day. After a few days, keep up the practice either with the reminder of without. If you do keep a reminder, change it up so that you don’t just ignore it when you see it. If you’re a parent, consider adding it to your conversations with your kids. Encourage creativity, make it a game—it can be a good vocabulary builder–and do it yourself as well. If you add the second question—”What’s telling you this is your mood?” you can build your somatic literacy and help your kids develop it at an earlier age as well. Two birds with one stone!

Our moods are a window into our soma—our whole self. Our capacity to show up, day after day, and face the increasingly complex challenges of leadership (and life) can grow as we learn to tap into the wisdom within us. A practice like a mood check can help us in more profound ways than we might expect of something so simple.

So, start practicing. And, as you practice, notice what happens. How does naming your mood support you? What does it give you access to? Be patient. At Strozzi we were often reminded that it takes 300 practices to begin to embody new practices and 3000 to do so fully. So, it might take time and repetition before the learning emerges.

And there’s more…

Since returning from my sessions at Strozzi I’ve started all calls (especially group ones) with a mood check. I’m discovering that it’s the fastest way to create connections between people when time is limited and the group is too big for doing longer check-ins. The other day I was meeting with a group and we did a mood check. It was our first session together. The mood check revealed that everyone was distracted, stressed and overwhelmed (and this was AFTER a centering practice!!) Turns out the following week was a major marketing event and this group was almost entirely marketing people. I hadn’t known that in advance, so the mood check gave me data that allowed me to gauge the group within a few seconds. We collectively decided to reschedule the session—it wasn’t going to serve anyone to be on this particular call in this particular moment. That decision was made and a new date found within less than five minutes. The group was appreciative–they felt heard. So—if you lead a team, the mood check is also a source of data for you and can allow you to assess where the group is in a given moment and how you, as a leader can best move forward.

Ready for more? Here’s the next in the series.

Creating Psychological Safety from the Inside Out

Organizations that seek to stay relevant through continuous learning and agile execution must cultivate a fearless environment that encourages speaking up. In any company that thrives in our complex and uncertain world, leaders must be listening intently, with a deep understanding that people are both the sensors who pick up signals that change is necessary and the source of creative new ideas to test and implement. Amy Edmonson, The Fearless Organization

I finished reading Amy Edmonson’s new book, The Fearless Organization, a few weeks ago. It’s about psychological safety–what it is, why it matters and how to cultivate it. As I read the book I had two alternating thoughts. At times it felt simple–almost too simple. Speaking up matters. A lot. Psychological safety is all about speaking up. On the other hand, it’s complicated–even complex. Speaking up doesn’t come easily for many people and, in organizational settings, it can be exceptionally difficult. Creating the conditions for psychological safety is an intentional act of leadership.

Edmonson first stumbled upon the importance of psychological safety while researching medical errors in hospitals. The initial results showed more errors in the teams that scored as “better.” That’s not what she expected. So she dug deeper and discovered that the better teams were willing to speak up about mistakes and address them. The less effective teams hid errors–there was a lack of psychological safety. It’s important to note that Edmonson is not presenting psychological as a silver bullet– it does not guarantee team or organizational success. Without psychological safety, however, it is much harder to succeed–to produce innovative, powerful results. So, to reiterate the first point above, psychological safety matters a great deal.

Now here’s the thing that really struck me as I read Edmondson’s book. Psychological safety could be strong in one team and weak in another–in the same hospital. Local leaders (in this case, primarily doctors) determined the level of safety. This points to the role of individual team leaders in influencing the level of safety in their teams–making it safer or less safe than the dominant culture.

Let’s go back to the simplicity and the complexity of establishing psychological safety. What is it that individual leaders can and must do to encourage their team members to speak up–to share ideas, speak about their challenges, be willing to say what they aren’t sure others really want to hear? Edmonson’s Leader’s Toolkit (Chapter 7) provides specific suggestions and practices for creating the conditions, inviting participation and responding when people speak up. (An excerpt from this chapter is available in Strategy and Business.) While this toolkit is made up of deceptively simple actions, for these actions to be effective leaders must have the capacity to execute them, and that is anything but simple.

Creating and supporting the conditions necessary for psychological safety requires the capacity to say one does not know and to listen with interest and openness to other views. It requires the ability to appreciate ideas that don’t jive with one’s often strongly-held opinions (and the willingness to hold those opinions lightly.) It requires the capacity to hear the words someone is speaking even when the delivery is poor or the timing less than perfect. It requires that we recognize that our view is one view only and that we could be wrong. It requires that mistakes and failures, even the preventable and careless ones, are discussable. (Edmonson offers up a useful taxonomy of failures.) It requires that we abandon the misbegotten and widely promoted idea that we shouldn’t bring up problems if we don’t have solutions. It requires that we make it easy for people who struggle to speak up to do so–that we solicit input from the quieter people on our teams–that we as leaders practice inquiry as much, if not more, than advocacy. It requires that we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.

These requirements demand that we look at the ways that we respond (or react), day in, day out–and honestly assess our own performance (and ask for feedback from others.) They demand that we start with ourselves and the ways that we are showing up as leaders. They demand that we develop tools to manage our state–to catch ourselves before we react defensively. They demand that we recognize the power that we have to influence the psychological health and safety of the teams we lead–that we recognize the power we have as leaders to positively or negatively influence our teams.

If you are already someone who tolerates uncertainty well, who embraces not knowing, who can listen without defensiveness and who can be vulnerable–it’s likely that your team already experiences a high level of psychological safety. It’s also likely that there’s even more you can do and that, by working on how you self-manage and self-regulate and on your relationship to not knowing and to uncertainty, that you can take that to even higher levels. And, if you read this and recognize that you are not yet there–know that you can develop these capacities. Through practice (and practices) you can develop new habits and behaviors. And if you’re not sure how you’re showing up–one of the ways to begin to increase the level of psychological safety in your team is to get curious–to have candid conversations and solicit feedback.

So take some time as we begin a new year to think about where you are now and what you can do to cultivate your capacity to support your team’s psychological safety.

Related posts:

Overcoming Your Habit Nature: Embrace Your Saboteurs provides suggestions for working with some of our more entrenched habits–including the ones that are limiting our capacity to support psychological safety.

The Age of the Uncertain Leader speaks to the necessity of embracing uncertainty and some practical ways to do just that.