Sunday, March 23, 2014

What Came First: The Chicken or the Egg; The Question or the Answer

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on……………………"

I have a morning routine.  I suspect virtually everyone does.   Some people stretch first, or brush their teeth or shower.  Others like me, make their coffee.  Then over a cup I peruse my emails.  Delete the spam, respond to some.  Some people go to their online news site of choice first to catch up with the world, check the traffic or the weather; others go to their Facebook page, still others to their own websites.  Going online has become part of the morning routine all across the globe.

I wonder if the patterns of early morning online activity differ from place to place, or among cohort groups like one generation as compared to another?  Do women approach morning online activity differently than do men?  Do people in the East have different patterns than those in the West?  Do those in rural communities have different morning online priorities from their urban brethren?  Whatever the approach, whatever our morning routine consists of, we very likely develop a pattern that changes little over time.  We get into a habit, and habits allow us to manage our time and organize our lives.  These habits simplify things for us.

I think we very likely get into routines based on habit and patterns in our thinking too.  And once set, it isn't always so easy to change.

The older I get the more it seems to me that too much time is spent on diving into the challenges we face and moving boldly forward in trying to arrive at solutions to problems and answers to questions.  Human beings seem to abhor vacuums; they seem to deplore hanging questions without answers, challenging problems without solutions.  Such vagaries and uncertainties assault our sense of control and leave us feeling powerless or incomplete.  If we have something unresolved, we want to identify it and get it resolved as quickly as we can.

I have come to believe that one of the keys to success is not necessarily knowing the answers to the questions that we face, but rather what questions to ask in the first place.  Or those important follow up questions that too often seem to go by the wayside.  I think we too often approach problems and challenges with a habitually formed mindset that may be counter productive.  Plagued by a kind of sense of urgency in having to solve a problem or meet a challenge, our first instinct is to trot out not only the solutions our minds are predisposed to embrace (based on prior thinking and experience), but to cling to well established (in our minds) processes for arriving at solutions and answers, when what might yield better results would be to focus on asking more questions about a given challenge.  I think too often our rush to solve a problem, leads us down the wrong road with the result of often pursuing the wrong solution.

Take the typical meeting.  When the topic of some challenge or problem comes up, those assembled typically already have preconceived notions and ideas about both the nature of the challenge and possible solutions.  Rarely does the meeting focus on asking more questions first.  Brainstorming is inherently about arriving at solutions, and too often that process doesn't focus on somehow asking more of the right questions first.  It doesn't seem to matter whether or not we fully understand the complexities of the problem itself, we need only to know it is a problem.

I suspect asking the 'right' questions is a skill that, like other skills, needs to be honed over time.  It needs to be prioritized and valued.  I'm not sure, but I think it is a skill that can, to at least some extent, be taught.  Asking the right questions before settling on the solution would, I think, save time and result in a more informed solution that had a better chance of succeeding.  Forsaking the process of fully vetting all the possible questions that loom behind some challenges, often leads us to approaches based on the limited experience of our own silos and the prejudices and biased thought processes that come from a reliance on habitual thinking patterns.

So how do we shift the emphasis from solutions to questions - at least at the outset of the process of trying to grapple with the challenges we face?

I think one of the critical variables is to listen better.  Too often we are so enamored with our own preconceived ideas of what to do that we don't truly consider where that thinking may be flawed.  It seems axiomatically more difficult to frame the right questions if you are wedded to what a given solution might be - even before we fully appreciate the nature of the challenge.

I read an article recently about a restaurant in Brooklyn called 'EAT'  that has a "no talking" policy a couple of nights a week.  People order their menu choices, and from that point forward nobody says anything.  The idea seems to be to focus on the food and the atmosphere and enjoy the experience without the interruption of everyday conversation and the cacophony of sound that detracts from the meal experience itself.  This is a hard idea for me to get my head into.  I go out to eat at restaurants with friends or colleagues precisely because I want the enjoyment of convivial conversation.  Despite the reality that the conversation is more often than not mundane and centers on simply catching up with each other's lives or talking on superficial levels about current happenings locally or globally, it is the interchange with other people that complements the meal.  And every once in awhile the conversation is even substantive and yields new thoughts and thinking.  How can you listen better if there is no dialogue at all?  I am sure this is probably just a trendy gimmick of the moment; an indulgence sure to pass.  (Too bad the obligation of silence that governs most arts venues is not also a momentary 'trend', rather than the sacrosanct condition of entrance that it has become, but that is a whole other subject.)

Yet the idea intrigues me - if for no other reason than it is something out of the ordinary.   I imagine transferring that idea to our attempts to deal with our problems.  What if, for example, you had a meeting wherein a power point presentation focused on a challenge and tried to highlight the various component parts of that challenge - setting forth what was known about the problem and what it was doing to the things you value - but no one said anything.  What if you then reconvened the meeting attendees a day later and then focused on simply asking questions about the problem, with no one talking about any possible solutions?  I wonder if that might be an interesting experiment that might later yield some new thinking on how to approach the problem.  I wonder if the shift from what one has to say, to not saying anything at all, would alter the processes of how we think about things.

What if you had a conference session that took that approach?  A problem and all its various attributes is presented in pictures and on screen words, but no one says anything.  Then the same people reconvene the next day and try to figure out what questions need to be asked before discussing ideas to address the problem.  Would Day #2 end up a more productive session?  Does it make any sense to experiment with ways to break with patterns of thinking as a precursor to arriving at smart questions that ought to be asked before any attempt to settle on possible solutions to problems?

I worry sometimes that we in the arts are engaging too much in a "nation building" approach to the challenges we face.  Rather than question who we are, what we do and why, we embrace strategies that seek to change the external environment, focusing the solution on the world outside of ourselves.  We try to apply and impose our own critical judgments and conclusions on the outside world and mold that external reality to what we envision as the ideal.  I am not a fan of foreign policy nation building efforts and believe that from Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan our attempts to mold other cultures into our vision of democracy hasn't worked out as we might have hoped, and has, arguably, caused greater problems for us in the long term.   I wonder if we in the arts are sometimes guilty of trying to do the same thing - to mold an external marketplace and public reality into something it is inherently unwilling, or incapable of doing (at least on fundamental levels).  I wonder if we are asking the wrong questions in adoption of this kind of approach.

We seem to cling to the Field of Dreams "If you build it, they will come" mentality, and that approach hasn't come anywhere near yielding a reality which we had hoped for.  I wonder if we had spent more time asking more questions if we would have ended up with a different approach.  (More on this topic in a future blog………………)

Have a great week.  Ask more questions.

Don't Quit