Curiosity Foundational Values

What Exactly Happened to the Cat?

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What does your childhood home look like now on Google Street View?

What is the most interesting piece of IMDB trivia for your favorite movie?

On what website can you find the inventor’s original intent for the Ruffles potato chip?

What piece of sports trivia would you share that would stump your friends? (For instance, why is a marathon 26.2 miles?) Are you 100% sure that you’re right about it?

When was the first electric car made? When was the first internal combustion engine car made?

Is your favorite teacher still alive?

How the heck is white pretzel salt actually made?

How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?

Did you care to look into at least one of the above questions before you reached this paragraph?

I implore you to share your most surprising findings on either the LinkedIn or Twitter threads relating to this post.

Now, I can’t tell from here how curious you are. But you can. It’s a pretty safe bet that you are reading this on a device that has access to the Internet, and if you didn’t take the time to look into at least one of the above things, what got in your way? Are you, perhaps, on a schedule to finish reading this page? Or are you, perhaps, light on curiosity?

There are eight foundational values at the root of The Progressive CIO, yet there is only one that is shared by just about all of the hundreds of senior managers I have consulted for or worked with over the years, and that is curiosity. I suppose this means that, despite some of the dysfunction I have witnessed in my professional encounters, there is at least one thread that ties most leaders together.

Why do you suppose that is the case?

To be curious is to be fully invested in one’s personal growth. Why would anyone want to hire a person who wasn’t interested in that? Even if you are hiring someone for a rote task, a non-curious individual would be a bore to work with. Yet, we have all worked with people who lack curiosity. Perhaps it’s hard to smoke out this attribute in a standard interview. One has to be curious about the curiosity of others in order to get to the starting gate. Therein lies the rub! What will you do to nurture this in your own life?

I once knew a vice president named Joe who proudly fathered the most richly rewarding line of manipulative interview questioning that I’ve ever encountered. This is how it went:

Joe: “Do you have any regrets?”

Interviewee: “Hmmm, yes. I wish I had {studied violin; finished college; traveled to Europe}.”

Joe: “Why didn’t you?”

Interviewee: “I didn’t have the time.”

Answers of that last sort occurred more often than Joe would have liked. The crux, for him, was that we all have time to do the things we want to do; we merely make choices about what we do with our time. He was most interested in hiring candidates who understood this.

Now, I have to say, I have shared this story probably a hundred times over the years, and I have gotten into some interesting disagreements. I remember one individual saying, “I have children. I don’t have the choices about what to do with my time that you think I do.” To which I replied, “I appreciate that, but it is still a choice. You are just choosing not to be a miscreant. Plenty of people do make the choice to be a miscreant. You, too, could make the choice to be a miscreant. I want you to realize that it is a choice, albeit one a fine person like you has made with integrity.”

We went on a bit, and I followed up by making the point that, beyond this sort of thing, we (typically) do make choices to have children, and there are consequences to that. These sorts of things are delicate, mind you. But they are healthy to take the time to consider. And, of course, beyond even that delicate point, we are all free to make a choice about whether or not we even live. For what it’s worth, I hope that you, dear reader, continue to make the choice to live!

So, to say that we don’t have time to do something is a lazy way of overlooking some of the tougher choices we have to make.

Curiosity is a choice. Because of that, curiosity will sometimes feel like it is slowing you down (see: Patience). The single most useful curiosity-based tool that I use regularly is the exercise of the “Five whys.” There is no question that it will slow you down, but if you’ve never used it before, give it a try sometime. I am willing to bet that you will continue to find that sort of slowdown to be immeasurably healthy.

Were you aware that there are a host of curiosity tests online?

(You’d be correct in thinking that I hoped you searched for that before I mentioned it.)

Take — no, make — the time to take some of these test. Curiosity is a choice. More pertinently, I suggest that you make the time to look for it in others.

Carve out the time to look into the things you need in order to grow, and you will grow. Plodding forward without a care in the world about what else might be possible is not a terribly strategic way of getting things done. If you do not value curiosity in yourself, it will be difficult to nurture that in your teams.

Should you encounter someone who argues: “But curiosity killed the cat!,” simply smile and offer: “If the cat steadfastly practiced the alternative, there would be no kittens to follow.”

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Commitment Compassion Curiosity Current Events: 2021 Empathy Humility Patience Vulnerability Willingness

Fixing Today’s Workplace Requires Packing Up Our Politics

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Taking a look today (December 6th, 2021) at the New York Times Hardcover Nonfiction bestseller list, I see:

  1. History (THE 1619 PROJECT)
  2. Biography/Entertainment (WILL)
  3. Biography/Entertainment (THE LYRICS: 1956 TO THE PRESENT)
  4. Biography/Entertainment (THE STORYTELLER)
  6. Entertainment / Food (TASTE)
  7. Personal stories (THESE PRECIOUS DAYS)
  8. Biography/Medicine (THE REAL ANTHONY FAUCI)
  10. Biography/Entertainment (THE BEATLES: GET BACK)

Compare that to two years ago at this time:

  1. Politics (A WARNING)
  2. Politics (TRIGGERED)
  3. Entertainment (ME)
  4. Politics (BECOMING)
  6. Communication (TALKING TO STRANGERS)
  7. Personal stories (FINDING CHIKA)
  8. Personal stories (EDUCATED)
  9. Biology (THE BODY)
  10. Politics (WITH ALL DUE RESPECT)

Those differences are telling. Two years ago, post-election, with our cold civil war a-brewing, politics was our fascination. Today, we are weary for just about anything other than entertainment. Our brains and our souls need a rest and a reset.

Interest in work-related topics is also in an ebb cycle. People are not in the mood to read books, columns, or blogs that consist of generalized advice aimed at improving their work lives. I suspect people realize that questions about what’s truly going on right now in the workforce have no easy answers. What’s truly going on is that our cold civil war has bled into our work life.

The Progressive CIO was borne out of my epiphanies in the wake of COVID-19 — a long and turbulent wake that we are still navigating. My writings have reflected my work and encounters along the way. In recent months, however, I’ve slowed. I have nothing to offer that I think can address our cold civil war, and writing more about the eight foundational values of The Progressive CIO seems tone-deaf at the moment. While those values are — and always will be — important, getting back to considering them will require navigating out of our current wake, which requires addressing politics.

We’re not supposed to have politics in our workplaces, though, right? As it turns out, it’s too late for that. As we attempt to return to offices, COVID has brought politics into the workplace as never before, for a simple reason: the semiotics of the face covering.

I cannot think of any symbol in the workplace — or in everyday life — that has communicated a political stance so overtly in my lifetime as the manner in which face coverings are (or are not) worn. This is not to say that wearing a face covering or not is, unto itself, a form of political expression. As with a tree falling in the forest, it’s the junction of the act and the audience where meaning takes shape.

Take a look at these four different face-covering scenarios, and reflect on what they say to you:

At least one of those will strike a nerve within you, wherever you sit on the political spectrum.

Semiotics are a part of everyday communication and everyday life. Face coverings fall into the non-language communication subset of semiotics, which are distinct from the more-commonly-encountered non-verbal communication. Non-verbal communication involves a language; that is to say, a system of communication with a learned form and structure. Music is a language, for instance. Non-language communication, on the other hand, lacks any system or learned form and structure. Lines on our roads are non-verbal communication; a driver swerving around those lines is non-language communication.

Non-language communication isn’t discussed much outside of academic circles. If it were, I suppose we might have a better public dialog about face covering techniques. I suspect, however, that it wouldn’t have an impact on our current cold civil war at work. Whether we like it or not, masks have become a form of wearing one’s politics on one’s face. The bigger issue is that non-language communication, through its very nature, makes verbal analysis more challenging.

At the present, only fully-distributed workforces are in a position to avoid face covering controversies in daily work life. We know, however, that not all workforces can be fully-distributed.

Proposed vaccination and testing rules are about to increase the magnitude of the COVID-19 wake, before the current tide has finished going out. How a company reacts to and addresses these rules puts politics on a company’s face as well.

When we are in a place where we know the solution is: “Take politics out of the workplace” and those politics are now a way of life as a matter of public health, then where does that leave us?

It leaves us doing our jobs and trying not to think about them when we don’t have to. It leaves us tired of politics, even if we are energized by them. (Which leaves me to ponder: If one is energized by politics, then what does that say about that person and their priorities?) It leaves us retreating to our homes, our families, entertainment, and the things that truly matter in life. That’s not all a bad thing. But if our lives require us to work, we’re all in a pickle for the time being.

Back to those eight foundational values of The Progressive CIO: I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to reflect on them, and how they play a role in getting ourselves out of our current situation:

Vulnerability: Are we willing to be honest and open with one another about how our current world is affecting us? This will include senior leaders acknowledging that these vulnerable voices need to be heard.

Humility: Are we willing to recognize that this situation is bigger than all of us, and that it is a comedy of errors, of sorts, if not a true human tragedy? It’s difficult to laugh at, but I believe we have to if we are to collectively solve it.

Empathy: No matter your politics or attitude, will you try as hard as you can to see the validity in the other side’s point of view? This doesn’t mean that you agree that the other side is right; it merely means that you work hard enough to try to understand and not summarily dismiss.

Patience: This might be the hardest thing of all. People were tired of not getting their hair colored one month into the pandemic. Do we have the collective patience to deal with one another to move past where we are today? We don’t have a choice, because it will be a long haul. If we can acknowledge this, we stand a chance to get a clearer understanding of what the path to progress looks like.

Compassion: Do we genuinely care about each other, to the extent we are willing to go out of our way to bring comfort to others?

Curiosity: Are we willing to explore the new and unseen options that we have not yet explored to get us past where we are today?

Commitment: Are we willing to make true commitments to one another, and follow through on those commitments?

Willingness: Do we have genuine willingness to do all of the hard work above?

Given how tired we all remain, who can we expect to initiate this sort of effort on a meaningful scale?

Only those who govern us.

I’m not talking about legislation; I’m talking about leading by example, living those eight values. If that sounds like a tall order, it most certainly is. That’s because there is a chasm between politics and governance. The government I am alluding to does not exist today, and has probably not existed in our lifetimes. Until we can pack up our politics, no governing will happen. Until we can pack up our politics, no leadership will happen. Until we can pack up our politics, our workplaces will not flourish. Until we can pack up our politics, the world will not be the place we want it to be. The good news? Packing up our politics starts, apparently, with the books we buy.


A friend shared the following response:

I loved your start – the comparison of the top books is quite telling, and I would not have thought to make that comparison. I am right there with you throughout your article until the end. Who should or will initiate these changes? For me it’s all of us, it’s the workers, it’s the everyday people in the workplace, it’s you and it’s me. I think we can be sure right now our leaders are quite absent, especially those who govern.

One of my favorite quotes I encountered along the way of my doctoral studies comes from Ralph Stacey, “Change can only happen in many, many local interactions.” For me, this means it is in the small conversations that spark other conversations and so on that we begin to change culture, that we begin to change each other. I is in those times of making space and being vulnerable that we listen to others and that we speak our truth. In those moments one or the other or both are truly changed, and that sparks a change in the next conversation that we have. For me, it is in this process that true change happens. Not in the top down, governed-inspired or directed change.

But that’s me, and perhaps I am missing some of what you are concluding or alluding to.

I agree with this in spirit—and I had wanted to end with this sentiment. But after reviewing the how the foundational values might address this, and pondering how realistic this would be, I felt this conclusion would sound trite. There is a realist at work in my brain right now. This sort of change benefits from top-down work of unimaginable magnitude. Imagine the impact our governing bodies could have if they demonstrated these values in their everyday actions!

In the “DVD bonus feature” spirit of allowing you to choose your own ending, I encourage you to do just that with this post. I would love nothing more than for everyday people—rather than government—to achieve this change.

In the end, if this post merely encourages discussion, then it will have served a purpose.

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Curiosity Humility

Speaking is Disempowering: The Value of Shutting Up

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How many essays have you read about the power of active listening? Given the volume of writing on the topic, are you curious about why so many people seem so bad at it? I have an idea: there is not enough written about the complementary idea of shutting up.

Our ability to learn when to shut up is arguably more valuable than any active listening techniques we can master. Try something the next time you are tempted to speak: Stop, count to three, then ask yourself: Why am I about to open my mouth? Is this about me (merely demonstrating something that I know or wish to share because of how it makes me appear)? Or is it genuinely for the benefit of others?

More than any of us would like to admit (or perhaps more than any of us fully appreciate), we speak merely to increase our status or relevance in a series of conversations. Many years ago, I participated in an Agile Systems Engineering Workgroup for INCOSE, and was fortunate to spend time with a particularly well-rounded engineer who introduced me to the work of Keith Johnstone, an improvisational theater pioneer. In his famous 1979 work, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, Johnstone offers a valuable and breathtaking illustration of how this sort of dynamic plays out in everyday conversation. I promise that once you have read the following excerpt, you will never see a meeting or simple daily interaction the same way again:

When I began teaching at the Royal Court Theatre Studio (1963), I noticed that the actors couldn’t reproduce ‘ordinary’ conversation. They said ‘Talky scenes are dull’, but the conversations they acted out were nothing like those I overheard in life. For some weeks I experimented with scenes in which two ‘strangers’ met and interacted, and I tried saying ‘No jokes’, and ‘Don’t try to be clever’, but the work remained unconvincing. They had no way to mark time and allow situations to develop, they were forever striving to latch on to Intetesting’ ideas. If casual conversations really were motiveless, and operated by chance, why was it impossible to reproduce them at the studio?

I was preoccupied with this problem when I saw the Moscow Art’s production of The Cherry Orchard. Everyone on stage seemed to have chosen the strongest possible motives for each action—no doubt the production had been ‘improved’ in the decades since Stanislavsky directed it. The effect was ‘theatrical’ but not like life as I knew it. I asked myself for the first time what were the weakest possible motives, the motives that the characters I was watching might really have had. When I returned to the studio I set the first of my status exercises.

‘Try to get your status just a little above or below your partner’s,’ I said, and I insisted that the gap should be minimal. The actors seemed to know exactly what I meant and the work was transformed. The scenes became ‘authentic’, and actors seemed marvellously observant. Suddenly we understood that every inflection and movement implies a status, and that no action is due to chance, or really ‘motiveless’. It was hysterically funny, but at the same time very alarming. All our secret manoeuvrings were exposed. If someone asked a question we didn’t bother to answer it, we concentrated on why it had been asked. No one could make an ‘innocuous’ remark without everyone instantly grasping what lay behind it. Normally we are ‘forbidden’ to see status transactions except when there’s a conflict. In reality status transactions continue all the time. In the park we’ll notice the ducks squabbling, but not how carefully they keep their distances when they are not.

Here’s a conversation quoted by W. R. Bion (Experience in Groups, Tavistock Publications, 1968) which he gives as an example of a group not getting anywhere while apparently being friendly. The remarks on the status interactions are mine.

MRS X: I had a nasty turn last week. I was standing in a queue waiting for my turn to go into the cinema when I felt ever so queer. Really, I thought I should faint or something.

[Mrs X is attempting to raise her status by having an interesting medical problem. Mrs Y immediately outdoes her.]

MRS Y: You’re lucky to have been going to a cinema. If I thought I could go to a cinema I should think I had nothing to complain of at all.

[Mrs Z now blocks Mrs Y.]

MRS Z: I know what Mrs X means. I feel just like that myself, only I should have had to leave the queue.

[Mrs Z is very talented in that she supports Mrs X against Mrs Y while at the same time claiming to be more worthy of interest, her condition more severe. Mr A now intervenes to lower them all by making their condition seem very ordinary.]

MR A: Have you tried stooping down? That makes the blood come back to your head. I expect you were feeling faint.

[Mrs X defends herself.]

MRS X: It’s not really faint.

MRS Y: I always find it does a lot of good to try exercises. I don’t know if that’s what Mr A means.

[She seems to be joining forces with Mr A, but implies that he was unable to say what he meant. She doesn’t say ‘Is that what you mean?’ but protects herself by her typically high-status circumlocution. Mrs Z now lowers everybody, and immediately lowers herself to avoid counterattack.]

MRS Z: I think you have to use your will-power. That’s what worries me—I haven’t got any.

[Mr B then intervenes, I suspect in a low-status way, or rather trying to be high-status but failing. It’s impossible to be sure from just the words.]

MR B: I had something similar happen to me last week, only I wasn’t standing in a queue. I was just sitting at home quietly when …

[Mr C demolishes him.]

MR C: You were lucky to be sitting at home quietly. If I was able to do that I shouldn’t think I had anything to grumble about. If you can’t sit at home why don’t you go to the cinema or something?

— Keith Johnstone, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre

Have you ever been Mrs. X, Mrs. Y, Mrs. Z, Mr. A, Mr. B, or Mr. C? I suspect you have been all of them at one time or another; I certainly have. More distressingly, we’ve witnessed this very same dynamic play out before our eyes every day of our lives. More often than we realize, we speak in an attempt to elevate our status, rather than for the benefit of others.

Whenever I revisit this excerpt, it amplifies my desire to shut up in almost every situation imaginable; it’s better to let others have the silly status competition, I remind myself.

Speaking and status play become especially problematic during the sorts of discussions that occur during daily software engineering and IT work, which was the context for the conversation with my INCOSE colleague who introduced me to Impro. Allow me to share a story from my career (with names changed) to illustrate this point in ingeniare situ.

The scene: A requirements elicitation meeting with software engineers; a business analyst (Hal); a CEO (Stan); and the CEO’s right-hand man (Oliver).

The context: Discussion of a thorny business process problem with no clear answer. Stan & Oliver have very different views on what the solution might be, and they are both quite strong-willed in their vision. Hal is an eager engineer, always ready to offer solutions to any problem at hand, with a seemingly bottomless pouch of solutions.

The group gathers in a small room to discuss the issue. The entire team, including the software engineers, has heard about the business process issue for a few weeks, and everybody came prepared to listen to Stan & Oliver with the intent of bringing everyone’s different perspectives to the table.

Stan & Oliver begin to argue about their competing visions in front of the whole group. All the meeting participants ask questions and make suggestions, but both Stan & Oliver resist feedback. Hal, in particular, makes several false starts at articulating what he clearly feels is a brilliant idea (attempting to gain status), but Stan & Oliver are not ready for it. They are more interested in fighting each other’s views than hearing from anybody else.

After 20 minutes of this, both Stan & Oliver start to slow down, betraying a certain weariness. At long last, they begin looking around the room, with an openness to feedback. Their eyes, however, are more certainly trained on Hal, who they trust more than anyone else present. They look to Hal in a way that a golden retriever might, after being deprived of food for two days. Hal, a dutiful lieutenant, is ready with what he perceives to be a brilliant solution (and to embrace the status he has been granted), and the mood of the room — weary of the arguing — allows him, at last, to go into great detail about the idea he has been pining to offer.

Stan & Oliver seem relieved, and let Hal know that they think his idea might be the best solution. The group agrees to codify the new process into software for the next sprint.

After a week of hard work and a sprint review, the solution is put into production. Everybody is happy, particularly Hal. He’s proud that he was able to diffuse such a difficult situation with his ingenious idea.

But a week after that, Stan & Oliver are not happy with the solution.

Hal is devastated. He comes to me, and tells me the backstory. “My first idea was a failure. But I have two more. What do you think I should do?”

I suggested to Hal that none of his ideas mattered.

“Hal,” I said, “You will undoubtedly need to have another meeting similar to the one you had two weeks ago. But this time, I want you to do something different. Stan & Oliver will once again argue in front of the whole gang. But when they look to you, I want you to remain silent. The issue is that our suggestions are enabling them to avoid the difficult conversations they need to have in order to come to a solution that they both believe in. They want you to feel special, but that won’t solve their problem. I tell you what: I will join your next meeting to support you. If I think you are going to open your mouth in a way that allows them to avoid finishing their difficult disagreement, I will send you a message over instant messenger to help keep you in check.”

Hal agreed. We scheduled the meeting for the following day.

The format and tone of the second meeting was uncannily similar to the one two weeks’ prior. Stan & Oliver continued their now-infamous argument in front of the gang. But the room was quieter this time; Hal had shared my conversation with him and had asked all of the software engineers to take a back seat, as was his own plan per our conversation.

After another 20 minutes of arguing, Stan & Oliver once again grew weary. Predictably, their eyes veered toward Hal, with the very same golden retriever look that Hal had experienced before. Hal looked so incredibly eager to give in. There was a tremble, a redness, an eagerness…then I typed “Shut up” into the IM window in my laptop.

Hal looked down. He looked back up. He took a breath. Stan & Oliver looked at him for about 10 seconds, with no sound uttered. They looked at each other, and at the floor, and at each other, for what was probably only 60 seconds but what seemed like an eternity.

Then, eyes were back on Hal. But Hal dutifully kept quiet.

After 15 or so additional seconds, a magical thing happened: Oliver said to Stan: “I think we need to take this offline.”

The look on Hal’s face was the look of someone who was able to breathe after two minutes underwater — a palpable sense of calm and relief. The meeting ended as any meeting of this type would…with a unanimous eagerness to leave the room and move on to better things.

Stan & Oliver argued daily for two weeks after that meeting.

At the end of those two weeks, Oliver came to Hal and explained that he and Stan had come to an agreement, and they determined a way to address the situation in a surprising way: changing an upstream business process that the engineering team assumed was essentially immutable.

The team got busy writing up specifications and coding the new solution. Two weeks later, the revised software and business processes were put into production, putting a definitive end to the arguments between Stan & Oliver. (Well, at least about this issue.)

This is what led me to coin the phrase “Speaking is disempowering.”

Hal’s desire to offer a solution enabled — in the negative sense of the word — Stan and Oliver to avoid their obligations to argue. In opening his mouth, Hal got in his own way in providing a solution to Stan and Oliver’s problem.

My advice to anybody in a similar situation is to remember that when we take center stage, we force others to the edge of the stage. That presents a real danger.

I believe that “Speaking is disempowering” tells a different story than the more traditionally-offered “Silence is golden.” (Although I do love the modern twist: “Silence is golden. Duct tape is silver.”) It is wise for us to remember that speaking carries a high degree of risk: risk in interfering with the status of others; risk in alienating others; risk in short-circuiting conversation. We often believe that opening our mouth will bring about positive change (feeling like a form of power), but the change it brings is just as often at odds with what we want or need to achieve.

The more we shut up, the more that people within earshot of us are able to draw their own conclusions, in ways that are both satisfying and lasting for them. Our real power comes from the self-control that allows that to happen. When we speak — when we are on center stage — we actively remove the privilege for others to speak and be heard.

Don’t ever forget to listen. But please raise a glass for shutting up.

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