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Stop Looking for the Right Answers

December 19, 2012

By Mark Hannum

This is the third in a series of posts on Systems Thinking by Linkage Principal Consultant Mark Hannum. He admits that the series will probably reveal too much about who he is, and why he does what he does. However, his insights on systems thinking have been gleaned from decades of research and real-world experience…and you might just find his thoughts useful in ways you wouldn’t expect. Click here to start reading at the beginning of the series.—Ed.

When I worked at Hanover Insurance, the leadership team was sent away for a three-day experience in cultural understanding that was simply referred to as “Beckett.” Homework—a series of questions and a few essays to read—arrived about four weeks prior. The questions seemed both simple and irrelevant to what we did as a company. They were obvious: “What happens when you take an aspirin for a headache? Who invented chess? What language is spoken by the majority of the world’s population? Oh, and the obligatory insurance question….What happens when you build a home in a flood plain?”

Once we arrived, the routine with “Beckett”—John Beckett, renowned systems thinker and Professor at the University of New Hampshire’s Whittemore School of Business—was simple. We sat at desks arranged in a circle. Our guide, “Beckett” walked around the center of the desks asking questions. So, what does happen when you take an aspirin for a headache? One of us answered, “The headache goes away.”

Then another chimed in, “Not when I take an aspirin. It does nothing for me.” Beckett paused and said nothing.
Someone else said, “Well, I always get a stomach ache when I take aspirin so I’ve stopped.”

Another claimed: “My father is taking aspirin for his heart condition. Takes one a day. Keeps a small bottle in his pocket in case he has a heart attack. Supposed to put one in his mouth and crush it as soon as he can.” Someone else countered, “That’s not aspirin. That’s nitroglycerine.”

Beckett looked at all of us: “What is the answer?” He appeared stern. He didn’t say much. The room continued to struggle and the seemingly simple question became mired in all sorts of different issues. “Mark,” says Beckett, “You’re a smart guy…biochemistry, biology, organic chemistry in your undergrad program. Why don’t you clear all of this up for us?”

Huh? Me? I’m thinking, “How’d you know I took biochemistry in college?,” while I’m not thinking about the answer.

So, I proceed to talk about salicylic acid (aspirin) and its chemical structure and what happens when it enters the bloodstream via digestion. Beckett turned to one of my colleagues, “Smart guy isn’t he? But we still don’t have the answer, do we?” The room buckled down and Becket turned up the pressure. We wilted.

“Don’t tell me you give up,” said our host and guide. “What are you looking for?” he asked innocently.

“We’re looking for the answer” a participant replied sarcastically and just a bit angrily. “This is BS,” said another participant. The peacekeepers in the room jump in and try to quell what they perceive to be an escalating conflict. They are obviously hoping to protect our guide. But he needed no protecting. “What are you looking for?” he repeated.

Someone else tried another tact. “What would a good answer look like?” “There’s a right answer,” someone else chimed in, “and that’s what we are looking for.” Beckett interjected a question, “Is there a right answer?” Twelve people nodded. “That’s what you do folks,” he said. “You find the right answer. That’s your job.”

Suddenly there was a collective sucking sound coming from the group. You could hear it. And I could feel it coming from somewhere in my own body. This wasn’t about whether we knew the answer to a question. This was about how we solve problems; by being 100% certain of our expertise and knowledge, and looking smart, and always knowing the answer to the question we are asked.

“Were you trying to answer the question, ‘What happens when?’” he asked. “Or were you trying to answer the question, ‘What is the answer?’” Mumbled voices indicated that we were trying to answer the latter question. “OK,” Beckett says, “Let’s move on.”

Day two brought more of the same. But after lunch, Beckett circled back to the word “is”. So, we are going to get “is” right as a group. With absolute deftness, Beckett drove us to think through, “The problem is…” and “The answer is….”

What do these statements imply? That there is only one answer; one correct answer. One answer that will get us what we really want; an “A” on the test. However, every question on the Beckett test had multiple answers, all of which were technically correct.

We showed up bright and optimistic on day three with a new found appreciation of how we operate to our own detriment. Now in small groups, we worked hard on a question about a farmer who raised fish—a fish farmer. Puzzled by a decrease in the size of his maturing crop, he tries all sorts of solutions to no avail. The problem does not go away, but it doesn’t get worse either. Of course the group dynamic drew us right back into finding the one right answer, getting the A, and seeking the approval of our professor.

Frustrated and mentally spent, we were no match for our guide. He’d “what-if’d” every answer we came up with into an intellectual circle. Eventually, we had nothing left. Beckett looked at me. I just started thinking out loud to him and the rest of the participants, “This is just like Hanover,” I said. “There doesn’t seem to be any answers and every time you think you’ve solved something, you end up creating yet another problem. It’s like you can’t win.” Beckett smiled at me and looked around the room. He walked out of the circle for the first time in three days and took a seat at the table. “Does everybody understand what Mark just said? People nodded. “Welcome to systems thinking everyone.”

The experience ended with an amazing dinner and graduation ceremony. Beckett memorialized each one us in a poem he had written about the three days. I couldn’t get past the experience. And since then, every conversation with my spouse, co-workers, and peers has taken on new meaning and a different depth. My peers who’d already been Beckett-ized looked at me knowingly. We had a very different conversation even though our words and phrases sounded similar to every other normal conversation. We were on a different plane. We saw ourselves in a world of people with right answers. Yeah, right.

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Are you a leader who is asking: “What happens when?” or are you trying to find the “right” answer?

More about Mark
Mark Hannum

Mark Hannum is a Principal Consultant at Linkage. He has over twenty years of experience in organizational and leadership development, systems thinking, coaching, competency modeling, and executive team building and alignment. Mark’s skilled leadership and innovation has resulted in the successful implementation of many organizational design projects with client mergers and acquisitions. He is also a frequent featured speaker at many training and education events.

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