Interesting vs. Useful

April 26, 2012 Leave a comment

I’ve been enjoying David Rock’s Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work, a book that pulls from neuroscience literature in an attempt to help us understand ourselves better, and to create new pathways to creativity, productivity, and . . .  social change!  Rock leads with the idea that the highest point of leverage to help someone change behavior is at the level of their thinking – to help them think better for themselves.  He goes on to illustrate how what we pay attention to and how largely determines the content and quality of our lives.  This includes the way that we pay attention to problems.

A distinction he makes, when it comes to problem-solving, is between focusing on what is interesting and what is useful. Research shows that often people can get caught up in the analysis and drama of problems and challenges, essentially mining the question, “Why did this happen?” This is helpful to a point, though it can literally get us stuck in a rut, a neural pathway that has us digging our way into analysis paralysis and perhaps gossip. This temptation is heightened because it is often interesting to talk about problems, but it may not always be useful. So Rock’s invitation is to pay attention, and specifically to how often we are focused on “Why?” vs. “What are we going to do about this?” We may even want to do this at our next staff meeting or problem-solving session. Another way of testing our mettle on this front is to take our next meeting and cut the planned time in half, still striving for the desired outcomes. Does this cut out unnecessary problem analysis and hand wringing?

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  • Gibrán says:

    Bold proposition! I say we take it for a ride!

    I’ve been thinking a lot about attention as a form of currency and the idea that whatever you give attention to will grow. This has political, spiritual and even technical implications!

  • Really interesting to read this now. In learning how to host and facilitate spaces, a conversation that comes up often is about interesting vs. relevant. In our case, where we’re not always dealing with problem-solving issues, the question usually focus on “Is this in service of what?”, so it might be a mix of the questions above, a way of understanding what happens in service of what’s next.

    Also interesting to read on the implications of paying attention – it has been on my mind recently:


  • Curtis says:

    Thank you, Gibran and Augusto. I do like mixing up the problem analysis and solution questions, so that neither becomes a trap. Even as I wrote this post, I was keeping the words of my colleague Cynthia Parker in mind – “Often those in positions of power and privilege want to rush the problem conversation.” So how do we do justice to the problem conversation and the solution conversation, so that we can do justice overall?

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