How everyone can use powerful coaching questions, with Michael Bungay Stanier

How everyone can use powerful coaching questions, with Michael Bungay Stanier

In this episode of Business Explained, I interview Michael Bungay Stanier, author of “The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More And Change The Way You Lead Forever.” We discuss how to use some truly powerful coaching questions to boost your ability to help others.


Get-it-Done Guy’s iOS 9 Review: at most, a step backwards

iOS 9 marks the first iOS release where my thought has been a pretty consistent “Well, I guess Apple’s jumped the shark.” Most of the reviews I’ve read of iOS 9 have apparently been written by sycophantic Apple fanboys who don’t actually use their phones to do anything except take selfies and post to Facebook. I’m writing here from the perspective of someone who actually wants to use an iPhone as a tool. Sadly, things aren’t looking good.

In no particular order…

Low Battery Mode is a nice idea. It’s a single setting that does tweaks power things across the board when your battery is low. You can turn it on automatically (the low power dialog box now has an option to turn on low-power mode). Turning it back off later, however, requires navigating surprisingly deeply into Settings. The UI for the feature seems poorly thought-out. (Which, sadly, seems to be increasingly common in Apple products these days.)
The “return to last app” link is pretty convenient, but it’s uglier than I would have imagined possible in such a small UI element. The text has different size and baseline from the other text in the status bar, and it’s too close to the “back” arrow. If you have “Show button shapes” turned on (which I do), the underline merges into the letter. In short, it’s so ugly that every time I see it, I cringe involuntarily and think that somehow my phone must have glitched and displayed garbage on the screen. It’s a testimony to the aesthetic consistency (note: I didn’t say “beauty,” I said “consistency”) of the rest of the interface that such a minor element can look so atrocious because it violates so many design principles in so few pixels.
More bad UI (this is from iOS 8, but it’s still broken): Mail’s swipe actions still put “TRASH” on the same swipe gesture as “FLAG” or “MARK UNREAD” (depending on how you have configured your settings). This means the two most extreme, opposite options (“keep this and mark it important” and “delete this”) use the same gesture, differing only by a completely unpredictable combination of swipe distance and speed of swipe. This may go down in my book as one of the all-time worst UI decisions ever made in iOS, and iOS 9 doesn’t address it at all.
Greater battery life. I haven’t noticed, but as a big Apple fan since the original Macintosh, I have to say something positive, so I’ll pretend that the claim is true without verifying it. I think battery life has been extended, but it’s still not enough to give me a full day’s use.
The new app switcher interface is interesting in a vaguely positive way. In iOS 8, previously viewed apps were to the right in the task list. In iOS 9, they’re to the left, and they are full screen. I’m getting used to it, and it’s nice to be able to see the full screen view of what was happening in the app.
Spotlight sometimes fails to look up contacts. Spotlight on iOS used to search my contacts. I could swipe down, type the first few letters of someone’s name, and a tap would take me to their contact record. My business involves a lot of phone calling, and this was my #1 way to find a contact. From everything I’ve been able to determine, this randomly fails in iOS 9 about 20% of the time, and Spotlight doesn’t list matching contacts. So the only reliable way to look up a contact on iOS 9 has been to go into the Contacts app, scroll up, and type into the search box. And speaking of Spotlight and Siri… [Update: turning off Spotlight and turning it back on seemed to fix the problem about half an hour later. Maybe there was an indexing glitch or timing thing that made/makes my contacts vanish from Spotlight?]
“Smart” Siri guesses wrong, and recovering from her wrong guess is a lot of work. They’ve substituted “smart Siri” for the favorites” and “recents” that used to appear in the task switcher along the top. Since “smart” anything is almost guaranteed to give you the wrong answer 80% of the time, this is yet another big loss. My job is conducted on the phone, and “Favorites” an “Recents” were quite useful. Smart Siri only shows 4 choices, and it tries to figure out who I want to call, and it’s wrong.

If the theory is Siri should be “smart” to save me effort, then they need to consider what happens when Siri’s smarts turn out to be stupid. The failure mode of Siri guessing wrong is MUCH more work than “smart” Siri saves in the first place. I really would love a return to the iOS 8 model. (That’s why “favorites” exist! Because I know I want to contact those people often. Replacing my “favorites” with “smart” guesses is kinda weird.)

Maps now has transit direction! … not! Despite acquiring HopSpot, which does have transit directions, Apple didn’t bother including transit directions for much beyond San Francisco and New York. If you’re a pampered techie living in San Francisco, blissfully unaware that the rest of the country exist, I’m sure this looks like a big win. From the outside, it looks like a half-baked, duct-taped partial integration of functionality that’s already several years late coming to market. Apple has $203 billion in cash, and now we know why: because they sure as heck aren’t using any of it on software development.
Smarter web-enabled spotlight is ho-hum. I’m not sure who these people are who are continually going to new neighborhoods and cities and needing to know where the local eating spots are, but I pretty much know the neighborhoods where I spend 90% of my time. These relentless offers to show me ads from local businesses or help me find places to eat are ubiquitous and annoying, rather than useful.
Reminders now lets you move reminders between lists! Yay! But inexplicably, there’s still no way to delete completed reminders en masse. You have to swipe them one at a time. Since I have several hundred completed reminders, the swipe interface is not very useful.
Notes is better, but you can’t use the better-ness. As they did with iCloud in the Mavericks upgrade, Apple has implemented lots of new features in Notes in a way that is so incompatible with collaboration that it makes your head spin. In short, you can use all these great new features, but only if all your machines (including your desktops) are running iOS 9 and the next version of OS X (which isn’t out yet). If your notes are in a shared account with someone else, presumably they need to be upgraded too.

The problem with his scheme is that not everyone has the luxury of controlling the upgrade timing of all their devices. So it’s possible to end up with some devices upgraded and some not (or never, if the device in question can’t handle the new version of the OS), ruining sync ability without providing useful new functionality in its place.

This is not an impossible problem to solve, it just requires some thought and careful architecture. I’m sad that no one at Apple bothered to think this through.

Keyboard fail: they removed the double-tap-with-2-fingers-to-select-paragraph gesture. Since I used that very often, its removal has tanked my ability to compose and edit text quickly.
Ad blockers don’t work on iPhone 5. It says “not compatible with your device.”
Random major crashes. every now and then, with no warning, the phone simply freezes and requires a power-button-and-menu-button reboot to become responsive again.

On balance, the differences that I’ve noticed as a user, trying to get my work done, are mainly negative. The few positives are subtle enough that they don’t really do much to optimize my workflow. And removing the select-Paragraph gesture actively adds delays to any writing-oriented task I do on my iDevice.

Other than the features listed above, I’m having a hard time telling the difference between iOS 9 and its predecessors.


Underwhelming new features, and an explicit step backwards in many places.

Laziness Expands to the Maximum

Are you lazy? How lazy? I think technology is giving us opportunities to take laziness to an entirely new level!

I remember life before the Internet took over. Many things have changed. Now we can buy stuff online. We can watch movies and TV shows on our computer instead of our TV, when we want them. And we have access to an incredible wealth of the world’s information by simply visiting a search engine like and typing a few keywords. We can store infinite photos in our iPhones. We can use templates to quickly create presentations and reports. All that automation should be freeing us up to get smarter than ever. But that isn’t my experience.

Our brains take shortcuts. For example, it’s hard to know if someone is competent. So research shows that we interpret confidence as competence. Our brain substitutes the easy decision for the hard decision. We aren’t even aware of this consciously, however. That’s why certain professions wear suits—to give clients the knee-jerk impression of competence, even if none exists.

In the last two days, I’ve had a few younger people demonstrate a remarkable laziness factor. Whereas someone in my generation wouldn’t look something up because it involved going to a library or calling a reference librarian on the phone, these younger people tell me they did a web search and couldn’t find the information they need. So they stopped trying. Without an answer delivered up instantly, even in the age of the Web, kids who have never known anything else get stopped in their tracks the instant their preferred method requires extra effort.

Of course, if it’s happening to them, it’s probably happening to me, too. Where once I wouldn’t have minded picking up the phone and calling someone to arrange a meeting, now it’s just easier—and lazier—to send them a million emails, even though objectively, it’s far less efficient. That’s because my new standard is twitching a finger and clicking a mouse button. By comparison, lifting a phone to my ear is a huge amount of work.

Be on the lookout! In the long run, our in-the-moment laziness may seriously hamper our ability to get big-stuff-done. Our brains are substituting the question “is this easy to do right this instant?” for the question “will this make reaching my overall goal any easier?” And it’s the latter question—the one our brain skimps on—that is most important. It’s the one that will help you reach you goals.

Is the very concept of work doomed?

I just read an excellent article on XConomy by Wade Roush in which he asks the question: is technology destroying the very basis of our economy to offer employment? And assuming it is (as a thought experiment), what might we do to stop it?

First, read the article. Otherwise, my commentary won’t make much sense.

First of all, I found it fascinating that Finland and Sweden have lower taxes than the US, despite having much better social benefits. “What!?!?!?” you cry, “lower taxes? But they’re inefficient, evil socialists! It destroys the prevailing Capitalism is Best Ever narrative to say such a thing!!!”

Well, let’s take a look. My state tax is 6.25%, my Federal taxes are 33%, and my FICA taxes are 14%. Add those together and we discover that I’m paying 53% in taxes, which is about 18% MORE1 than the 45% tax rate Wade quotes for Finland and Sweden.” The big difference is that my tax dollars go mainly to private defense contractors, private insurance companies, and other private providers of services hired by the government.

What about motivation?

Wade correctly points out that such welfare states have a problem motivating people to work. But is this a problem? If the promise of industrialization is coming true—to wit, that technology will free us to pursue things that are personally meaningful rather than productive—then decreased motivation to work doesn’t seem like a huge problem.

Perhaps what we need to do is make work either voluntary, or a phase of life (say, ages 25-40), after which you can continue to work if you enjoy it and are challenged by it, otherwise you must go out and create artwork.

Warren Buffett hasn’t needed to work in any economic sense during my entire lifetime (and then some!). But he has done so, and even took on the stressful job of running Solomon Brothers. Why? Not because the money was the big incentive, but because challenge and meaning, and rescuing an institution was important to him.

This implied theory that people’s only motivation is money continues to mystify me in an age where the #1 complaint people have about their jobs is that their jobs are meaningless, paper-pushing wastes of time that are nothing more than an excuse for a paycheck.

Do any of Wade’s solutions work?

I think Wade’s option #8 is really the only viable one. Solutions like “grow our way out of it” don’t solve the underlying systemic problem. First of all, you can’t grow everything fast enough forever, so you end up in the same situation somewhere down the line. Secondly, those solutions still cling to the notion that the only legitimate way to get paid is by doing valuable work. But if the fundamental premise we’re up against is that machines are devaluing the work rapidly, then any solution that starts with the assumption that there’s enough valuable work for everyone is doomed to fail.

As for retraining, I just have to laugh. People already accumulate a lifetime’s worth of debt for their first education that will let them spend a decade to advance to a solid, mid-level, middle-class job. While I hear this meme tossed around a lot, I challenge anyone who claims it’s possible to quit their job and retrain in another unrelated job that gives them the equivalent income. (Must be unrelated because again, the premise is that the first job has been rendered economically less vaulable by technology. Thus, the replacement job must be substantially different.)

What do you think? If technology really has made a great many humans redundant for the first time in history, we’re in uncharted waters. Where do we go from here? Anywhere we want to. Where do we want to go from here?

  1. The math is a bit weird here. What I mean is that if I make $100 in the US, I pay 53% tax, leaving $47. Someone from Finland pays 45% tax, leaving $55. That’s 17.78% more than the Fins. Actually, to do this correctly would require looking at the different tax brackets and drawing a big graph of income ranges, etc. At the end of the day, however, it’s hard to argue that most middle class people pay much lower taxes in the U.S. If you factor in their need to pay for the services that Finland and Sweden provide nationally (e.g. health insurance, mortgage insurance, maternity leave, etc.), Americans definitely have lower take home pay to spend on non-essentials. 

Targeted Ads are the Worst of all Possible Worlds

The justification used for the incredible invasions of privacy on the part of the internet marketers of the world is that they want to serve us “targeted” ads. Targeted ads are ads that relate to what we’re doing at the moment. Theoretically, if I’m having a discussion about how my child is dying from kidney failure, that’s exactly the moment when I’ll feet eternally grateful to be shown an ad for how to overcome that embarrassing middle aged male incontinence issue.

All joking aside, targeted ads seem worse to me than random ads, even aside from the privacy violations. I am online to get things done (sometimes work things, sometimes social). I am rarely online to buy things, and when I am, I know it.

A “targeted” ad has a much higher probability of successfully distracting me into a purchase experience and completely derailing what I’m trying to do. An untargeted ad, though distracting, is much easier to ignore and far less of a drain on my productivity.

Perhaps if I intrinsically valued purchasing things, I’d welcome targeted ads. But I don’t intrinsically value buying things.

So on the very rare occasions I’m in buying mode, targeted ads are a good thing. But in the rest of my life, which is 99% of the time, targeted ads are downright destructive.

Efficiency Might Be Bad

I’m a huge fan of system dynamics and the understanding of complex systems that has come from the field that Jay Forrester invented.

This is a superb article by the late Donella Meadows about the leverage points in complex systems, in ascending order of effectiveness.

Alas, most of the things we do to try to change our social and economic systems use only the least effective levers.

Tonight I’m especially struck by #9, delays in systems. Delays of information and material movement can throw a system into or out of sync in ways that utterly change the system’s characteristics.

For many years, we’ve been operating as a society under the implicit assumption that speed = efficiency. The faster things are, the fewer delays, the better off we are.

But this isn’t necessarily true. Increasing the efficiency of communication decreases the time between communication we have to understand and respond. We end up in reactive mode, rather than thoughtful mode. That’s one of the pernicious effects of email. Many people take action on email as it comes in, rather than taking action only on what’s important. That can make the difference between overload and achievement.

Removing communication delays also seems to reduce our tendency to prepare. When you can make changes to your presentation all the way until the night before it’s due, then you will. In prior years, when you had no choice but to finish early enough to send your slides to be duplicated, you actually had time you could then use to rehearse and concentrate on delivery, rather than on making last-minute changes.

Read the article. Let me know your thoughts, if you still have enough attention span to make it through, after all the years we’ve spent training ourselves to operate in a purely reactive—but oh, so efficient–mode.