Aesthetic Inquiry

Aesthetic Inquiry is a process, which generates radically new insight into those persistent challenges every manager/leader faces in his/her daily work-life. The method is unique in that it works not only at the conceptual level, but also at a sensory level of our understanding. When working with the sensory level, you can transform seemingly unsolvable problems into solvable ones. In the following, I will explain in more detail how this works.

Unsolvable problems
To make the leadership development relevant, concrete, and easily implementable back in the workplace, I like to start from concrete and seemingly unsolvable problems you as a leader faces in your work-life.

As a leader you will be faced with problems, which affect bottom line, working climate, etc., which you just cannot solve. You will have problems that clearly limit organizational performance that you have struggled with for a long time without any real results or which you have no idea how to engage with.

It can be situations where everyone actually agrees on what to do, but for some inexplicable reason it does not happen and you don’t know how to make people follow through. It could be situations where you feel you have analyzed the whole organizational system and the problem seems to be an unfortunate condition you just have to live with.

In my research I worked with 60 managers on such problems. Here are a concrete few examples:

  • How can I keep the internal fire in R&D employees – and still make them finish projects when they loose interest for these projects?
  • How can I do the long term planning and not get caught in the here-and-now tasks?
  • How can I make researchers, with contractual freedom to research what they want, relate to the institute’s vision and mission?
  • How can I make sure my employees do not leave the company and make their own company as soon as they’ve learned enough?
  • How can I make employees feel they are doing a good job, in situations where the employees know they could do much more if they had more resources?

Problems are structured on sensory patterns
When we think about seemingly unsolvable problems (or anything else for that matter) we reactivate patterns in our sensory-motor centers, which enables us to interact with the situation in a meaningful way. In other words, we use sensory patterns as templates for understanding the problem.

For example, one participant had the problem that the management team, she was a part of, would agree on something and then they would head out and do something else in their individual departments. Getting a ‘common commitment to the decisions made in the management team’ seemed like an unsolvable problem to her. She spoke of this problem as a matter of getting people to move toward the same goal. Thus, ‘objects moving towards same (or different) destinations’ was the sensory template she used to understand her problem.

Another participant had the problem that the employees in a customer service department were nagging and complaining a lot. It seemed to her that they did not feel they were an important part of the organization and therefore had low self-esteem, which resulted in a lot of complaining. She tried to raise the moral and self-esteem in the department, but felt it was like Sisyphus work, i.e. pushing a boulder up a mountain and watching it roll back down every time she stopped pushing. This was the sensory template she used to understand the nature of her problem.

Making the unsolvable solvable
In my research, I found two ways of transforming seemingly unsolvable problems into solvable ones simply by working with the sensory patterns through which the problems were structured and understood. One way is to simply change the sensory template used in one’s understanding of the problem. Another is to separate the sensory template from automatic and negative associations. I will explain these in some detail beneath. I also found, that whereas more conventional methods for analyzing problematic situations could often bring a sense of clarity, they often failed to make the problem easier to solve.

Changing the sensory pattern
One way to make the unsolvable solvable is simply by finding a different sensory pattern upon which you can build your understanding of the problem.

For example, I asked the manager with the problematic management team mentioned above to take pictures physical things, which reminded her of her problem. She took many pictures of trains moving in either the same or opposite directions. These pictures showed the sensory pattern she was currently using to understand the problem. But she also took a picture of a scarf left on a bench. When speaking about this picture, she said:

“It could be something about going in different directions, but it also looks a bit lonely. So, in fact, it is something about when one does not have this common commitment, then everyone stands a bit lonely. And this I hadn’t thought of”.

The underlying sensory pattern embodied in this picture was that of contact vs. no contact. When the manager used this sensory pattern to understand the problem, she realized that the problem was not ‘lack of commitment to the decisions’, but rather ‘lack of relationships between the managers in the team’. And from her work with her own team of employees she both knew how important it is to create relationships between co-workers and she knew how to create such relationships

When she changed the sensory pattern through which she understood the problem, it changed from the unsolvable problem of how to get a ‘common commitment to the decisions made in the management team’ to the solvable problem of how to “build relationships between the managers in the team’.

In the second example, the manager with the problematic customer service department changed the sensory template from ‘pushing a rock uphill and watch it roll back down’ to ‘moving with friction’ (as when riding your bike with the breaks on). This made the manager look for the source of friction. By doing this, she found out that the manager of the customer service department did not allow his employees to make decisions they were fully competent to making. This micromanagement was the source of the negative ambience in the department.

In our last interview, the manager was very happy, because the problem had changed from ‘raising the self-worth of a group of people’, which she had no idea how to do, to the problem of telling the department manager not to micromanage – which she did know how to do.

Separating sensory patterns from automatic, negative associations
Sometimes the sensory patterns are automatically associated with unpleasant experiences. For example, the sensation of something solid, may automatically be associated with being stuck or being trapped. Similarly, the sensation of heat may automatically be associated with conflict or anger.

Therefore, if you use these sensory patterns to understand a problematic situation, you will feel uncomfortable – not because of the problematic situation itself, but because of the unplesant experiences automatically associated with the sensory pattern you use to understand the situation. In these cases, separating the sensory pattern from the associated unplesant experiences can how profound effects on your perception of the problem and your ability to solve it.

For example, one manager, who was the CEO of her own consultancy company, did not like administrative tasks. She knew that getting back to customers, answering mails, making sure employees knew what to do, etc. was crucial to the survival of the company. However, she felt trapped by such tasks. The sensory pattern she used was one of solidity and she associated solidity with imprisonment. Through the Aesthetic Inquiry process she felt solidity without automatically associating it with a sense of imprisonment. To her surprise she felt the solidity as supportive and described it as something she could hold on to, rather than something, which imprisoned her. In our last interview, she described a number of situations where engaging with administrative tasks had been a delight for her.

Similarly, many managers disliked situations, which made them frustrated or angry. They saw this as a sign of failure, not having things under control, being an unpleasant person, something that leads to conflicts and complicates the problem, and even as a betrayal of their employees. However, when they focused on the sensory pattern in itself, without automatically associating it with anger and frustration and what followed from this, they felt heat and energy in the body. And, to their surprise, this heat and energy, when experienced without any of the negative associations, simply felt as being clear and taking leadership. Having this experience completely changed the way they engaged with the situations they previously had found frustrating.

In both these examples, the unsolvable problems were dissolved when the sensory patterns used to understand the problematic situations (solidity and heat respectively) were no longer automatically associated with the unplesant experiences (solidity as imprisonment and heat as frustration or anger).

Aesthetic Inquiry enables you to explore, how many situations you want to avoid because you reactivate unpleasant sensory patterns as a way to engage with this situation – and then mistakenly think that these unpleasant sensations are properties of the situation itself. And inversely, how many situations or objects you pursue because you make sense of these situations or objects using pleasant sensory patterns and they mistakenly believe that the pleasant sensations are caused by or part of the situation or object.

Conventional analysis and the risk of getting stuck
In the research, it was also found that using more conventional methods for analysing and thinking about problematic situations may cause the problem to become more severe. Such methods, would often bring a sense of clarity – a sense of understanding the problem better. However, if the sensory patterns did not change in one of the two ways described above, the problem would remain unsolvable. This would either cause a sense of resignation or a denial of the fact that methods used to approach the problem so far had not brought the desired results. Thus, more conventional analysis brought the risk of making the leaders/manager more stuck – rather than help solve the problem.