Transcript – Heuristic Podcast with John Grinnell

Below is a transcript for Heuristic Podcast #19 – Why Heuristics Matter with John Grinnell.

Alicia: Hi, this is Alicia with another heuristic podcast. And today I am talking with John Grinnell. He is the CEO of Grinnell leadership, a very, very high impact organization. I know he’s made a difference. He and his team have made a difference for me and many, many other leaders, I would say across the Eastern United States, but probably nationwide as well. Anything you’d like to add to that, John?

John Grinnell: No, just we work in the human systems area addressing business issues. I’ve been doing it for 35 years and still like it.

Alicia: <Laugh> Well, that’s because you’re great at it and there’s always new stuff to learn.

John Grinnell: That’s true.

Alicia: Today we’re not going to talk about a specific heuristic. Instead, what we’re going to talk about is the whole concept of heuristic. What is it? What does it mean? Why is it important in business and in working with people? 

I know that I’ve got some ideas about that, John’s got some ideas about that, and I bet there’s quite a bit of overlap in those ideas. So I really look forward to exploring that. Do you want to start us off, or would you like to hear our rationale first? How should we go?

John Grinnell: Well, just before we got on, I have known what the word meant for years and had used it, but I went to the dictionary to kind of, I thought I’d maybe start with just reading this first definition of what it says in the Oxford dictionary. I think it’s kind of interesting. Is that okay with you? Does that sound like a good move?

Alicia: Oh yeah, go for it.

John Grinnell: Okay. So first definition is “of relating to a usually speculative formulation serving as a guide in the investigation or solution of a problem.” The second definition is “of or constituting an educational method in which learning takes place through discoveries that result from investigations made by the students, which I think is interesting, not the teacher.” And the third one is “relating to or using a problem-solving technique in which the most appropriate solution of several found by alternative methods is selected as successive stages of a program for use in the next step of the program.” 

That third one now is used a lot for technology with machine learning and that kind of stuff. So that was kind of interesting. So that was going to weigh on. But those are the three definitions I thought were pretty good. So anyway, I thought that would be an interesting place to start, talk about heuristic learning and heuristics.

Alicia: It’s hard to pick one, like which one do I mean. I think it might depend <laugh>

John Grinnell: Yeah.

Alicia: Such a consultant thing to say. <Laugh> 

John Grinnell: Yeah, that’s true. 

Well, the one thing that struck me with it, with heuristics is, you know, like the first one, this really relates to a theory. Theory’s a really interesting thing. A perspective or a theory is a lens to look at something from a different angle than you normally look at it through. I know a lot of people, at least my clients over the years, a lot of them are very practical types, and they kind of put down the concept of theory. But once they understand that the theory allows the human mind and consciousness to look through a different lens at a problem from a different angle, then you can find new and better oftentimes different solutions. So a theory is a type of heuristic that I think is used really a lot of times. What are your thoughts on that? Does that make sense to you?

Alicia: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s exactly right. And I think that relates really closely to why I’m talking about heuristics in the first place. I definitely, as an entrepreneur and somebody who’s very interested in sort of the science of things, I understand that sort of like theory, but the practitioner <laugh> and how to bridge that. 

But what I realized is that heuristics is a really important decision-making tool when the situation is so complex, that there’s no way that you can just analyze enough data and come up with the right answer, ever. Never mind in a timely fashion. So that’s where heuristics come to play. But the thing is, sometimes very often we get stuck in our decision-making and our problem-solving because we keep using old heuristics that aren’t working for us anymore. 

So the heuristics that I’m bringing to bear and definitely you too have everything to do with, well, here’s a different way of looking at things. It’s a reframe as well as a heuristic. So that’s sort of how I’m thinking about it.

John Grinnell: As you guys were talking here, as we usually do, I was thinking, you know the jumpstart program that we do is really in a sense of heuristic that allows people to get enough self-awareness so they recognize what are their habits of thought, habits of belief, things that they’re unconscious of and that sort of meta-structure of identity and personality. And so how do they get outside that boundary and take a look from a different angle? 

So the ability for a leader to actually know how to step outside their current structure of thinking and perceiving and feeling and acting, to be able to step outside consciously and go into what we call the leader self place is just another example I think, of a heuristic process, right? The heuristic process, if it is a process. 

So I think you’re exactly right. And I think like we said before the show started, I think you said that heuristics would be a major word in the area of consulting and development in the future. And I completely a hundred percent agree with what your statement was.

Alicia: So I was on another one of these conversations and we were talking about the difference between David Snowden, so we can look them up, I can add a link later. He makes a distinction between complicated and complex. And that complicated, it’s like a machine, you can fit, you know, it’s a closed system, whereas a complex system is an open system. 

The reason why that matters is that closed system, you can come up with the right answer given that you know what you’re solving for. Because the variables are all knowable, even if they’re not known. Now with a complex system, things are going to interact in ways because it’s open, also it’s going to interact in the environment and in ways that you cannot foresee. And any time you add humans into a system, you have a complex system. So that’s why heuristics can be so helpful because it allows you to make quicker decisions based on a set of assumptions that are pretty rigorous or pretty good based on some principles. And then learn from there.

John Grinnell: Good. Yeah. That’s exactly right. 

So one of the things that sort of how my practice has evolved or my team’s practice has evolved over the years is that as consultants, in the old days or traditionally, we’re brought in to come up with solutions and ideas and tell a client what to do. What they need to do and do some data mining and come up with a new structure, a new deck that shows a difference.

But you know, what I’ve really discovered over the years is that if we put the clients in a room together and begin to help them understand how to become aware enough so they can go beyond their current belief systems and beyond their defense mechanisms and get to a place of openness and vulnerability with each other to where it’s okay to be wrong. It’s okay to be stupid. It’s okay to not have the right answer. It’s okay that someone else has the right answer. And it’s okay to build on another person’s answer, you know to steal another person’s idea in the group is okay. 

Just opening that system up to where there’s enough awareness so we’re not stuck in this one channel that you put a group or team together, and you get them to that point where they can operate that level, that then you put the problem in front of them. And to your point earlier, you get all these different perspectives and ideas come out on the table. And from those usually, a couple of ideas emerge as being more aligned with the outcome that everybody wants. 

So again that’s kind of the only way we really consult now, when we do, for example, strategic planning and stuff, we’ll go out and interview a lot of the folks down in the organization, bring it to the executive team, and then we’ll have within the marketing people bring the decks in for the outside in look, we bring the insight, but put it all together. And with a highly functioning team, they can sort through that and make the connections and look at things and usually come up with a much better answer. 

It’s kind of like we take them through the process where they come up with the answer where they learn how to use their minds as a creative tool, as opposed to the consultant. It works much better because they usually come up with better ideas than the consultant can. And also they feel more sense of responsibility for the outcomes, and they tend to make them happen more when it’s done that way. So again, that’s another example of a heuristic process that I think is far superior. 

And again, I go back to your statement earlier, before we got on the thing today, you said in five years, you think that this is going to be the way, and I completely agree that most of the major consulting firms will figure this out eventually.

Alicia: Yeah. And I’m actually starting to reference these informally as Trust Heuristics.

John Grinnell: Ah, that’s good.

Alicia: And you actually, as you described that, and I first want to talk about this, but we’re definitely going to come back and talk a little bit more about what Jumpstart is and does because I think that’s important. Not everyone that’s going to listen to this is necessarily going to know that. So like a little bit of wait and see on that one. 

But I heard you talk about implementing the heuristic of prompt grassroots decision-making often. That’s one of them that’s in the first book. Decisions go where they belong, that will be probably in one of the next two books. Shoot, what else? Like diagnosed before you prescribe, a lot of these things. And the more that you get those decisions out to the people who decisions belong, where when you’re making changes, make sure that you’re involving and talking to people with skin in the game. So why would you think that you can make a decision about something that’s going to impact all of the frontline or portion of the frontline of your organization without talking to people and seeing what the actual impact would be for them and doing the work and also for the client? 

It takes a lot of bravery to be able to open oneself up to the possibility that we don’t have all the answers. Because so very often when we step into leadership, we have this strange belief that as soon as we’re a leader, we’re supposed to have all these answers. And I don’t know how that magic would work, but it doesn’t, it doesn’t work that way. <Laugh> I don’t know. Do those heuristics sort of resonate with how your practices and processes are?

John Grinnell: Absolutely, I think that the approach you’re talking about there is very powerful, the grassroots thing. But I also think that in addition to that, if you’re going to take that approach, you also need the outside-in information that the grassroots might not have. In other words, a larger picture of markets and context that they typically don’t pay attention to. For them to align what they’re coming up with they need some information typically that executives are akin to. So I think you have to inform people more, educate people more, they have to be more engaged in the actual what’s going on in the overall bigger picture of the organization. 

And that’s kind of one thing with the millennials, they get a lot of big rap about they want to run the company early in the game and stuff. And that’s one of the things I think that’s really great about millennials is they do want to understand that big picture and they are at the grassroots level, typically, at least not so much anymore they’re getting older now, but the early days. But that whole big perspective tied to the frontline, the person on the frontline with the customer, with the different workers in the company, I think that you gotta have both of those. And then I think that then folks can come up with a real thing. 

And I was thinking about a story, I assume it’s in my book, was one of my favorite stories that talks about what we’re talking about is I used to live down at Carolina beach and I like offshore fishing. And I was going out to Carolina beach inlet one day, and I’d been on the road, traveling consulting somewhere the week before and the Northeaster come through and had changed the channel. And the channel in the Carolina beach inlet is really awful. It’s a terrible, dangerous little inlet. There are no jetties, low tide sometimes just down to three to four feet but haven’t gone through it many, many, many times over the years, we local people know how to get through it. 

But I come back one day and I’m going out and the buoys, the red, the green buoys, you know, you’re going out, you want your green on the right, the red one on the left, I’m going out. And in between the buoys, there was surf huge, like four-foot surf breaking in where the safe zone used to be. And I was like freaking out like, oh my gosh, I’ve always done it this way. But now that way is dangerous. And my buddy, Chris was next to me and said, Hey, look over there. The smooth water is over there where the shores used to be. But how hard it was for me to go to safety because I’d been used to being programmed to go down this one channel for so many years, that to go outside those buoys, I felt a real threat, but actually, I was safer going outside those buoys. 

So I really think with heuristics that it really enables if they’re used correctly, allows us to take ourselves and the people that work for us and work with us to be able to go outside the buoys, to the safe zone, what’s safe now. And what’s safe now, or appropriate, or least to success now may be very different than it was a little while ago. 

I think that really plays to the fact that as leaders, we need to really listen to our customers, to our markets, and really be attuned to our clients. And also to your point earlier, attuned to the people that work for us. And I just think it’s so important that we don’t get stuck in one channel, cause I think a lot of times we’ll end up on the sandbar if we do.

Alicia: Well, you get that heuristic that usually serves you, stay between the red and green buoys. But you realize, maybe the heuristic of following the smooth water might be more relevant now. <Laugh> 

So heuristics I think, well, I think we all have our own assumptions and beliefs as human beings that we could call heuristics like I have a belief system that whatever issues, or maybe even all the way back to the childhood or belief systems about why I am the way I am, why things work, how things work that may not be as applicable as we get older. And those sorts of things are exactly the kind of things that can emerge and where we can shine a light on it and do something about it and choose to stay on the buoy line or choose to follow the smooth water path.

And I don’t know, is there maybe a little bit more that you could provide so that maybe somebody who’s not as familiar with your program could understand or get a gist of what it’s about?

John Grinnell: Sure. Well, our basic business or our businesses, we facilitate, and that “facilitate” is a keyword. We facilitate leaders, teams, and organizations to reach their full potential while achieving results. So I struggled for years with the word I used to say, we help leaders team, but this never felt right. But a few years ago, I said, you know, it’s the words facilitate. And really, if you look at a heuristic approach, as the definition dictated, facilitating another to come up with their own conclusions and to figure out their own problem and to figure out what’s right for them, that is pure heuristic. And creating processes allows you to do that. 

Now as a human being, there’s a concept called self-awareness, which many people have talked about. Most people talk about self-awareness when they get 360s like I’m going to get some self-awareness cause people are going to give me feedback on my leadership, or I’m going to do Myers Briggs or a PRF or a whatever instrument, DISC, or whatever. And I’m going to get some insight into who I am. 

Well, really our heuristic is that that’s going to give you an insight into who you’re not.

Now, what do I mean by that? What I mean by that is that’s going to give you feedback on your identity, your personality, your ego structure, and who you are as consciousness. You’re an awareness. You actually can go from what we call the leader self, once you become aware of it and develop the strength and your consciousness, your aware leader self. You can then observe, direct and control those aspects of yourself that work in certain contexts for the outcomes you want and you can also have the self-discipline to not do things that were not going to lead to your success or the outcomes that you want. 

But the basis of all that is self-awareness. So we all have to have beliefs. We have to have an ego, we have to have a personality. It’s our social spacesuit in this world, bouncing up against other social space suits as Richard Alport said, or Ram Dass, later as he became a guru over in India. But the personality and the ego and the identity, if we’re running without awareness, it’s in charge of us instead of us in charge of it. Once you gain the leader self-perspective, which takes a certain process to become aware of it and to develop its potential, then it puts you in a choice. You’re not living your life, as my mentor Jim Pharr said, living your life by choice, not by chance. And that’s really what it’s about.

So again, you have to have beliefs, beliefs guide our perceptions, our reactions, our decisions in the world, how we perceive things, react to people, react to business problems. And if I’m unaware of my beliefs, then I’m unaware I’m actually operating on automatic, I’m in between the buoys. 

And sometimes the way that we used to run through the buoys with our belief systems doesn’t work. In fact, very successful people that I’ve met over the years that come to our programs who I consult with, everybody has some beliefs that typically are operating, that aren’t leading to the life and the outcomes that they want in their life. Once they wake up and become aware, then some of them are able to actually make the shift and actually begin to do things differently. And it’s just kind of an amazing process that we have this capacity for awareness and to operate. 

And I think in the world today where it really is handy is that we have the ability to listen to people who have entirely different perspectives than we do come to understand their perspective. We may totally disagree with them, but we can listen to them and actually engage in a conversation. 

I remember Barack Obama said one phrase that I really liked, and that was as long as we can keep the conversation going, we’re going to be okay. And I think that’s really true, in business, government, and general society. But if your beliefs and your ego are in control, you’re out of control. That’s basically what I’m saying.

Alicia: I can’t remember which developmental psychologist this comes from, but maybe it’ll come to me later as I talk about it, but there’s being subject to a belief system and there’s the ability to hold it object. 

So if you’re subject to something, then it’s inherent, it’s the only truth. It is your implicit heuristic about how the world works and who you are and there can be no other possible. But once you hold that object, then you can entertain different ideas, you can say like, well, what if. And that’s what I think some of these trust heuristics do is like you try on a belief system and you don’t necessarily have to be like, this is the only right way but it gives you so much more flexibility in terms of how to look at and approach something and what kind of dots you can connect when you’re trying to figure out what to do next. 

So as a CEO, you’re wanting to hear from grassroots and wanting to hear from the middle management team and wanting to look outside, talk to customers and see what’s happening in the marketplace. Now, how do you chart a path from that?

John Grinnell: That’s a great point. Really good point. As you were talking, I was clicking back, I’ll think of his name, a famous philosopher. He says the greatest of human minds have the ability to hold contrary points of view at the same time but still make decisions as to what to go do. 

In other words, some people can be really smart and have lots and lots of opinions and ideas and different ways at looking at things, but they don’t have the ability to make a decision to move forward. He says, the greatest of minds have the ability to hold multiple options, including competing options in their minds, but at the end of the day, make a decision to move forward. In my experience of working with human beings for many, many years now is I do think our best leaders have that capacity to be open systems and thinking, but at the end of the day, based likely on probabilities of some sort in their own head, or maybe their values, they make the decision that ends up most of the time being the better choice, but they’re not stuck in thinking, they think, and they get the ideas and they’re open mind, but they take action.

Alicia: I’ve heard that, it was like opposing belief. I don’t remember who, but I get the gist.

John Grinnell: It was F Scott Fitzgerald who said that, that’s who it was.

Alicia: The author, yeah. I think you’re right. To hold two opposing views simultaneously without being, I don’t know, I’m going to use the other language, subject to any one of them. Yeah, you can choose. 

When we spoke earlier before we started recording, you talked about how critical and important heuristics are to your practice. And I know that we talked a little bit about that, but is there anything else that you’d like to explore before we move forward?

John Grinnell: Well, the second definition here said heuristics of or constituting an educational method in which learning takes place through discoveries that result from investigations made by the student. And so I think that’s a really key thing to think about, especially with adult learning. 

As children, we have to learn how to read and write, do math, those kinds of structural things, and rudimentary history and stuff. But as adults, we typically have to learn how to let go of a lot of that stuff we’ve already learned to find new things to know that are more appropriate as adults. And the whole thing we even talk about, letting go of the things that aren’t working and building in new things that do work. But I think that in our workshop, I got a term called, it’s not a real word. I made the word up, or actually, my mentor and I made it up, was ‘experientiate.’ So we talk about getting the clients and we want to ‘experientiate’ them into something.

So rather than talk about what leadership is and isn’t, in our workshop, we experientiate them for four days into them figuring out what leadership is and leadership isn’t, based on some common principles, the base of which is self-awareness cause I have to lead myself to lead others. And if I’m scaling my leadership, my company’s growing, I’ve done an acquisition. So the requirements of my leadership have changed dramatically in a short period of time, I’ve got to learn to scale, lead leaders now, or lead leaders that lead leaders at the executive level, then I have to do something differently. 

So the key in doing that is becoming aware enough of your habit patterns and your emotions and what they mean related to your perceived lack of control. Learning how to move through that is a really important process to discover how, and everybody’s a little bit different and everybody’s kind of got to go through it on their own. You can’t make them do it and they got to choose it. It’s a unique right of passage from manager or supervisor into executive leadership. So that’s something that came to mind as we were talking this morning was that process.

Alicia: The criticality of… The person doing the learning has to do the learning on their timeline, on their own terms. Like a very, very smart person that I’ve learned a lot from, he’ll say things like, I can explain it for you, but I can’t understand it for you. <Laugh> right.

John Grinnell: Absolutely. That’s perfect.

Alicia: And one thing that I remind myself of, and I remind my team of is that it’s not up to us to decide how fast and when our clients should be learning or deciding or moving in a particular direction, just because we think that we’ve got the right answer, that if we were in their shoes you know. It’s their business. They get to decide and they get to decide and move forward and learn on their own timeline on their own path. We don’t get to decide when it’s time for them to learn this lesson. Which was a hard one for me to learn.

John Grinnell: That’s okay. I’d like to have a consultant like you that’s pushing me. I mean, I think that’s helpful too.

Alicia: So we can push, if you get push back, it doesn’t have to be frustrating. So to me, it’s testing, it’s prompting, it’s pinging. It’s like, is there an opening here for somebody to maybe see something in a new light and if they don’t or won’t or can’t or resist.

John Grinnell: Well, I think of myself as a catalyst. In other words, a catalyst is not the thing itself, it’s something you add to the mix that actually speeds the chemical process. And that’s kind of how I describe our work is we’re not the thing, we’re catalysts. 

A lot of times after people come to jumpstart, the first thing their boss will ask them to say. Hey, how’d you like the jumpstart? And we tell them, that’s the dumbest question you can ask.

Alicia: Like… It’s not something to like.

John Grinnell: Yeah, exactly. So we have very little to do with cause human beings are volitional. They choose what they learned to your point earlier, they choose what they change. So we coach them and say, when they come back, ask them, Hey, what’s changed as a result of going to the jump start? How are you going to align better and do something different to help the organization move forward now that you’ve been to jumpstart or whatever? And that actually is a much better question than did you like the jumpstart? 

So, I think that the discovery process is paved with lots of good questions, and the Socratic method is really good. You know, some people ask questions about how they perceive things and what are the consequences? What are the unintended consequences of your decision? What do you think might happen or not? You know, just expanding the cause and effect kind of model is really helpful, I think. At least I appreciate that when people do it with me.

Alicia: Some of these deeper questions are really great to ask. I was just reading through something that someone else I know, they’re called level three questions. That’s your clarifying questions, which are just very kind of like who, what, when, where, and then there are the questions that get at whether the question that you’re asking or the problem as you’re framing it is even framed properly for resolution. And those are some really, really good ones. And I think it takes a little courage to ask them and answer them. And it takes a special trusting environment to be able to ask them in the first place and it be safe. But anyway.

John Grinnell: I struggle with that at times. I grew up with a belief that I wasn’t very smart and I got that through interaction with my parents who were highly educated and very smart, very, very smart. 

So I built a false belief, limiting belief that I wasn’t very smart. So I struggled in school early on and all this kind of stuff. But then I went and got my doctorate. School actually was pretty easy once I got beyond that false belief about myself, but it controlled me for many, many, many years. And one of the things I always struggle with is I always want to solve the problem too fast cause to prove to myself how smart I am. And it’s amazing how ineffective I am if I’m not able to sit back and listen to really hear what the client is saying and hear what the person is saying. And I’ve worked hard at that and I’ve gotten, I think, fairly good at it, but I think that’s a key thing for a leader is listening. I think leaders really need to really expand their ability to listen. 

And it’s a real discipline and art form and listening to not what someone’s saying, but what they’re feeling as they’re saying it is just a really important success factor for all leaders. 

Particularly for executives because the higher an executive goes in an organization they get is what’s called executive amplitude and people tend to be afraid of them, of the consequences. If there’s any displeasure from the executive, they have the right or could fire them or whatever. So a lot of times it’s hard for people to open up to executives. And I think executives that learn how to listen and be safe that people can come to them is a critical, critical skill that’s way underemphasized in our thinking about leadership.

Alicia: A hundred percent. And as consultants as well, I mean that’s another one I tell my team is we have to build the trust first before we give any advice.

John Grinnell: I always struggled with that one cause I was proving to myself cause I had to believe I was stupid, I had to prove to myself I was smart. So the faster I solved the problem, the smarter I see myself and I’d end up alienating clients and friends and stuff. So over the years, I’ve learned. I still fail sometimes, but I’m much better than I was. But I better get it done pretty soon cause you know…

Alicia: Well, that’s how heuristics can help us. And it’s a pleasure, John. I feel like we’re on somewhat parallel, somewhat intersecting tracks.

John Grinnell: It’s always delightful. Yeah, we always have a good time together. It was wonderful.

Alicia: It’s fantastic. I’m always learning something and I love hearing about ideas framed from somebody else’s experience, it’s just wonderful. And you’re very smart, very accomplished and I’m grateful for your time so thank you.

John Grinnell: I’m grateful for you. Thank you.

Alicia: Aw, thank you. All right.

Contact Us

We’re not your standard blocking and tackling HR professionals, therefore, we’re quite easy to talk to and level with. Schedule a consultation with us if you’re seeking an HR partnership and ready to Unleash People Energy™ to propel your team’s growth. Whether you need us for an hour or a standing meeting to build and run the leanest and simplest people practices, we’ve got you!

Contact Us

Contact Us



600 Park Offices Drive
Suite 300
Durham , NC 27709
Scroll to Top