Blog: Learning Curve

DEI Must View Equity as Questioning Power

Diversity. Equity. Inclusion. Three words (DEI) have sown confusion in corporate culture. With a deeper understanding of these terms we can reimagine power and possibilities for genuine equity and inclusivity. I wish to explore these items as follows:

What is DEI as distinct terms, and which set of concerns do they address?

Why is equity critical in sustaining this triad?

What are the challenges to ensuring equity?

DEI Defined

To begin, I will explore each term and focus since we often conflate these as interchangeable. I hope such clarity supports those in adult learning and development to consider any gaps in understanding.


The term diversity includes empirical, observable demographics, often amounting to statistics that highlight differences.

Diversity includes all the ways in which people differ. This includes not only race, gender, ethnicity, and multiculturalism, but also age, national origin, religion, ability, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, education, marital status, language, and physical appearance.

The goal of diversity addresses visibility and representation: When I look at membership and leadership in an organization, do I see marginal groups represented beyond token status? Do I observe their impact and hear their voices?


The term equity is related to patterns, practices, and processes that deliver routine outcomes.

Equity focuses on just treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all people, while at the same time identifying and eliminating barriers that prevent the full participation of some groups. Equity involves questioning advantages and barriers within the procedures and processes of institutions, as well as in their distribution of resources.

The goal of equity addresses systemic bias to confront root causes of outcome disparities within an organization (and larger society) and to reduce barriers to access for everyone.


The term inclusion involves the felt experience of members belonging to an organization.

It involves cultivating environments where any individual or group can be and feel welcomed, respected, supported, and valued to fully participate. An inclusive climate cultivates a shared understanding or commitment for appreciating differences in words and actions.

Note, while an inclusive group is by definition diverse, a diverse group isn’t always inclusive. A shared commitment will also recognize unconscious or implicit bias to encourage inclusivity.

The goal of inclusion addresses full participation to actualize diversity through equitable structures that foster full participation for all members.

Process and Outcomes:

Diversity is an outcome. A company’s website reveals its multicultural or gender palette while reports reveal the diverse population via demographic categories.

Inclusion is also an outcome. Surveys and interviews can reveal the internal “temperature” of a welcoming culture based on marginalized identities.

Equity is not an outcome. Equity refers to the structures and systems a company consistently engages to ensure that people with marginalized identities have access to opportunities to grow, contribute, and develop — regardless of their identity.

Here’s the larger point: the purpose of the entire DEI enterprise is to produce justice. Only equity addresses the “systems of barriers” that prevent justice. Therefore, equity requires critical examination so as to monitor every aspect of the business process.

Equity: a System of Justice that Questions Power

Equity has changed the diversity game, making it both much more complex and more honest in ways that lead to accountability and systemic change. In my research, equity acts as a system of justice to address power: 1) the power of individualism, 2) the power of systemic barriers to prevent access, and 3) the power of privilege that exploits unearned advantages.

Equality vs. Equity

To support this inquiry, it is essential first to distinguish between equality and equity, which can cause confusion.

Equality essentially is sameness. In fairness to its noble purpose, equality presumes that treating people the same offers the “same” opportunity or starting point for ensuring the same outcomes or endpoint.

Equity is about justness. It provides access to the same opportunity and measures it in terms of outcomes achieved.

Some oppose equity as not meritorious. They state that we can only offer everyone the same opportunity. And claim that equity guarantees everyone the same outcome, which is not fair. This is glib and simplistic.

For instance, one such belief is in meritocracy, which assumes that everyone has had the same access and opportunities.

Never mind the research showing that members of marginalized groups must work twice as hard to be heard, or to achieve average performance. Further, when marginalized colleagues complain about “oppressive” work conditions, they are labeled as difficult.

This ideal of meritocracy conveniently conflates equal opportunity with equitable outcomes. This notion is detailed in the just-published New Yorker piece Is Meritocracy Making Everyone Miserable? which explores two books with insights on the problem.

Education measures stats (diversity) which show parity between women and men and improvement in racial gaps. But, when examining the outcomes, “such data suggests that higher education is not doing much to close the income gap, and that it may be helping to reproduce a class system that has grown dangerously fractured.”

Equity is concerned with outcomes insofar as they measure barriers to access opportunity. These barriers serve, and are defined by, the current power structure.

1- Power of Individualism

Equity addresses systemic changes, root causes operating at the level of ideologies and systems, not individual acts.

The very nature of belonging to a dominant group makes it difficult to see anything beyond ourselves as individuals, never having to carry, navigate, or account for the psychic concerns of our “group” (noted by psychologist Monical Williams).

Only the blindness of rugged individualism allows some to believe they are either above or somehow disconnected from everyone else.

In her book, White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo reveals pillars that prop up whiteness (and racism) without our realizing it. Ideologies such as individualism tend to rub up against coaching philosophies, espousing that one can write one’s own destiny and, through objectivity, can free oneself entirely from bias.

Consider that being perceived as an individual not associated with anything negative because of skin color is a privilege largely afforded to white people. Now consider that most school shooters, domestic terrorists, and rapists in the United States are white. Yet, do we reduce a white man on the street to a stereotype?

People of color often endure having their views attributed to their racial identities and are denied the luxury of impartiality.

Advantages and Barriers

As a white man, I have the luxury to focus on my achievement and question any barriers. I take up the space I need, escape any collective psychic baggage (other than personal issues), and consume resources without a second thought.

As soon as I reveal I am also gay, I must now navigate norms I took for granted as a white man. Simply holding my partner’s hand at work can be monumental (imagine a kiss).

I must also manage how my gay identity intersects with another’s religion, politics, generation, or worse yet, ignorance about AIDS. I must consider deeply how people will view me as an “other” representing a group, and manage the psychic baggage of my group, which can impact my goals.

Still, I have the choice to say something and navigate as a gay white man. Racial and ethnic identities do not have that choice. Until intentionally examined, they are first addressed as part of a group and are usually only seen as individuals if they disavow their group.

Often members of marginal groups must buy into the dominant system to be granted access as individuals apart from their group.

2- Power of Systems and Systemic Bias

Unlike incremental change that improves current systems, systemic change questions the very ideologies and worldviews that preserve the current power structures and barriers to justice.

We begin by understanding that whiteness is not individual to us; it’s a dominant ideology that’s invisible to us. That is how ideologies work.

Any dominant group’s ideology is invisible to them as a group. We become oblivious to the systems that inform us or that we perpetuate. Appreciating group identities forces us to see systems and ideologies of “whiteness” and to dismantle our “colorblindness” of other groups.

Once we can view these systems, we can effect systematic changes (of methods and practices) and systemic change (of assumptions and views) that inform those systems.

Consider how power is central to systems of race and racism.

Borne of an impulsive need and self-interest for power and control, we create the structures and policies to satisfy that need, and then we construct the ideas to justify it.

Ibram X. Kendi in his book Stamped from the Beginning (and in this piece) unpacks this cyclical dynamic, declaring that “we cannot be ‘not racist’ only racist or anti-racist.” The implications are stark. The very nature of neutrality preserves the system of racism.

“The term ‘not racist’ not only has no meaning, but it also connotes that there is this sort of in-between safe space sideline that a person can be on, when there is no neutrality,” he explains. “We’re either all being racist or anti-racist.” This is why he wrote his recent book, How to Be an Antiracist. He couldn’t define “not racism” and wanted to answer those who asked: “How do I be anti-racist?”

Tackling this power dynamic demands a systemic examination of our impulses via implicit bias, our institutions via structural bias, and our thinking and impact via rational bias.

And unlike diversity or inclusion, equity focuses us on dismantling this power dynamic and cultivate justice.

Access Equals Power

In time, we realize how an ideology of whiteness has shaped our norms for meritocracy, success, progress, and growth.

For example, consider a company where promotions can be considered after two consecutive years. What if a woman because of childbirth actually accumulated two years, not consecutively, but within a four-year period? Would she not be considered for a promotion?

In this case, both genders may be treated equally—after all, the woman chose to have a child. But the current structures—worse yet, the views held by those promoting those structures—force an inequity. Women having to make a choice a man will never have to make.

In this case, opportunity seems equal based on merits, but the outcomes will not be equitable. Further examination would suggest a structural change. Simply shift the policy from two consecutive to accumulated years or grant some type of parental leave policy without penalizing childbirth.

Equity recognizes that advantages and barriers exist, and that, as a result, we don’t all start from the same place. Ideally, equity is a dynamic process, acknowledging unequal starting places and continuing to correct and address any imbalances.

Either way, equity demands more than just hiring more women for diversity; it demands systemic change.

3- Power of Privilege

Thirty years ago, when academic Peggy McIntosh published White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, she invited readers to reflect on everyone’s “combination of unearned advantage and unearned disadvantage in life” by the circumstances of our birth.

It is difficult for dominant groups to see that which is invisible. Not having to navigate or account for the psychic concerns of a group identity, it’s difficult to consider that people start at different places.

As Kendi put it, “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. You already believe equality of opportunity exists, so instead you’re going to reframe equal opportunity as an assault against you and your livelihood.”

The idea of “advantages and barriers” can often feel intangible, so here are some real examples. A study of a hiring process found that candidates with “white-sounding names” (Greg and Emily) were 50% more likely to receive a call back than candidates with “African-American-sounding names” (Lakisha and Jamal).

The term whitening resumes is now a practice for people of color to combat this issue.

Another study asked faculty scientists to evaluate candidates’ competencies for career mentoring and to suggest starting salaries. Female candidates with resumes/criteria identical to male candidates were deemed less competent and less worthy of being hired, were offered less career mentoring, and were offered a lower starting salary.

For dominant groups, equity is all about power, and power is a zero-sum game. More women in the C-suite means fewer men; more black and brown people means fewer white people, and so on.

D+E+I = Possibility of Justice

Issues of diversity today are competing at a new level of awareness and understanding of justice, which involves systemic change. This includes questioning outdated thinking and assumptions that inform our systems, manifesting in unfair barriers.

Consider that as human development professionals, much of what we deal with is the human side of systemic change. We support others in unlearning assumptions and biases about power that open new possibilities for justice.

To move inclusion beyond placards with polite platitudes, equity, as in creating justice through equitable structures, must be core to diversity and to reimagining power:

Shift our view of power as a limited, zero-sum game with little value in sharing power.

Shift our view of discomfort, recognizing that all growth requires the discomfort of learning and unlearning without fearing loss of self-control.

Shift from personalizing change and feeling threatened when anyone challenges leadership (as a personal reflection) to appreciating that change is universal and inevitable and that questioning leadership can be healthy and productive.

Shift from a paternalized view of power that assumes those in power have the organization’s best interests at heart and that assumes those wanting change are ill-informed, emotional, or inexperienced.

Perhaps, most importantly, shift our view of power as an external force for controlling circumstances or dominating others to a cultivated openness for exercising human faculties to the fullest ability — to appreciate and respond in flow with others, to listen to music, receive poetry and love, and express compassion. That is power.

Appreciating equity invites power-sharing.

  • It invites multiple perspectives that naturally strengthen us to navigate varied experiences.
  • We become accustomed to multiple perspectives, which strengthens our “resistance” training that leads to innovation.
  • We become agile and able to withstand market forces.

With equity, we cultivate a foundation for diversity, develop an open mindset, and invite genuine participation that fosters an environment for justice and inclusivity.

Reading Time: 14.5 min. Digest Time: 23 min


Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group (previously, Zampella Group), which serves coaches, learning professionals and business executives. 

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhism to sustain contemplative practice.

Leave A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Pathway to ‘Mutual Understanding’

Reading Time: 9 min. Digest Time: 16 min

I’ve recently come to see the impact of deepening understanding on strategy, culture, performance, and connection. Thus, I will introduce the term mutual understanding for exploration.

Even with research, it is challenging to find a way of grokking this concept. It is usually described in cognitive or conceptual ways or, in some cases, through philosophical or deep communications models.

What if we could expand such a human possibility with practices and tools to appreciate multiple perspectives and shared stories that give meaning to our lives?

Developmental Pathway

Mutual understanding stems from a deep interest in others and a radical openness that honors what arises as witnessed and appreciated to cultivate new levels of awareness. The outcome is a greater appreciation of the “in-betweenness” of self and others, such that we begin dissolving boundaries.

I locate mutual understanding in our human experience beyond our cognitive or conceptual notions of individual understanding.

Given the nature of connectivity, differences, and multiple perspectives, I believe that cultivating mutual understanding will soon be in demand. To begin, I will outline a pathway that involves three stages of development, viewed here as three mindsets: cognitive self (X), affective self (XY), and embodied self (XYZ).

  • X = Our cognitive self clarifies our thoughts and perceptions with logic to reason objective evidence and knowledge. We discern circumstances and concepts for developing a grounded understanding.
  • X+Y = With our cognitive self (X), we add context, emotions, and experiences to develop our affective self (Y) for creating a shared understanding.
  • X+Y+Z = We become intentional (X) and cultivate radical openness (Y) to receive multiple perspectives. We develop our embodied self (Z) for cultivating mutual understanding.

We identify this developmental pathway from grounded understanding, to shared understanding, and finally, to mutual understanding.

A Fuller View

Grounded understanding (X)

This stage of understanding begins with our cognitive self. Here, we achieve a norm-content view to become effective at discerning circumstances.

  • We develop a grounded understanding to define facts, beliefs, and evidence. We gain an intentional and objective view of reality to dissolve “magical thinking” and clarify any misunderstanding.
  • With reason, we clarify our focus on observing and analyzing our circumstances accurately to conceptualize and manage events.
  • By knowing the rules and norms, we define shared agreements and establishing boundaries to manage events and our self.

The work at this level is fundamental for developing a disciplined focus to discern facts and question evidence. This level of grounding shapes what’s possible as the next stage. We arrive at a grounded understanding when we can manage content and navigate conditions efficiently and effectively.

Shared understanding (XY)

At this second stage, we increase awareness of our affective self. Here, we achieve an action-reflective view to enhance self-expression.

  • We include our experiences and develop emotional courage and intelligence to express our voice and values for relating to others.
  • We add context by reflecting on shared knowledge and interests (as in SIGs or resource groups), perspectives, and experiences.
  • Shared understanding emerges from questioning assumptions and expectations within a larger context.

This level relies on the previous stage (X) to enhance how we relate to common norms, shared agreements, priorities, and practices. We tune into a shared vision or larger context and communicate it to others. We arrive at a shared understanding when we can anticipate and coordinate action effectively with others, often from a deeper relatedness.

Mutual understanding (XYZ)

This third stage emerges by being with others from an embodied self or awareness. Here, we achieve a meaning-context view as we experience multiple perspectives within an intersubjective field.

  • This stage develops a shared language (thoughts/meaning) that reveals our worldviews (perspectives, ideologies, attitudes, etc.) for learning together. This can involve exploring blind spots in shared spaces such as affinity groups and circles.
  • We cultivate a radical openness, not as a passive state but as an intentional presence to reveal our interconnectedness, “in-betweenness,” or communion.
  • This stage requires dancing with elements from a grounded understanding to be fully present (X) and shared understanding to be fully related (XY), to be with the possibility and meaning that arises (XYZ).

Mutual understanding creates shared meaning for discovering together.

We all have our own “sacred stories” that organize our focus and give purpose and meaning to our lives. Discovering these stories offers us a view of what it means to be human together with multiple views and experiences from common humanity. We arrive at a mutual understanding with others when we can tune into deeper meaning (cultural, ideological, perspectival) to discern context or open possibility.

While deep and complex, we achieve this through a pathway of practice, training, and development. (See “stages” in GRID A and “development” in GRID B below.)

GRID-A: Description of how each “Stage of Understanding” unfolds.

Definition, Experience, and Meaningfulness

Each stage of understanding is constituted by a component that distinguishes it, such as “definition” for grounded understanding, “experience” for shared understanding, and “meaningfulness” for mutual understanding.

It begins with grasping/defining a concept sufficiently to apply it, accessing its experience to relate to it, and internalizing that experience/meaning to inform your view (embodying it).

For example, let’s consider this range with the concept of “balance”:

  1. What is the definition “balance?”
  2. What was your first experience of “balance?”
  3. What does “balance” mean to you?

These three questions rely on different assumptions, expectations, and outcomes.

Question #1 requires agreement on a definition. For instance, “an even distribution of weight to enable someone or something to remain upright.” Or, maybe, “a condition of different elements as equal or in the correct proportions.” Common definitions allow people to cognitively understand a term or concept. The outcome is a shared agreement to communicate effectively.

Question #2 requires reflection on an actual experience. For me, the answer might be “when I learned to ride a bike, roller-skate, or walk the beam in gymnastics.” This offers access to an experience. The outcome allows for a shared experience for relating to each other.

Question #3 requires both a definition and a reflection on an experience that informs how I view it now. This might include any of these perspectives: alignment, equilibrium, harmony, calm, stable, centered, equal or steady. Driven by interest, I discover the perspectives of others and we develop resonance. The outcome is a shared meaning for deeper connections.

The rest of this post includes tools, trainings, and practices borrowed from the work of the Fifth Discipline to develop the capacity for mutual understanding.

Five Disciplines

To illuminate this developmental pathway, I have used research of five disciplines—personal mastery, mental models, team learning, shared vision, systems thinking— developed by Peter Senge’s Fifth Discipline and Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. Each of these disciplines offers tools and practices so relevant today for developing the awareness, thinking, perceptions, listening, imagining and personal mastery that supports each stage of understanding.

Diagram of “Ladder of Inference.”

  1. To expand Personal Mastery, use tools like perceptual positions and reframing to enhance the quality of interactions and relationships.
  2. To clarify Mental Models and Worldviews, use tools like the ladder of inference and reflective inquiry to reveal and challenge assumptions and to unlearn outmoded beliefs and expectations in order to develop shared understanding.
  3. For Team Learning, use tools such as the action-learning cycle (below) and dialogue to develop critical reflection skills for robust and skillful discussions.

    Diagram of “Action-Learning Cycles” by three theorists.

  4. To create a Shared Vision, tools such as positive visioning and values alignment forge common meaning/focus to align learning targets, improvement strategies, and challenge goals.
  5. Cultivate Systems Thinking to unpack culture and unravel subtleties, influences, and impact of change that lead to a deeper awareness of the interconnections behind changing any system. Systems thinking maps and archetypes analyze situations, events, problems, possible causes, or courses of action to reveal subtle change possibilities or solutions.

Grid B: Thinking and Development at each “Stage of Understanding.”

Bring It All Together

So, where are we in this three-dimensional model?

Grounded understanding

Here, I am concerned with shared agreements that I can observe, discern, and communicate.

For example, if I am in a car accident, can I seek evidence to make my case and support my findings for moving forward? This requires focus to assess the situation, to analyze data and information, to connect dots (who to call first, second, and third and what information to secure), and act on the information in a timely manner.

This level of understanding is used daily to manage content, and deliver on promises, become reliable, plan events, and manage tasks.

With practice, this level will support me in expanding my capacity to predict—a skill which I can hone at the next level, shared understanding.

Shared understanding

Here, I can access shared experience within a context.

Last week, I left two notebooks at Starbucks, where I go several times a week to develop ideas and edit. I nearly panicked. Those notes are priceless to me. I have ideas for future blogs, curricula, and half-baked thoughts I reflect on often. The morning after I noticed this, I called Starbucks. The person listened to me, left for less than 60 seconds, and returned with, “Yeah, we have them here.”

Relieved, I immediately appreciated our shared understanding.

Any other restaurant may have thrown these left-behind notes away. However, Starbucks staff has been trained to understand why customers consume their brand, beyond its lattes and lunches.

Consider that this worker knew exactly where to look and what to expect. They have likely figured this out through shared agreements, identified priorities, and best practices to operationalize purpose as their primary relationship to the customer.

They have created a context that connects it as a “third-way” place where people come to think, create, work, and belong. They “get it,” which saved me.

Mutual understanding

Through intentional learning and discovery, I’ve realized the limits of knowing (knowledge) and the value of experiences. I’ve presenced a sense of meaning in my life that resonates with others.

I become more open to learning and more interested in communion with others. I’ve cultivated openness to discovering the many perspectives, attitudes, and interests that shape what’s happening in a way that moves what’s going on with me, and vice-versa.

This shared interest, resonance, and interconnectedness dissolves me as a resume of accomplishments or identities and reveals myself as the qualities likely to manifest at my eulogy.

As a gay, white, Italian, male, Buddhist practitioner, immigrant’s son, college grad, writer, researcher, educator, coach, and consultant—what does all that mean to me? How do I weave this together to add meaning, purpose, and direction to my life?

Which part of my identity do I highlight or which parts to I access to cultivate deeper connections? How am I experienced by others? How do I experience myself, such that it shapes how I am interconnected with others?

What are the sacred stories emerging from my existence, and can I share those? Am I interested and able to hear those stories from others for no other reason than to deepen my connection?


As coaches and human development professionals, how can we support ourselves and others to cultivate mutual understanding?

I can leverage a grounded understanding from shared agreements to become intentional; create shared understanding from shared experiences to become related; and, cultivate mutual understanding from shared meaning to become interconnected.

Planting myself on this journey not only opens me up with clients, friends, and family, but it also offers access to our sacred stories: mine and yours. More importantly, I can begin to imagine the gaps between my world of privilege and those whose marginalized experiences can be hard to understand.

Paradoxically, with mutual understanding, I need not fully understand these gaps. I can accept that there are gaps and imagine what’s possible to create new bridges.


Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group (previously, Zampella Group), which serves coaches, learning professionals and business executives. 

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhism to sustain contemplative practice.

Leave A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Possibility Beyond Problem-Solving

Reading Time: 8-min, Digest Time: 16-min

Recently, I presented work on the topic of “unlearning,” which addressed many issues, including our fixation with “problem-solving.”

After my presentation, an educator defended problem-solving as an important skill for students. The discussion was similar to others I’ve had with educators who regard problem-solving as critical preparation for students.

I commented that expanding our perceptions beyond current assumptions requires letting go of our dependence on problem-solving.

I’ve come to see the pervasiveness of the problem-solving mentality and its implications on us as learners, thinkers, and creators.

Addressing the implications of this mindset is a primary focus with students who attend our courses in leadership development. Students (as well as clients) have been so programmed to seek out and solve problems. They fixate on “correct” answers, seek out immediate solutions, and avoid any risk-taking with questions they deem as silly.

Extensive training has students expecting answers to their questions. When we suggest that they “discover for themselves” in their lives, they become both unsettled and intrigued.

Limits of Problem-Solving

The concept of problem-solving has been idealized to mean just about anything. I see it as both a process of finding solutions to difficult or complex issues and a method for continuing to examine many possible root causes for any identified problem.

Strengths: Problem-solving has a singular focus on creating a solution from known or predictable pathways. There’s some creativity to this process, as it can also involve seeking out different root causes.

Great examples include a business process that produces inefficiencies, a financial system that fails to predict outcomes, or any malfunctioning object or product, from a broken toilet to a faulty network server.

Limits: Problem-solving works well within external situations from fixed views and rational perspectives. When issues involve deep thinking or a change in context or perspective, problem-solving constrains us to our current knowledge and assumptions. This forces premature or predictable diagnoses and resolutions.

From a systems-thinking perspective, the maxim goes, “The quickest way out of a problem leads you right back in.”

And yet we react, with quick fixes, often to some external stimuli or some internal fear.

So pervasive, problem-solving is now our default thought process. 

Method or Mentality

As a method, problem-solving can focus on creating positive solutions. But when embodied as a mentality, we become fixated problem-seekers: discovering solutions to make something unwanted go away.

This normative and rational mentality prescribes a reality without any “unwanted” problems.

This same view informs our medicalized (and psychological) model, which often pathologizes variances and informs our educational pedagogy by rewarding immediate answers over unsolvable questions.

Once trained in this mentality, we become fixers, we wait for answers, and we stop questioning. Seduced by quick fixes and lulled by immediate results, we seek out solutions to our perceived problems.

We normalize reflexive thinking with snap judgments about what’s right or wrong, good or bad, true or false, about what wins or loses, or succeeds or fails—all to render quick fixes for instant satisfaction.

Moving beyond the problem-solving mindset requires distinguishing between its power as a method (how we act on issues) and dissolving its hold as a mentality (how we view issues).

It also requires appreciating these differences:

  • Problem-solving discovers solutions to make something unwanted go away.
  • Creativity reveals new methods and approaches to bring things into being or to fashion novel solutions.
  • Imagination cultivates ideas beyond what exists or what currently seems conceivable.

Education and Learning

Unfortunately, the evolution of education has slowly beaten down the imagination required to combat a problem-solving mentality.

Consider the legacy of this last half-century:

— We’ve forgotten how to inspire curiosity and cultivate intuition, instead proclaiming rational problem-solving (that emphasizes binary thought) as the epitome of human potential.

— We have defunded educational art and music programs, which cultivate the imagination that transports us to other lands.

— We have diminished the very humanities Steve Jobs wedded with science to generate elegant ecosystems of technological design. Jobs summarized it this way: “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough; it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

— We’ve so derided literature and history that connects us to the human condition that we lack the moral imagination to envision the concerns of others so different from ourselves.

— We are all becoming trained in formulaic thinking, whether through STEM, business education, or the coding mania.

Our education system is now steeped in a problem-solving mentality, as crystallized in STEM. I once asked another educator about the lack of creativity in STEM and was told that engineering provides sufficient space for creativity and imagination.

Sufficient for what? For whom? Problem-solving is the grammar of engineering.

Learning scholar, researcher, and engineer Peter Senge (Fifth Discipline, Presence) from MIT states it well:

The reactive stance in management is evident in the fixation on problem-solving. Many managers think that management is problem-solving. But problem-solving is fundamentally different from creating. The problem solver tries to make something go away. A creator tries to bring something new into being.

The impetus for change in problem-solving lies outside—in some undesired external condition we seek to eliminate. The impetus for change in the creating mode comes from within.

Reactive Thinking

The outcome of our fixation on problem-solving—as trained in school, reinforced via technology, and rewarded through business—is a reactiveness that is subtle yet narrow in imagination.

With Pavlovian fervor, we solve problems identified by others, read what is assigned, and write what is required to cultivate a sense of “rightness.” Being accepted (or right) becomes more important than being ourselves.

Problem-solving trains us in formulaic assumptions with expectations to resolve, fix, avoid, or dismiss any perceived problems. We automatically view mistakes and failures—the very essence of learning and discovery—as problems.

  • We deem anything that doesn’t meet our expectations a problem.
  • Any issue deemed a problem is unwanted, either to avoid or immediately resolve.
  • We move on after resolving, avoiding, or fixing problems to seek out new problems.
  • We do not waste time dwelling on problems to better understand them.

Reactiveness is so pervasive in shaping business and learning cultures that it has become a strategic imperative. We’ve normalized hourly news cycles with little quality information, shorter product life cycles to lift up balance sheets, and short-termism — derided as “quarterly capitalism” — to satisfy corporate boardrooms.

Perfected and measured during the 20th century, R&D efforts have focused more on myopic, short-term thinking that stimulates our productivity and pleasure zones rather than our imagination.

Over the last two generations, our imagination has been so stifled that we cannot even conceive of vehicles that achieve 500 mpg, mass-produced fossil-free vehicles, space travel beyond the moon, or flying vehicles; nor can we see an end to climate change, cancer or structural racism.

We’ve shrunk our imagination just enough to fit into 140 characters on Twitter—compared to a time 50 years ago when we dreamt big about the possibilities of space travel.

Never Solved, Only Outgrown

Perhaps the most punishing outcome of the problem-solving mentality is how it has recalibrated our understanding of humans and expectations of humanity.

Consider how we jump on what may initially appear to be a “difficult situation” as a problem to avoid or fix. Yet, such difficulties may be an opportunity to examine ourselves or our understanding, or to challenge our perspective and grow, as suggested by Carl Jung:

The greatest and most important problems of life are all in a certain sense insoluble … They can never be solved, but only outgrown … This consists of a new level of consciousness.

Adopting a problem-solving view and expectations limit the very imagination required to achieve Jung’s “new level of consciousness.”

Imagine that someone just broke up with their partner and they wish to share the details with us.

As they share the details, we listen and notice ideas coming to us. We perk up as we see insights, patterns, even possible ways to support our friend. It becomes so clear to us what’s going on.

So naturally, we begin to share what we see.

After all, why would they come to us with this problem if they didn’t value our insights or views? So of course, we offer them.

At that moment, we have issued ideas for a problem we diagnosed with solutions we discovered.

We did all of this.

What is it we have actually offered our friend?

Prescriptions or Possibilities

As coaches and educators involved in expanding human potential, how can we shift our identity as problem-solvers to become creators? This begins with embracing a philosophical-insight view of life.

  • The problem-solving mentality cultivates reactivity, to avoid unwanted problems or diagnose and fix them.
  • The philosophical-insight model expects problems as universal and inevitable in the face of change.

From a philosophical inquiry, we are concerned not with what’s right or wrong but with what’s so or what’s missing.

And what’s so can be to allow space for our friend who requires our listening. Or what’s so can be what’s missing—what does not yet exist that is essential for a designated possibility to become a reality.

This last point is subtle and complex. What’s missing is not the same as what’s wrong.

The latter operates from a conclusion with a prescription, the former from an inquiry rooted in possibility.

More significantly, the philosophical insight model has a different relationship to “problems.” It views them as evidence of breaks in predictable patterns or of limited views that when questioned, can support the creation of an emerging possibility. Importantly, these observations influence how we listen (noted in the chart above).

  1. Problem Paradigm. Observing problems through a normative lens, we listen to diagnose and solve. We observe what works, what’s wrong, and how to fix it. We expect normative ideals to precede problems that should not exist, so we listen for and offer prescriptions.
  2. Possibility Paradigm. Observing problems with philosophical insight, from the context of freedom, we listen for what’s missing or essential for a declared possibility or commitment. We view “problems” as inevitable and universal to venturing into the unknown, so we listen for and create possibilities.

Space beyond Problems

Dissolving the problem-solving mentality will likely leave us vulnerable.

Without relying on solutions, quick fixes, and immediate resolutions, we do not recognize ourselves. We may experience some guilt, doubt, or even a sense of failure.

Yet, allowing for the unknown invites new space for questions, new struggles with imagination, and new levels of awareness. Our willingness to struggle will determine our capacity for growth. This is our call to become creators—to employ creative thinking.

Our need for immediate solutions will dissolve into a deeper understanding. Instead of seeking answers, we metabolize questions that lead to inquiries and insights.

Einstein once claimed that his discoveries were not because he was smarter than others but rather because he was willing to stay with the questions longer.

He also understood the power of imagination as “more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”

Discoveries and Possibilities

Perceiving possibility is much more challenging than prescribing problems, as it seeks out questions instead of answers.

  • Problem Paradigm involves managing content as resolved by expanding solutions.
  • Possibility Paradigm requires creating a context for inquiry that expands discovery.

Discovery is the bedrock of creative thinking, actual science, and deeper understanding of the human condition that can reveal any new or emerging context. It is the very thinking that supports our current needs.

Knowledge today is dynamic. Ironically, problems from one perspective often represent guideposts from another, guiding our discovery into the unknown.

This reminds me of the Zen parable of the Chinese farmer, shared here by Alan Watts.

Watts wisely claims that, because of the interdependent and complex nature of reality, we shall never “know what happens is good or bad; because we never know what will be the consequences of the misfortune, or the consequences of good fortune.”

This brings me back to my educator friend.

Problem-solving, while solid as a method, as a mindset, it diminishes us as learners, thinkers, and creators by reinforcing reactiveness and normative ideals, which clutch fixed views in our interdependent, changing, and complex world.

These times require engaging our full human potential. Beyond habits of problem-solving, untapped imagination exists to cultivate the creative thinking and openness for unpredictable thoughts, ideas, and possibilities.


Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group (previously, Zampella Group), which serves coaches, learning professionals and business executives. 

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhism to sustain contemplative practice.

Leave A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

 “In times of change, those who are prepared to learn will inherit the land, while those who think they already know will find themselves wonderfully equipped to face a world that no longer exists.”


Coaching Services | Leadership Development | Contemplative Practices | First-Person Learning & Design | Resourcing Services | Assessments