Chip Conley: Reconceive Bewilderment As Curiosity

Chip Conley shares how he was able to look at AirBNB’s operation with newcomer’s eye when he chose to reconceive bewilderment as curiosity.

Chip Conley: Reconceive Bewilderment As Curiosity

reconceive bewilderment as curiosity

I also learned that my best tactic was to reconceive my bewilderment as curiosity, and give free rein to it. I asked a lot of “why” and “what if” questions, forsaking the “what” and “how” questions on which most senior leaders focus.
My beginner’s mind helped us see our blind spots a little better, as it was free of expert habits. We think of “why” and “what if” as little kid questions, but they don’t have to be.

Chip Conley in I Joined Airbnb at 52, and Here’s What I Learned About Age, Wisdom, and the Tech Industry

I think this approach is excellent advice not only for joining a new job but also for scouting a new market or engaging in customer discovery. Bewilderment, like surprise, a a precursor to learning if you embrace it. It means that you model of “how things work” or “how the world works” is in need of adjustment. It may mean that you need to abandon what you had earlier conceived of as hard constraints.

I see six kinds of questions:

  1. Goals/Purpose: “why” is useful for understanding both the fundamental goals or objectives in system.
  2. Core Competency: “How” questions uncover the team or organizations strength.
  3. Roles: “who” is the key question here. Who is the customer is always a good question to start with.
  4. Process: “what”, “when”, “where” tell you where to focus.
  5. Improvement/Optimization: once you understand the status quo questions like “why not” and “what if” allow you to explore and tinker with current practice. You don’t always need to ask these out loud first. “What’s missing” can also come in handy here.
  6. Bias/Filter: where do we never see damage, errors, success? An unconscious selection bias or survivorship bias may be framing expectations.

If You Don’t have a Customer Waiting Can You Ship?

On my first day I heard an existential tech question in a meeting and didn’t know how to answer it: “If you shipped a feature and no one used it, did it really ship?”
Chip Conley in I Joined Airbnb at 52, and Here’s What I Learned About Age, Wisdom, and the Tech Industry

Sometimes “the right answer” assumes a customer (or a problem) that does not in fact exist. The “need” for a feature may be commonly accepted, so commonly accepted that no discovery is done and it’s not needed at all.

Ethnographic Methods

“First, I quickly learned that I needed to strategically forget part of my historical work identity. […] More than anything, I listened and watched intently, with as little judgment or ego as possible. I imagined myself as a cultural anthropologist, intrigued and fascinated by this new habitat.”
Chip Conley in I Joined Airbnb at 52, and Here’s What I Learned About Age, Wisdom, and the Tech Industry

To the extent that you can observe customers in their natural habitat you can learn as much by keeping your eyes open as you do from keeping your ears open in a customer interview. Appreciative inquiry offers a sound approach to understanding what’s working in a prospect’s firm before suggesting changes.

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Photo Credit: Emmi Land “Hazmat Guy

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