The Diagnostic Funnel

Whatever Happened To Free Will? 

Why You Do What You Do As A Leader 

In the last issue, based on John’s next book, FIVE QUESTIONS THAT CHANGE EVERYTHING, we looked at how much of what we do every day is automatic. Today John explores how our process of moment-to-moment decision-making actually occurs. 

At this point, after being told that you are living most, if not all, of your life on Auto Pilot, you may have an internal argument taking place. ‘I am not a robot. I have free will. I do what I want. I make my own choices about all those things. Nobody tells me how to dress or what job to take. . .’ 

It’s not that cut and dried, however. Would that it were so. . . It is true that our minds make what appear to be freely chosen decisions all the time. What we fail to understand is that the range of options we have available to us from which we ‘choose’ is severely limited in ways we do not understand. (My graduate school faculty colleague, Denny Minno, and I came up with this next graphic model in 1977, which I have modified several times since.)

Why You Do What You Do 

My Default World

The deep programming about myself, others, and life 

What I Notice 

How the world occurs for me 


My analysis of what I see (including thoughts and feelings)


The result I believe needs to happen 


The paths or options that occur to me 


What I do

The process of decision-making starts at the top of this ‘funnel,’ with our default world. This is the deep programming that lives in us, put there as a result of the particular childhood ‘training’ we had. (More about that later.) It includes core beliefs about ourselves, other people and about life, the larger picture. These are not thoughts, they are rather the elements in our operating system, from which most of our thoughts originate.

The Diagnostic Funnel Explained 

The common sense notion is that when you look out at the world, you are seeing all of what is there, exactly as it is. By this point you should be challenging that naïve position with many examples from your own life experience. The amazing truth about perception is that you are only able to see those things that already exist in the pantry of your mind and its history. You could say that when you look out at the world, you are ‘seeing’ your own history. You can only see things that are present in your Default Worldview. This initial aspect of what is called perception is pre-conscious, automatic, and out of your direct control. Without the kind of deep insights that THE FIVE QUESTIONS provide, you are basically confined to live in a narrow world with limited possibilities for anything new to occur. 

That Default World determines what you Notice. The situation in front of you ‘shows up’ or occurs for you already filtered. Your world view of ‘that-which is’ lies just beyond or beneath our awareness, and yet what you see when you look out at the world is based (read trapped) in that view. As colleague Ted Buffington likes to say, ‘Notice what you notice.’1 Two people can be present for the same event (a movie, a conversation, a meeting, a book) and yet report two very different descriptions of what happened. This is not only possible, but inevitable. Your past has ground the ‘lenses’ through which you ‘see’ what is happening around—and inside—you. You literally cannot see something that is not already in your ‘library’ of that-which-is.

The Wristwatch on the Ground 

Hard as that may be to accept, look at this amazing example from Marilyn Ferguson’s 1973 book, THE AQUARIAN CONSPIRACY. A cultural anthropology group was studying perception with the aboriginal peoples of Australia. In one experiment, they drew a circle in the dirt and placed several objects inside: a pencil, a shoe, a watch and some aboriginal tools. As members of the group came up one by one, they were asked to pick up everything inside the circle. After a few people had done this, the researchers noticed that they had picked up everything but not the wristwatch. They then began to ask the person picking up the objects, after they stopped, ‘Have you picked up everything inside the circle on the ground?’ They would indicate ‘Yes’ and yet, there on the ground at their feet, inside the circle, was the wrist watch.

Using a principle of science called Occam’s Razor—where you take the simplest hypothesis that explains the most variables—they determined that the reason people had not picked up the watch was because they couldn’t see it. You might say, ‘What do you mean, “They couldn’t see it?” The doggone thing was right there on the ground!’ Yes, but to them it probably looked like an interesting patch of ground. Without any experiential referent for ‘wristwatch,’ they were unable to ‘see’ it. That is, they were unable to distinguish it from everything else. They had no category in their experiential library for ‘wristwatch.’ 

Back to the Diagnostic Funnel: Based on what you Notice, you form an Interpretation, an analysis of what is going on, which includes your thoughts and feelings about what you see. The old salt, now almost trite in its use, is true nonetheless: you are creating your own reality. Your Interpretation forms the context for your Intention, a result or solution that you think would be a good thing. Basically, it’s what you want—or think you need – in the situation. That leads you to start considering Alternatives, a range of things you might choose to do. Sooner or later, you make a choice, and end up taking Action. As you can see, what happens at each level determines – and limits – the inputs available to you at the next level. This results in a narrowing down of possibilities as the process of perception unfolds. By the time it gets down to Alternatives for action, literally thousands of options have been eliminated in this filtering process. You may think you’re seeing all the possibilities, but, trust me, you’re not.

What may appear to you to be an exercise of free will is actually an exercise of choosing among a very limited range of options. You can call this free will if you want, but think about it: the choice may be free, but the few number of available options—and their automatic and pre-selected origins—renders that choice restricted. Let’s say you are shopping for a carpet. Would you rather make the choice from among 100 samples with varying color, texture, quality and cost, or from among three have been pre-selected for you? That’s what perception is like when it is driven by the Auto Pilot, when you are not awake to the process that is taking place. 

This complex process of perception is going on 24/7, every second you are looking out at the world. It happens in nanoseconds. The key to it all is your Auto Pilot, your ancient, bone-deep programming, which in large measure, runs you and everything you do. That’s for the next issue. . . 

FRED: A Hard Man to Work For 

Just in case you don’t buy that example from The Outback, here’s another, taken from a Washington, DC, organizational setting. As part of an executive team development session for a client a few years ago, I spoke with the CEO about the findings from data-gathering interviews I had done with his vice presidents. Among the feedback items was the comment from most of them that the boss was a ‘hard man to work for.’ They said he rarely gave people positive feedback, almost always finding something to criticize. This led his people to avoid him, some with gut-wrenching fear that dominated their time at work. 

He was stunned. ‘They’re the best people around,’ he said. ‘If that changes, I’ll fire them!’ He caught what he had said, gave a rueful chuckle and said, ‘OK, I got that! What should I do about it?’ I suggested that, at the team development offsite the next day, he should look for opportunities to ‘catch someone doing something right,’ as Ken Blanchard says.2 ‘When you do,’ I went on, ‘tell them right away – authentically – what you saw that you appreciate.’ He allowed as how that was going to be a challenge, but, with some encouragement and coaching, he said he’d give it a shot. 

The next day, as we worked our way down the agenda, I noticed that Sue the marketing VP, was starting to act nervous. ‘What’s going on?’ I asked her quietly at a break. ‘Well, when the VPs met yesterday to decide who would bring up each agenda item, no one wanted to do the ‘Feedback to Fred’ piece, so we drew straws. And I lost. I’m expecting to get fired. . .’ I encouraged her, said Fred had been coached to be more open, and that she should expect something different from him. Disbelieving, she went back in the room, and later in the afternoon, it was time for her report. 

‘Fred, I have to tell you that I drew the short straw on this one!’ Nervous laughter around the room as the two people on either side of her tried to surreptitiously slide their chairs farther away from Sue. The danger: ‘Organizational Lightening’, as some readers will recognize. . . 

‘I have learned more from you about this field in the five years I have worked for you than I could even imagine. But I have to tell you that for the past 18 months I have felt like quitting.’ 

‘Why is that?’ Fred asked, genuinely curious. 

‘Well, for one thing, you never tell me if I’ve done a good job. Instead, you stick your head in the cubby and say things like, ‘Those figures on page 38 don’t add up to 100%,’ or ‘Where’s that report I asked you for last Friday?’ I can’t take any longer not knowing what, if anything, you value about me or my work.’ 

The whole room held its breath as Fred gathered himself to respond. I formed a short prayer, something along the lines of, ‘Please help Fred do the right thing here!’ 

‘Sue, first of all, thanks for telling me this. I don’t like hearing it, but I think you are on to something about me. I have had a problem ever since I was a kid giving compliments to people. I think it’s because I don’t want them to see me as ‘phony.’ But you know what, it took a lot of courage for you to stand up

and say that to me and I want you to know how much I appreciate you for that.’ (You could have heard a pin drop in that room.)

Then Sue blurted, ‘And another thing is. . .’ 

The room erupted and Sue said, ‘What?! What is everyone so excited about?’ 

‘Sue!’ one of the other VPs began, ‘Fred did what you say he never does: he gave you a compliment! He said he appreciated your courage in standing up and telling him all that!’ 

‘No he didn’t,’ she said. ‘He would never say that!’ 

She missed it. When Fred did something that did not exist as a possibility in Sue’s world—like the wristwatch on the ground for the Aboriginals – she couldn’t see it. When Fred did, in fact, do something that was not possible in her worldview, she had to miss it. Otherwise, she would have had to revise her entire belief system and, even more difficult, let go of the deep programming from her Auto Pilot on which those unconscious beliefs rested. ‘He would never say that!’ She could have passed a lie detector test on that, that’s how deep was her certainty about what Fred did—and did not do. 

It took almost an hour and several colleagues working with Sue for her to even open to the possibility that Fred had in fact expressed appreciation to her— and meant it. 

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