Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 4, Issue 13;   March 31, 2004: The Hypothetical Trap

The Hypothetical Trap

by

Politicians know that answering hypothetical questions is dangerous, but it's equally dangerous for managers and project managers to answer them in the project context. What's the problem? Why should you be careful of the "What If?"
Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, and Toto too

Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, and Toto too. Photo from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.

Warren fumed, "Now hold it. I might be getting on, but I'm not losing my mind. Last week you claimed you could have them both by October," he said, referring to the emergency meeting where they'd agreed on the plan for Marigold.

Suddenly, Rita understood. "Ah," she began, "You asked, 'if we extend till October, could we finish the A list?' and I said yes. Then later you asked, 'If we extend till October, could we get the XP revisions?' And I said yes. But I thought you wanted budget and schedule for both scenarios separately, not both together. Now I understand."

Warren held his ground. "That's right, and that's what you're going to do, because that's what you agreed to."

Rita has just been reminded of how dangerous it can be to answer hypothetical questions in conversation. In the project context, perhaps the most common form is "If <some set of conditions>, can you achieve <some set of goals>?" There are other forms too, but we'll deal with this one.

Answering these hypotheticals in conversation is often dangerous. Although it's probably safe enough to respond to hypotheticals in writing, conversational responses often lead to the Hypothetical Trap.

In meetings or other conversation, the only safe answers are either "No, I don't think so," or "Hmm, I'll get back to you." Here are some reasons why answering more concretely is risky.

I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore
By definition, Answering hypotheticals
in conversation
is often dangerous
the hypothetical conditions don't exist now, and they might be outside your experience. Answering a question outside your experience is always tricky.
Questions are usually ambiguous
Even a carefully framed question is just a sketch — it doesn't completely describe a real situation. Your answer is necessarily based on some assumptions, which might differ from the questioner's assumptions.
Contingencies rarely stick
People remember your answers much better than they remember the question's contingencies or any conditions you placed on your answers. For instance, if you answer "Yes" to "If we gave you a million two and another seven months, could you do it?" people remember the "Yes" better than they remember the "million two" or the "seven months."
Incompatible combinations
If you're asked two hypotheticals with two sets of assumptions, and you give two answers, people might remember your answers as if they were the answers to a single question, even if the contingencies are incompatible. This is what happened to Rita.
Nonlinear superposition
If you said that you could do A for $A in M months, and B for $B in M months, you might be required to achieve both A and B for $A + $B (or less!) in M months, even though the world doesn't work that way.

Now what would you do if someone asked you a hypothetical question? Go to top Top  Next issue: Who Would You Take With You to Mars?  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenihMXCAJcHbkcewOLner@ChacrxqyvJAqPsOsaZLzoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

A rocking chairPoverty of Choice by Choice
Sometimes our own desire not to have choices prevents us from finding creative solutions. Life can be simpler (if less rich) when we have no choices to make. Why do we accept the same tired solutions, and how can we tell when we're doing it?
Jack-in-the-boxNo Surprises
If you tell people "I want no surprises," prepare for disappointment. For the kind of work that most of us do, surprises are inevitable. Still, there's some core of useful meaning in "I want no surprises," and if we think about it carefully, we can get what we really need.
A voteDecisions, Decisions: II
Most of us have participated in group decision-making. The process can be frustrating and painful, but it can also be thrilling. What processes do groups use to make decisions?
A calm seaAn Emergency Toolkit
You've just had some bad news at work, and you're angry or really upset. Maybe you feel like the target of a vicious insult or the victim of a serious injustice. You have work to do, and you want to respond, but you must first regain your composure. What can you do to calm down and start feeling better?
A Great Grey OwlHow to Waste Time in Virtual Meetings
Nearly everyone hates meetings, and virtual meetings are at the top of most people's lists. Here's a catalog of some of the worst practices.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A human marionetteComing November 29: Manipulators Beware
When manipulators try to manipulate others, they're attempting to unscrupulously influence their targets to decide or act in some way the manipulators prefer. But some targets manage to outwit their manipulators. Available here and by RSS on November 29.
Desperation at workAnd on December 6: Reframing Revision Resentment: I
From time to time, we're required to revise something previously produced — some copy, remarks, an announcement, code, the Mona Lisa, whatever… When we do, some of us experience frustration, and view the assignment as an onerous chore. Here are some alternative perspectives that might ease the burden. Available here and by RSS on December 6.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmwgwWmccTcnRqyPwner@ChacaxVfdrFHwFCjynaDoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy new blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.