Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 10, Issue 36;   September 8, 2010: Clueless on the Concept

Clueless on the Concept

by

When a team member seems not to understand something basic and important, setting him or her straight risks embarrassment and humiliation. It's even worse when the person attempting the "straightening" is wrong, too. How can we deal with people we believe are clueless on the concept?
A 1928 Ford Model A Business Coupe

1928 Ford Model A Business Coupe. Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company had introduced the Model T in 1908. Because of Ford's innovative manufacturing techniques, including a process philosophy now called "design for manufacturing," Ford was able to mass produce the Model T at a price point unreachable by its competitors. It dominated the market for more than a decade. By 1918, half of all cars manufactured in the U.S. were Model Ts. The Model T was so successful that between 1917 and 1923 Ford did not advertise. At all. But by the mid 1920s, competitors, including Dodge and General Motors, had learned how to mass-produce their own vehicles, and they added something to "design for manufacturing" that could be called "design for selling." They emphasized convenience and customization.

Ford was clueless on the concept. The Model T began losing market share, and production ceased in March, 1927, when the Model A changeover began. Despite the shift that the Model A represented, Chevrolet eventually eclipsed Ford sales. Design for selling has dominated the U.S. auto market ever since. 1928 Ford Model A Business Coupe photographed at the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, by Douglas Wilkinson. Copyright 2006 www.RemarkableCars.com.

Occasionally a team member or two seem clueless on the concept. They haven't understood something basic to the effort, or worse, they think they understand, but they don't. If the rest of the team is wrong — and doesn't realize it — even one clueless individual can truly be a gift. Debates lead to new understanding, and usually that's progress. But most often, the minority view was just wrong, and everyone else was on the right path.

Sometimes the minority is confused because of indolence or distraction. That's best treated as a performance issue. At other times, the problem is miscommunication, or lack of background, or the difficulty of the concept itself. If this situation is handled indelicately, it is most fraught with risk to relationships.

Here are three tips for avoiding those risks. In what follows, Charlie is the clueless one, and I'll alternate Charlie's gender.

The clueless usually don't identify themselves
If Charlie doesn't realize that he's clueless, he sees no need to announce his cluelessness. But even if he senses that something is amiss, he might conceal his confusion to avoid embarrassment, especially if ridicule or derision — even the good-natured kind — is part of team culture.
Even when everyone seems to grasp the issue, it can be risky to assume without careful verification that they actually do. Be attuned to the nuances that suggest confusion.
Misimpressions and misconceptions happen for a reason
Charlie might have developed her conceptual understanding on the basis of ambiguous information. The information might not have been sufficient to clearly distinguish between the misconception she developed, and the concept everyone else acquired. Charlie's version of the concept might actually be consistent with the information she was given.
Even though the If people don't realize that
they're clueless, they see no
need to announce
their cluelessness
information Charlie got might have been identical to what others received, her past experience and knowledge might have led her to see things differently. To manage this risk, be ridiculously explicit when communicating difficult or abstract ideas. Use numerous examples.
Consider a private discussion
When you suspect that Charlie's conceptual understanding is somehow incorrect, public inquiry is an ineffective and risky way to investigate the matter. By the time others suspect confusion, Charlie almost certainly does, too. He'll notice any investigation, even the indirect kind, and he might very well respond so as to conceal the misconception.
A private conversation can be much more productive and sparing of Charlie's feelings, because he's more likely to be forthcoming in private than he is in a more public setting.

Very likely, you felt that you weren't clueless on the concept of being clueless on the concept. But if you were clueless about it, you wouldn't have known it. Anyway, I hope you aren't now. But then, I have no way of knowing. Go to top Top  Next issue: Group Problem-Solving Tangles  Next Issue

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