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

Great Teams WorkshopOccasionally we have the experience of belonging to a great team. Thrilling as it is, the experience is rare. In part, it's rare because we usually strive only for adequacy, not for greatness. We do this because we don't fully appreciate the returns on greatness. Not only does it feel good to be part of great team — it pays off. Check out my Great Teams Workshop to lead your team onto the path toward greatness. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenuPvmbnaUMBQjOIwlner@ChacrHrlrUPRIJzObacRoCanyon.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:

If only I were a florist?Don't Worry, Anticipate!
Dramatic changes in policy or procedure are often challenging, especially when they have some boneheaded components. But by accepting them, by anticipating what you can, and by applying Pareto's principle, you can usually find a safe path that suits you.
The Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal, showing their guide wallsIn the Groove
Under stress, we sometimes make choices that we later regret. And we wonder, "Will I ever learn?" Fortunately, the problem usually isn't a failure to learn. Changing just takes practice.
A view of the site known as the Rock Garden, on MarsHow to Ruin Meetings
Much has been written about how to conduct meetings effectively. Here are some reliable techniques for doing something else altogether.
An outstanding example of the Utility Pole anti-patternWorkplace Anti-Patterns
We find patterns of counter-effective behavior — anti-patterns — in every part of life, including the workplace. Why? What are their features?
An apple and a skyscraper full of windowsHow We Waste Time: II
We're all pretty good at wasting time. We're also fairly certain we know when we're doing it. But we're much better at it than we know. Here's Part II of a little catalog of time wasters, emphasizing those that are outside — or mostly outside — our awareness.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Jeffrey Skilling, in a mug shot taken in 2004 by the United States Marshals ServiceComing May 23: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: IX
An arrogant demeanor is widely viewed as a hallmark of the narcissist. But truly narcissistic arrogance is off the charts. It's something beyond the merely annoying arrogance of a sometimes-obnoxious individual. What is narcissistic arrogance and how can we cope with it? Available here and by RSS on May 23.
The end of the line for a railroad trackAnd on May 30: Chronic Peer Interrupters: I
When making contributions to meeting discussions, we're sometimes interrupted. Often, the interruption is beneficial and saves time. But some people constantly interrupt their peers or near peers, disrespectfully, in a pattern that compromises meeting outcomes. How can we deal with chronic peer interrupters? Available here and by RSS on May 30.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenZudCqcCssoHqdVJoner@ChaccUwZTGclFerqFjhsoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, 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

Technical Debt Management: Making the Business Case
This Technical Debt Management: Making the Business Caseprogram outlines the steps necessary for deploying a program for rational management of technical debt. For many organizations, adopting a program for rationally managing technical debt entails organizational change. And unlike some organizational changes, this one touches almost everyone in the organization, because technical debt isn't merely a technical problem. Technical debt manifests itself in technological assets, to be sure, but its causes are rarely isolated to the behavior and decisions of engineers. We can't resolve the problem of chronically excessive levels of technical debt by changing the behavior of engineers alone. Technical debt is the symptom, not the problem. In this program we outline the essential elements of an effective business case for adopting a rational technical debt management program. But this business case, unlike many business cases, cannot be captured in a document. We must make the case not only at the leadership level of the organization, but also at the level of the individual contributor. Everyone must understand. Everyone must contribute. We explore five issues that make technical debt so difficult to manage, and develop five guidelines for designing technical debt management strategies for the modern enterprise. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: The Power of Agile Development
On 14The Race to the Pole: An Application of Agile Development December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. Lessons abound. Among the more important lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product development. 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 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.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.