Point Lookout An email newsletter from Chaco Canyon Consulting
Point Lookout, a free weekly email newsletter from Chaco Canyon Consulting
August 31, 2011 Volume 11, Issue 35
 
Recommend this issue to a friend
Join the Friends of Point Lookout
HTML to link to this article…
Archive: By Topic    By Date
Links to Related Articles
Sign Up for A Tip A Day!
Create a perpetual bookmark to the current issue Bookmark and Share
Tweet this! | Follow @RickBrenner Random Article

Is the Question "How?" or "Whether?"

by

In group decision-making, tension sometimes develops between those who favor commitment to the opportunity at hand, and those who repeatedly ask, "If we do that, how will we do it?" Why does this happen?
President Lincoln and Gen. George B. McClellan in the general's tent

President Lincoln (left) and Gen. George B. McClellan (right) in the general's tent near the Antietam battlefield, October 3, 1862. View a larger image. Although the Battle of Antietam is regarded as a Union victory, McClellan's performance was so questionable that many believe a more effective general could have utterly destroyed Gen. Robert E. Lee's army, given the advantages Gen. McClellan had. In a truly astounding bit of luck, on September 12th, 1862, as the Union's Twelfth Army Corps bivouacked about five miles from Frederick, Maryland, Corporal Barton W. Mitchell found an envelope lying in the tall grass. It contained three cigars and a copy of Gen. Lee's battle plans. Within hours, the plans, without the cigars, were passed up the chain of command to Gen. McClellan. After assessing the plans as real, Gen. McClellan formulated and executed a response, but he did not act with urgency, nor did he communicate any sense of urgency to his subordinates. The slowness of his response enabled Gen. Lee to avoid a catastrophe. That is why this incident is used so often to demonstrate Gen. McClellan's ineffectiveness as a commander.

There is much speculation about the reasons for Gen. McClellan's unwillingness to commit forces with alacrity. One possibility is that he had a low tolerance for the unknown. In a pattern demonstrated repeatedly as a commander, he tended to wait for situations to develop, rather than act earlier in the face of uncertainty. We cannot know for certain why he moved so slowly so often, but we do know that President Lincoln found the pattern so frustrating that he eventually relieved the general of command. Photograph by Alexander Gardner, courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.

When deciding whether to adopt a goal, groups sometimes fall into destructive conflict between those who want the group to commit to the goal (the advocates) and those, less willing, who want to know more about how the group can achieve that goal (the skeptics). Because the skeptics often express their concerns by asking "How?", the debate about whether to commit to the goal can descend into inappropriate problem-solving.

Here are some common reasons for the differences between advocates and skeptics.President Lincoln and Gen. George B. McClellan in the general's tent

Tolerance for failure
The decision to adopt the goal often requires a commitment to the goal long before a path to success becomes clear. For some, the possibility of insurmountable obstructions yet unrecognized creates internal tension. For others, trying and failing can be very costly emotionally. To reduce the tension about possible obstructions, or to limit the risk of failure, some people ask the How question.
Tolerance for the unknown
Even if all obstacles are eventually overcome, the cost of overcoming them, and the time required, might be unknown at the outset. Cost and schedule are just two of the unknowns. Other examples: Who do we need to help us? What do we have to learn? What resources are required?
Tolerance for conflict
Sometimes striving for the goal entails conflict with people. Conflict can be creative or toxic, but even if it's creative, healthy, and constructive, some people are unwilling to engage in it. Perhaps they've had experiences that suggest to them that the coming conflict will be unhealthy. In any case, some people are unwilling to commit to the goal if they anticipate conflict.
Unfamiliarity with the problem space
For some, general unfamiliarity with the problem space or the problem itself can be troubling. To cope with this, they seek to manage the overall risk of approaching the problem by demanding information that might not be available. If the information is forthcoming, they feel comforted. If not, they argue for rejecting the proposal.
Hat hanging
Some people make For some, general unfamiliarity
with the problem space or the
problem itself can
be troubling
connections — usually outside their awareness — between the current situation and some other situation they've known. If that other situation was painful or didn't turn out well, they might feel hesitant to commit to the proposed goal. This can lead them to ask the How question, demanding more details than they might otherwise require.
Toxic politics
Some are skeptical because they see adoption as a threat to their narrow political interests. By asking the How question, and demanding clarity at a level of detail that isn't available, they hope to dissuade the group from pursuing the goal.

Advocates of the goal can experience frustration when repeatedly restrained by the skeptics. If the group can distinguish skepticism from problem solving, it can keep tension from building, and focus on Whether, instead of How. Go to top Top  Next issue: Inappropriate Levels of Regard  Next Issue
Bookmark and Share

For more about differences and disagreements, see "Appreciate Differences," Point Lookout for March 14, 2001; "When You Think They've Made Up Their Minds," Point Lookout for May 21, 2003; "Towards More Gracious Disagreement," Point Lookout for January 9, 2008; and "Blind Agendas," Point Lookout for September 2, 2009.


52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenexnkHTffwtQyDLazner@ChacTpcdoPMwnIuPAmIaoCanyon.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 Problem Solving and Creativity:

Emergency extrication drillEmergency Problem Solving
In emergencies, group problem solving is unusually challenging, especially if lives, careers, or companies depend on finding a solution immediately. Here are some tips for members of teams that are solving problems in emergencies.
A traffic sign warning of trouble aheadNine Positive Indicators of Negative Progress
Project status reports rarely acknowledge negative progress until after it becomes undeniable. But projects do sometimes move backwards, outside of our awareness. What are the warning signs that negative progress might be underway?
A map of the Internet ca. January 2005Intentionally Unintentional Learning
Intentional learning is learning we undertake by choice, usually with specific goals. When we're open to learning not only from those goals, but also from whatever we happen upon, what we learn can have far greater impact.
Still Life with Chair-Caning, by PicassoSolutions as Found Art
Examining the most innovative solutions we've developed for difficult problems, we often find that they aren't purely new. Many contain pieces of familiar ideas and techniques combined together in new ways. Accepting this as a starting point can change our approach to problem solving.
A metaphorical depiction of the creation of artificial intelligenceOffice Automation
Desktop computers, laptop computers, and tablets have automation capabilities that can transform our lives, but few of us use them. Why not? What can we do about that?

See also Problem Solving and Creativity and Effective Meetings for more related articles.

Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout

Mohandas K. Ghandi, in the 1930sComing June 3: Just Make It Happen
Many idolize the no-nonsense manager who says, "I don't want to hear excuses, just make it happen." We associate that stance with strong leadership. Sometimes, though, it's little more than abuse motivated by ambition or ignorance — or both. Available here and by RSS on June 3.
Two hermit crabs in their snail shellsAnd on June 10: The Perils of Limited Agreement
When a group member agrees to a proposal, even with conditions, the group can move forward. Such agreement is constructive, but there are risks. What are those risks and what can we do about them? Available here and by RSS on June 10.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenhCdumZcEgYVjupRAner@ChacpVpXxiVUApTzvuoloCanyon.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

Managing in Fluid Environments
Most Managing in Fluid Environmentspeople now work in environments that can best be characterized as fluid, because they're subject to continual change. We never know what's coming next. In such environments, managing — teams, projects, groups, departments, or the enterprise — often entails moving from surprise to surprise while somehow staying almost on track. It's a nerve-wracking existence. This program provides numerous tools that help managers who work in fluid environments. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:

How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble StartsLearn how to spot troubled projects before they get out of control.
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?
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
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.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
SSL