Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 11, Issue 35;   August 31, 2011: Is the Question "How?" or "Whether?"

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

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? rbrenJESsOAvQwLCXJiMwner@ChacUhJyqeXgatPIpnTvoCanyon.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:

The Scream, by Edvard MunchComfortable Ignorance
When we suddenly realize that what we've believed is wrong, or that what we've been doing won't work, our fear and discomfort can cause us to persevere in our illusions. If we can get better at accepting reality and dealing with it, we can make faster progress toward real achievement.
A team raises a wall of a new home sponsored by the US Department of Housing and Urban DevelopmentOrganizing a Barn Raising
Once you find a task that you can tackle as a "barn raising," your work is just beginning. Planning and organizing the work is in many ways the hard part.
A hearing in the U.S. Senate, in which Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is responding to questions about appropriations.What Makes a Good Question?
In group discussion or group problem solving, many of us focus on being the first one to provide the answer. The right answer can be good; but often, the right question can be better.
Vintage slot machine at the Casino Legends Hall of Fame at the Tropicana Las Vegas Casino Hotel Resort, NevadaWhen Fixing It Doesn't Fix It: Part I
When complex systems misbehave, a common urge is to find any way at all to end the misbehavior. Succumbing to that urge can be a big mistake. Here's why we succumb.
A virtual team as a networkVirtual Brainstorming: Part II
When virtual teams must brainstorm, they try to do so virtually. But brainstorming isn't just another meeting. There's a real risk that virtual brainstorms might produce inadequate results. Here's Part II of some suggestions for reducing the risk.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Cherry blossoms, some open some closedComing August 31: Contributions, Open and Closed
We can classify contributions to discussions according to the likelihood that they stimulate new thought. The more open they are, the more they stimulate new thought. How can we encourage open contributions? Available here and by RSS on August 31.
A forest fireAnd on September 7: Cultural Indicators of Political Risk
Because of fire risk, hiking in dry forests during dry seasons can be dangerous. In the forest, we stay safe from fire if we attend to the indicators of fire risk. In the workplace, do you know the indicators of political risk? Available here and by RSS on September 7.

Coaching services

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

Sudoku Solutions, INK: A Simulation of a Project-Oriented Organization
In thCross-Functional Teams: How Organizations Actually Workis workshop, we simulate a company that solves Sudoku puzzles for its customers. Each puzzle is a project, solved by a project team led by a project manager. Team members hail from different parts of the organization, such as QA or the Department of Threes. Puzzles have different values, and the company must strive to meet revenue goals. The metaphor is uncanny. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
MasteChanging How We Change: The Essence of Agilityry of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Leading Virtual Meetings for Real Results
LeadiLeading Virtual Meetings for Real Resultsng or participating in virtual meetings — teleconferences, Web conferences, video conferences, and more — is challenging. Miscommunications, misunderstandings, distractions, politics, and interpersonal conflict all thrive in the typical environment of the virtual team. We'll inventory the challenges virtual meeting leaders and participants face, and provide tools for anticipating and addressing them. The focus of this program is practical — attendees will learn concrete techniques for preventing and dealing with the problems that arise in virtual meetings. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for 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
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
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?
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.