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August 31, 2011 Volume 11, Issue 35
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Is the Question "How?" or "Whether?"


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
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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.

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