Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 13, Issue 28;   July 10, 2013: Workplace Politics and Type III Errors

Workplace Politics and Type III Errors

by

Most job descriptions contain few references to political effectiveness, beyond the fairly standard collaborate-to-achieve-results kinds of requirements. But because true achievement often requires political sophistication, understanding the political content of our jobs is important.
A dead Manchurian Ash

A dead Manchurian Ash (probably Fraxinus mandschurica). Note that its trunk is far from straight. This condition is called sinuosity. It is thought to result from the tree's attempts to reach for light as openings appear in the forest canopy. (See Charismatic Megaflora: What do Old Trees Look Like? by Neil Pederson) As one canopy opening is filled by foliage of taller trees, and new openings appear, the ash has had to "change course" several times. If we regard the tree as being a problem solver, with the search for light being the problem it's solving, it seems to have led a life in which the solutions it finds repeatedly (and rather suddenly) become invalid. Consequently, it has had to search for new solutions to the new problem, and this has led to sinuosity.

This tree's experience suggests that for us as humans, Type III errors — that is, correct solutions to wrong problems — can arise suddenly out of correct solutions to correct problems. We might be engaged in solving a correct problem correctly, and suddenly, without warning, the problem's "validity" vanishes. If we persist in solving that problem then we would be committing a Type III error, even though we weren't when we began the effort. In this way, we can commit a Type III error by addressing technically a problem that at the outset was fundamentally technical, but which becomes political as the technical solution develops. Photo courtesy Neil Pederson.

Statisticians identified Type I and Type II errors almost 70 years ago. In brief (possibly too brief), a Type I error is a false positive and a Type II error is a false negative. These mistakes can be costly indeed, but they are topics for other days.

The concept of Type III errors is based on a generalization of these first two. The approach I favor is that of Raiffa (see below), who identified Type III errors as those in which one solves the wrong problem correctly. This definition has wide applicability in the realm of workplace politics.

Consider an example. In my workshops I sometimes pose problems like this:

You're in charge of a large, innovative effort for your company, MegaBlunder. Similar but smaller and less complex efforts at MegaBlunder have used SupplierA with satisfactory but not stunningly successful results. Unfortunately, because of the size, complexity, and novelty of your effort, SupplierA cannot meet all your needs. SupplierB can, but because of a bad experience with SupplierB some years ago, there is a "soft" ban of SupplierB, and using them is deprecated. You believe on strong evidence that SupplerB's past is now behind it, but there's some political risk involved in selecting SupplierB. A review of your effort is scheduled for next week. What do you do?

Although this example is expressed in terms of supplier choice, other forms include choices of technologies, locations, markets, and people. We'll stay with the supplier example for concreteness.

Most people address such problems by devising strong defenses of their positions. They gather glowing references from customers of SupplierB, carefully researched evidence of the shortcomings of SupplierA's offerings, and evidence of the strength of SupplierB's offerings. They perform risk analyses of the two alternatives. PowerPoint slides galore. Sometimes it works.

And sometimes not.

Troubles with We are committing a
Type III error when
we correctly solve
the wrong problem
content-based approaches arise when these approaches comprise Type III errors. When the real problem is political, rather than one of supplier capability, these approaches are correct solutions to the wrong problem.

In our example, suppose that the basis of the ban on SupplierB was actually the damaged relationship between SupplierB's former CEO and MegaBlunder's former CEO. The excuse might have been a pattern of late deliveries, but trust was the real issue. Both CEOs have long since moved on, but the ban remained. A more suitable approach might involve consulting your network to gain a deeper understanding of the issue, and then, possibly with help from others on the executive team, working to remove the ban.

In other words, use politics to solve political problems. Use technology to solve technical problems. Don't use technology to solve political problems, or politics to solve technical problems. Avoid committing Type III errors. Go to top Top  Next issue: Agenda Despots: Part I  Next Issue

Two useful sources:

Raiffa, H. Decision Analysis: Introductory Lectures on Choices Under Uncertainty. New York: Mcgraw-Hill College. Order from Amazon.com

Ian I. Mitroff and Abraham Silvers. Dirty Rotten Strategies: How We Trick Ourselves and Others into Solving the Wrong Problems Precisely. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010. Order from Amazon.com

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenQVvfhMUywzyVekFwner@ChacJSVJqHQjafadkqOhoCanyon.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 Workplace Politics:

Scott McLellan, White House Press Secretary, 2003-2006Devious Political Tactics: Cutouts
Cutouts are people or procedures that enable political operators to communicate in safety. Using cutouts, operators can manipulate their environments while limiting their personal risk. How can you detect cutouts? And what can you do about them?
Lion, ready to spring, in Samburu National Reserve, KenyaUsing Indirectness at Work
Although many of us value directness, indirectness does have its place. At times, conveying information indirectly can be a safe way — sometimes the only safe way — to preserve or restore well-being and comity within the organization.
Captain William BlighHow to Tell If You Work for a Nanomanager
By now, we've all heard of micromanagers, and some have experienced micromanagement firsthand. Some of us have even micromanaged others. But there's a breed of micromanagers whose behavior is so outlandish that they need a category of their own.
Col. John Boyd, U.S. Air Force, in a photo taken during his time as a fighter pilotOODA at Work
OODA is a model of decision-making that's especially useful in rapidly evolving environments, such as combat, marketing, politics, and emergency management. Here's a brief overview.
The Garden Tiger moth, Arctia cajaTelephonic Deceptions: Part I
People have been deceiving each other at work since the invention of work. Nowadays, with telephones ever-present, telephonic deceptions are becoming more creative. Here's Part I of a handy guide for telephonic self-defense.

See also Workplace Politics and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

An outstanding example of the Utility Pole anti-patternComing June 1: Workplace Anti-Patterns
We find patterns of counter-effective behavior — anti-patterns — in every part of life, including the workplace. Why? What are their features? Available here and by RSS on June 1.
An outstanding example of the Utility Pole anti-patternAnd on June 8: The Utility Pole Anti-Pattern: Part I
Organizational processes can get so complicated that nobody actually knows how they work. If getting something done takes too long, the organization can't lead its markets, or even catch up to the leaders. Why does this happen? Available here and by RSS on June 8.

Coaching services

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

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 an upcoming date for this program:

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 whats 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's an upcoming date for this program:

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:

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.