Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 3, Issue 31;   July 30, 2003: Choices for Widening Choices

Choices for Widening Choices

by

Choosing is easy when you don't have much to choose from. That's one reason why groups sometimes don't recognize all the possibilities — they're happiest when choosing is easy. When we notice this happening, what can we do about it?

After an hour of debate, their choices had narrowed. Dylan summarized: "Either we deliver the original package using only our downsized team and downsized budget, or we cancel. I think we have no choice. We go ahead with what we have left." He turned to Helen. "Don't you agree?"

Horns of a dilemmaHelen felt pressured. Dylan, along with the rest of the group, was seeing only some of their choices. Helen decided to tell them that. "I do agree that those are two of our choices. I'm just wondering about our other options. What happens if we offer to stretch out the schedule?"

Helen is gently trying to widen the team's choices by describing one alternative specifically, to see if the team will consider it. How well that tactic works depends on why the group has chosen not to look for other options.

Here are some choice-widening tactics tailored to situations when teams might not see their full range of choices.

When a group is reluctant
to look at all its choices,
what can you do?
It's their football
If the team is in a dependent stance, it might decide that its choices are limited, considering only those options that it believes are approved.
Question those beliefs. Instead of proposing a specific alternative choice, as Helen did, try to move the team to explore possibilities directly with those who have approval authority.
Taboos
Taboos sometimes prevent the discussion of certain alternatives. For instance, a taboo against acknowledging failure can close down any discussion of a schedule slip or a cancellation.
Direct attention toward the taboo. Ask about it, and ask what will happen if the taboo suspended for five minutes. Use humor. Once the taboo is suspended, open a discussion of alternatives.
Imaginary responsibility shift
By letting others dictate the choice, team members transfer the responsibility for the consequences of the choice — at least in their own minds.
Open a discussion of responsibility. Ask directly who is responsible for the consequences of the choices the team makes. Can it ever be anyone other than the team?
Fear of success
Virginia Satir observed that people often choose the familiar over the comfortable. Sometimes success looks risky.
Explore the upside of the alternatives you have in mind. For instance, Helen could ask, "If we slip by three months, how much better would our product be?"
Trips to Abilene
Sometimes a group decides to do something nobody in the group wants to do ("Trips to Abilene," Point Lookout for November 27, 2002).
Ask "are we on a trip to Abilene?" Explore the reasons behind the choices the group has made.

A narrow range of choices produces a narrow range of outcomes. When a team needs more choices, a wide range of choice-widening tactics helps. Some of the tactics above might serve in your situation, but what if you need more choices for widening choices? How can you find more? Go to top Top  Next issue: Finger Puzzles and "Common Sense"  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

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More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

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When we think, "Paul doesn't trust me," we could be fooling ourselves into believing that we can read his mind. Unless he has directly expressed his distrust, we're just guessing, and we can reach whatever conclusion we wish, unconstrained by reality. In project management, as anywhere else, that's a recipe for trouble.
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Sometimes we misinterpret the messages we receive — what we see or hear. It's frustrating, and tempers can flare on both sides. But if we keep in mind two ideas, we can reduce the effects of message mismatches.
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Where do the days go? How can it be that we spend eight, ten, or twelve hours at work each day and get so little done? To find more time, focus on strategy.
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When we conceal information about ourselves and our areas of responsibility, we make room for others to speculate. Speculation is rarely helpful. It's wise to fill in the blanks.
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When some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks," they expose the organization to risks. Managing those risks is a first step to ending the bottlenecking pattern.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Prof. Tom PettigrewComing February 21: The Ultimate Attribution Error at Work
When we attribute the behavior of members of groups to some cause, either personal or situational, we tend to make systematic errors. Those errors can be expensive and avoidable. Available here and by RSS on February 21.
Daffodils of the variety Narcissus 'Barrett Browning'And on February 28: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: I
Briefly, when people exhibit narcissistic behavior they're engaging in activity that systematically places their own interests and welfare ahead of the interests and welfare of anyone or anything else. It's behavior that threatens the welfare of the organization and everyone employed there. Available here and by RSS on February 28.

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