Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 9;   February 29, 2012: The Tyranny of Singular Nouns

The Tyranny of Singular Nouns

by

When groups try to reach decisions, and the issue in question has a name that suggests a unitary concept, such as "policy," they sometimes collectively assume that they're required to find a one-size-fits-all solution. This assumption leads to poor decisions when one-size-fits-all isn't actually required.
Henri Laurence Gantt, inventor of the Gantt Chart

Henri Laurence Gantt (1861-1919), an American mechanical engineer and management consultant, and inventor of the Gantt Chart. As an advocate of the methods of his associate, Frederick Winslow Taylor, Gantt's work was important in propagating the concepts of scientific management. One of Taylor's concepts, important even today, is the idea that there is "One Best Way" to carry out any task. While that principle might have been valid in some of the narrow contexts of early twentieth century manufacturing processes, it is much less often — even rarely — valid in the much more complex domains of knowledge work. Yet, people continue to operate as if there is one best solution to the problems that arise in the modern workplace. This assumption might be a contributing factor in driving many discussions towards singular resolutions that might not even exist. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Group decision-making can be so difficult that many believe that vesting decision-making authority in a single individual is always preferable. Yet, much of the difficulty is self-imposed. For many impasses groups encounter, the cause of the divisiveness is neither the group itself nor a clash of the personalities of its people. Rather, it is a trick of the mind that I call the Tyranny of Singular Nouns.

This problem arises when groups are engaged in debate that they regard inappropriately as requiring a unitary solution. Often, such issues could actually be resolved by solutions with multiple components. One cause of this error of thinking is the name we give to the issue. If that name is one we think of as singular, we're more likely to slip into the trap. For example, policy is a singular noun that sometimes leads us to seek an elegant, one-size-fits-all statement that covers all situations. If we can do so easily, that's fine. But when we can't, we might not actually need to find a unitary formulation. Too many debates are undertaken without first considering whether unitary resolution is truly necessary.

Here are four examples of debate topics that often generate unnecessary searches for singular resolutions.

Assessing defect severity
In product development, we usually consider defect severity to be a singular attribute. But defects affect different populations differently. Is it necessary that we reach a singular conclusion as to severity? Often, it is. But always?
Formulating policy
We usually regard policies as applying equally to all, but policies can have exclusions and allowances for special situations without necessarily eroding fairness.
Choosing solutions to problems
When we seek solutions to problems, we tend to hold singular solutions in highest regard. But workable solutions with multiple components, available now, can be superior to elegant solutions not yet in hand.
Estimating cost and schedule
When we're undertaking something for the Workable solutions with multiple
components, available now, can
be superior to elegant solutions
not yet in hand
first time, we can't anticipate every challenge. To account for uncertainty, our estimates must be expressed as ranges, rather than single numbers or dates. To insist upon a single figure for cost or duration is naïve.

The impulse to seek singular resolution might be related to the relatively recent (in cultural terms) innovation of mass production, which depends on uniformity. As a culture, we're still enamored of mass production.

But modern manufacturing methods now allow for variety. We've moved beyond one-size-fits-all. And when we're "manufacturing" non-physical things — ideas, policies, estimates, and so on — one-size-fits-all might be precisely the wrong approach.

Educate your teams in the Tyranny of Singular Nouns. When they do seek singular resolution to an issue, let it not be driven by a reflexive urge for uniformity. Let it be driven by reasoned, conscious choice. Go to top Top  Next issue: Speak for Influence  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenhVKPHwaibmkzzqnwner@ChacmOcGfjuUaGXlnMqwoCanyon.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 Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Don't start meetings on the hourMastering Meeting Madness
If you lead an organization, and people are mired in meeting madness, you can end it. Here are a few tips that can free everyone to finally get some work done.
A broadcast-only sporting event during a pandemicSocial Distancing for Pandemic Flu
It's time we all began to take seriously the warning about a possible influenza pandemic. Whether or not your organization has a plan, you can do much to reduce your own chances of infection, and the chances of mass infection, by adopting a set of practices known as social distancing.
The U.S. Capitol at nightExcuses, Excuses
When a goal remains unaccomplished, we sometimes tell ourselves that we understand why. And sometimes we do. But at other times, we're just fooling ourselves.
Mess line, noon, Manzanar Relocation Center, California, 1943Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: II
Facilitators of synchronous distributed meetings — meetings that occur in real time, via telephone or video — encounter problems that facilitators of face-to-face meetings do not. Here's Part II of a little catalog of those problems, and some suggestions for addressing them.
A view from the false summit of the Manitou incline in ColoradoFalse Summits: I
Mountaineers often experience "false summits," when just as they thought they were nearing the summit, it turns out that there is much more climbing to do. So it is in project work.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Five almondsComing October 25: Workplace Memes
Some patterns of workplace society reduce organizational effectiveness in ways that often escape our notice. Here are five examples. Available here and by RSS on October 25.
Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital International AirportAnd on November 1: Risk Creep: I
Risk creep is a term that describes the insidious and unrecognized increase in risk that occurs despite our every effort to mitigate risk or avoid it altogether. What are the dominant sources of risk creep? Available here and by RSS on November 1.

Coaching services

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

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about 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
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Workplace Politics Awareness Month KitIn October, increase awareness of workplace politics, and learn how to convert destructive politics into creative politics. Order the Workplace Politics Awareness Month Kit during October at the special price of USD 29.95 and save USD 10.00! Includes a copy of my tips book 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics which is a value!! ! Check it out!
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.