Warren fumed, "Now hold it. I might be getting on, but I'm not losing my mind. Last week you claimed you could have them both by October," he said, referring to the emergency meeting where they'd agreed on the plan for Marigold.
Suddenly, Rita understood. "Ah," she began, "You asked, 'if we extend till October, could we finish the A list?' and I said yes. Then later you asked, 'If we extend till October, could we get the XP revisions?' And I said yes. But I thought you wanted budget and schedule for both scenarios separately, not both together. Now I understand."
Warren held his ground. "That's right, and that's what you're going to do, because that's what you agreed to."
Rita has just been reminded of how dangerous it can be to answer hypothetical questions in conversation. In the project context, perhaps the most common form is "If <some set of conditions>, can you achieve <some set of goals>?" There are other forms too, but we'll deal with this one.
Answering these hypotheticals in conversation is often dangerous. Although it's probably safe enough to respond to hypotheticals in writing, conversational responses often lead to the Hypothetical Trap.
In meetings or other conversation, the only safe answers are either "No, I don't think so," or "Hmm, I'll get back to you." Here are some reasons why answering more concretely is risky.
- I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore
- By definition, Answering hypotheticals
is often dangerousthe hypothetical conditions don't exist now, and they might be outside your experience. Answering a question outside your experience is always tricky.
- Questions are usually ambiguous
- Even a carefully framed question is just a sketch — it doesn't completely describe a real situation. Your answer is necessarily based on some assumptions, which might differ from the questioner's assumptions.
- Contingencies rarely stick
- People remember your answers much better than they remember the question's contingencies or any conditions you placed on your answers. For instance, if you answer "Yes" to "If we gave you a million two and another seven months, could you do it?" people remember the "Yes" better than they remember the "million two" or the "seven months."
- Incompatible combinations
- If you're asked two hypotheticals with two sets of assumptions, and you give two answers, people might remember your answers as if they were the answers to a single question, even if the contingencies are incompatible. This is what happened to Rita.
- Nonlinear superposition
- If you said that you could do A for $A in M months, and B for $B in M months, you might be required to achieve both A and B for $A + $B (or less!) in M months, even though the world doesn't work that way.
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!
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More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
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would still agree that we get too much email. What's happening? And what can we do about it?
- Films Not About Project Teams: I
- Here's part one of a list of films and videos about project teams that weren't necessarily meant to
be about project teams. Most are available to borrow from the public library, and all are great fun.
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- Down in the Weeds: I
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- And on May 2: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VII
- Narcissistic behavior at work prevents trusting relationships from developing. It also disrupts existing relationships, and generates toxic conflict. One class of behaviors that's especially threatening to relationships is disregard for the feelings of others. In this part of our series we examine the effects of that disregard. Available here and by RSS on May 2.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people 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.