Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 8, Issue 51;   December 17, 2008: The Perils of Piecemeal Analysis: Content

The Perils of Piecemeal Analysis: Content

by

A team member proposes a solution to the latest show-stopping near-disaster. After extended discussion, the team decides whether or not to pursue the idea. It's a costly approach, because too often it leads us to reject unnecessarily some perfectly sound proposals, and to accept others we shouldn't have.

You're in a meeting, with eight other anxious souls, discussing the latest burning issue. Dale has just presented a proposal that's innovative, elegant, and creative. One by one, people raise questions about the idea. Well, not questions…they're more like objections. "What if X happens?" or "Does it deal with the Y problem?" or "Is it compatible with Z?" or "Can we can get budget approval?" And so on.

Albert Einstein playing his violin on his 50th birthday in 1929

Albert Einstein playing his violin on his 50th birthday in 1929. In 1935, he published a paper with two of his research associates, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen. The paper posed a problem in quantum mechanics which has become known as the EPR Paradox, and which has been debated ever since (though most physicists now believe the matter is settled). The debate of this question, much like most scientific debates, has been fairly symmetric, in that all participants contributed both proposals and objections with more or less similar intensity and formality. Science has little tolerance for the asymmetry we see in piecemeal analysis, which leads so often to incorrect conclusions. Photo courtesy Town Topics, community newspaper of Princeton, New Jersey. Read more about the EPR Paradox.

Some objections have immediate answers. Most don't. Since the details are unknown, nobody has all the answers. Unanswered objections are added to a growing Issues List.

Eventually the list becomes intimidating enough that some lose faith, and the initial optimism starts to fade. With momentum dissipating, someone suggests another approach, and promises to have a proposal tomorrow. Dale's idea is abandoned.

Sometimes the opposite happens: we find answers to all the questions we can think of, and we think all is well when it isn't.

I call this pattern of group discussion piecemeal analysis. It can mean the end for perfectly fine proposals, and it can lead to a "go" for some truly dumb proposals. Why? In this first part, we approach the question from a content perspective. In the second part, we examine the group dynamics of piecemeal analysis. Here are five ways in which the reasoning of piecemeal analysis might go astray.

Objectors have an advantage
Since we see the objections as independent of each other, responding effectively to one objection leaves the credibility of the other objections intact. By contrast, flaws in one part of the proposal affect the credibility of the whole.
Objections might not be logically consistent
Since objections are independent, they and their implications need not be mutually consistent. Moreover, some objections, taken together, might have subtly inconsistent implications that we miss in a fast-paced discussion. What might seem to be flaws in the proposal might not be, because the conditions of the objections cannot all be met.
Some objections are invalid
Some objections seem plausible, but their conditions cannot actually occur. Yet, in error, we add them to the Issues List. They become part of the case against the proposal, almost as if they were demonstrably valid.
Some of our answers to objections are incorrect
As the defenders of the proposal respond to the objections, the group assesses the validity of their responses. Sometimes both the response and the assessment are incorrect. The proposal moves ahead when it should not.Some objections might
seem plausible, but
cannot actually occur
We overlook some valid objections
When we rely only on the open discussion to analyze the proposal, we might overlook some material issues that are truly problematic, or we might reject them incorrectly. This is most likely when things are going well for the proposal.

But even if we could address these content issues of piecemeal analysis, issues related to the dynamics of the group remain. We'll look at that side of the question in two weeks.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Making Memories to Cherish  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenBwvSCQZsNsOdoVpfner@ChacJwzsiQAvtJipzQiooCanyon.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:

PadlocksDiagonal Collaborations: Dazzling or Dangerous?
Collaborations can be very productive. There are some traps though, especially when the collaborators are of different rank, with the partner of lower rank reporting to a peer of the other. Here are some tips for preventing conflict in diagonal collaborations.
The Boott Cotton Mills and Eastern CanalThere Is No Rumor Mill
Rumors about organizational intentions or expectations can depress productivity. Even when they're factually false, rumors can be so powerful that they sometimes produce the results they predict. How can we manage organizational rumors?
The male red-capped manakinFinding Work in Tough Times: Communications
Finding work in tough times entails presenting yourself to many people. You'll be conversing, interviewing, writing, presenting, and when you're finally successful, negotiating.
Admiral Edward Ratcliffe Garth Russell Evans, first Baron Mountevans of ChelseaGuidelines for Delegation
Mastering the art of delegation can increase your productivity, and help to develop the skills of the people you lead or manage. And it makes them better delegators, too. Here are some guidelines for delegation.
The Niagara River and cantilever bridgeBottlenecks: I
Some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks." The people around them repeatedly find themselves stuck, awaiting responses or decisions. Why does this happen and what are the costs?

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A review meetingComing December 13: Reframing Revision Resentment: II
When we're required to revise something previously produced — prose, designs, software, whatever, we sometimes experience frustration with those requiring the revisions. Here are some alternative perspectives that can be helpful. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
Raquel Welch (left) and Gilda Radner (right) from a @Cite{Saturday Night Live rehearsal, April 24, 1976And on December 20: Conceptual Mondegreens
When we disagree about abstractions, such as a problem solution, or a competitor's strategy, the cause can often be misunderstanding the abstraction. That misunderstanding can be a conceptual mondegreen. Available here and by RSS on December 20.

Coaching services

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

Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applications
When Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applicationswe talk, listen, send or read emails, read or write memos, or when we leave or listen to voice mail messages, we're communicating person-to-person. And whenever we communicate person-to-person, we risk being misunderstood, offending others, feeling hurt, and being confused. There are so many ways for things to go wrong that we could never learn how to fix all the problems. A more effective approach avoids problems altogether, or at least minimizes their occurrence. In this very interactive program we'll explain — and show you how to use — a model of inter-personal communications that can help you stay out of the ditch. We'll place particular emphasis on a very tricky situation — expressing your personal power. In those moments of intense involvement, when we're most likely to slip, you'll have a new tool to use to keep things constructive. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

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.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
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.