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 handfirst 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. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
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- You're chairing a meeting, and to your dismay, things get out of hand. People interrupt each other so
often that nobody can complete a thought, and some people dominate the meeting. What can you do?
- Dealing with Deadlock
- At times it seems that nothing works. Whenever we try to get moving, we encounter obstacles. If we try
to go around them, we find more obstacles. How do we get stuck? And how can we get unstuck?
- Astonishing Successes
- When we have successes that surprise us, we do feel good, but beyond that, our reactions are sometimes
self-defeating. What happens when we experience unanticipated success, and how can we handle it better?
- No Tangles
- When we must say "no" to people who have superior organizational power, the message sometimes
fails to get across. The trouble can be in the form of the message, the style of delivery, or elsewhere.
How does this happen?
- Team Risks
- Working in teams is necessary in most modern collaborations, but teamwork does carry risks. Here are
some risks worth mitigating.
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- Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
- Many people experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes
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- On 14 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.
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- 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.