Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 14;   April 4, 2012: Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why

Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why

by

When we investigate what went wrong, we sometimes encounter obstacles. Interviewing witnesses and participants doesn't always uncover the reasons why. What are these obstacles?
R.M.S. Lusitania coming into port, possibly in New York.

Cunard's R.M.S. Lusitania coming into port, possibly in New York. The passenger liner was sunk by a German U-Boat early in World War I, on May 7, 1915. At the time, she was carrying 1,959 passengers and crew, 1,198 of whom were killed. She sank within 18 minutes of being struck. Her sinking was viewed by many as what we now call a war crime, and it led to the entry of the United States into the war.

During the investigation that followed, investigators encountered many of the obstacles to truth-finding that are listed here. The question of the number of torpedoes provides an example of fabrication. One torpedo was deployed, but since two torpedoes would deflect responsibility for loss of life away from Cunard and the ship designers, witnesses were pressured to report two torpedoes. An example of concealment was the withholding of information about the ammunition cargo that the ship carried. Explosive cargo might have been identified as a reason for the rapid sinking. Photo from the George Grantham Bain Collection (U.S. Library of Congress).

Following unwanted outcomes, we often commission "lessons learned" exercises to investigate the conditions that brought about the unwanted outcomes. We want to learn how to prevent recurrences of those outcomes or any other unwanted outcomes that might flow from similar conditions. In too many organizations, these exercises yield useless or misleading results.

What we seek is Truth: the reasons why the unwanted outcome occurred. But these investigations rely on reports from people who participated in or witnessed events leading to the outcome. To find the truth we must interpret the reports we receive, and those reports can contain a variety of misleading elements. Here's a short catalog of those elements.

Confusions and mistakes
Relying on memory and impressions, witnesses and participants sometimes get it wrong. They get confused about the order of events, or who did what. They confuse what they actually witnessed with what they heard about second-hand.
Excuses
An excuse is a fact, condition, or situation that provides protection for someone from blame for the unwanted outcome. Excuses are those offerings that, if true, most people would accept as relieving someone of being regarded as having caused or contributed to causing the unwanted outcome.
Allegations
An allegation is the opposite of an excuse — it's a fact, condition, or situation that, if true, affixes to someone blame for the unwanted outcome. While excuses tend to be offered by the person excused, allegations tend to be offered by someone other than the one blamed.
Omissions
Reports that omit relevant information can also mislead investigators. Omissions can be intentional, but they need not be. They can result from numerous factors including faulty memory, emotional trauma, and poor technique by the investigator.
Concealment
Concealment To find the truth we must
interpret reports that can
contain a variety of
misleading elements
transcends intentional omission. It includes deliberate actions to deflect the investigator from the information concealed, such as destruction or obfuscation of information, or propagating false accounts of events. It can also include actions that make the information difficult to retrieve. For example, important witnesses might be relocated, terminated, or transferred.
Fabrications
Fabrications are fictions intended to mislead the investigator. When well crafted and when delivered by someone who is unaware that they are fabrications, they are difficult to detect, because the deliverer isn't actually lying. Detecting them often requires tracing them to their source.

In determining who acted (or did not act) so as to contribute to the genesis of the unwanted outcome, there's a high risk that some witnesses and participants might experience the investigation as a search for someone to blame. The investigators themselves might adopt this belief.

In organizational cultures that tend to affix blame, investigations are unlikely to uncover much Truth, because people fear blame. Over time, people who don't master these tools for misleading investigations tend to be discredited, ejected from the organization, or allocated to less central roles. Organizations that want to improve outcomes would do well to eliminate blame from their cultures.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Reactance and Micromanagement  Next Issue

For indicators that an organizational culture is a blaming culture, see "Top Ten Signs of a Blaming Culture," Point Lookout for February 16, 2005. The words blame and accountability are often used interchangeably, but they have very different meanings. See "Is It Blame or Is It Accountability?," Point Lookout for December 21, 2005, for a discussion of blame and accountability. For more on blaming and blaming organizations, see "Organizational Coping Patterns" and "Plenty of Blame to Go Around," Point Lookout for August 27, 2003.

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? rbrenMNGZQfbHtRqMRjuVner@ChacTEmNPnJMMaNUmdsPoCanyon.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 Organizational Change:

Diving into a fish tankLook Before You Leap
When we execute complex organizational change, we sometimes create disasters. It's ironic that even in companies that test their products thoroughly, we rarely test organizational changes before we "roll them out." We need systematic methods for discovering problems before we execute change efforts. One approach that works well is the simulation.
Willis Tower, ChicagoDon't Rebuild the Chrysler Building
When we undertake change, we're usually surprised at the effort and cost required. Much of this effort and cost is necessary because of the nature of the processes we're changing. What can we do differently to make change easier in the future?
No symbolWorkplace Taboos and Change
In the workplace, some things can't be discussed — they are taboo. When we're aware of taboos, we can choose when to obey them, and when to be more flexible. When we're unaware of them, they can limit our ability to change.
A polar bear, feeding, on landLetting Go of the Status Quo: the Debate
Before we can change, we must want to change, or at least accept that we must change. And somewhere in there, we must let go of some part of what is now in place — the status quo. In organizations, the decision to let go involves debate.
Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Frank MurphyThe Passion-Professionalism Paradox
Changing the direction of a group or a company requires passion and professionalism, two attributes often in tension. Here's one possible way to resolve that tension.

See also Organizational Change and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Probably not the kind of waiting we have in mind hereComing July 26: Strategic Waiting
Time can be a tool. Letting time pass can be a strategy for resolving problems or getting out of tight places. Waiting is an often-overlooked strategic option. Available here and by RSS on July 26.
Srinivasa RamanujanAnd on August 2: Linear Thinking Bias
When assessing the validity of problem solutions, we regard them as more valid if their discovery stories are logical, than we would if they're less than logical. This can lead to erroneous assessments, because the discovery story is not the solution. Available here and by RSS on August 2.

Coaching services

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

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.

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers 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. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. 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.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
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.