When we succeed, we rarely have difficulty finding possible explanations. People tend to volunteer them, especially if they're seeking personal credit. But when we fail, candidate explanations can be more difficult to uncover, even when we gather for sessions intended to find those explanations.
When we work as groups to learn what might be the underlying causes of failures, we can encounter patterns that create obstacles to learning. I cataloged some of them back in 2012, but I've since encountered a few more.
The scene is a group session convened to determine what we might do better, what we might stop doing, or what we might start doing. I'll use the names Willis or Wanda for the person who is withholding information.
- Withholding in case of plausible ignorance
- When Wanda has a critical piece of information, but feels that it might reflect badly on her, or on someone who might retaliate if she reveals it, she is inclined to withhold it if she feels certain that nobody else knows that she knows.
- Psychological safety is a prerequisite for productive retrospectives. Learn how to establish it, and how to verify that you have it.
- Withholding when misapprehension is clear
- Even though Willis believes that people misunderstand what happened, he doesn't offer his view of the events, for reasons similar to Wanda's above.
- Do what you can to verify that the interpretation of events you believe is shared is actually shared. Ask open-ended questions about how things could have gone differently, and what would have been necessary for other things to happen.
- Intentionally underplaying or slanting
- In a Do what you can to verify
that the shared interpretation
of events is actually sharedtechnique commonly known as spinning, Wanda presents a slanted view of the information she's disclosing.
- Watch for "weasel words" — constructions that present an impression of substance, but which are unattributed, or so ambiguous, or so cleverly hedged that Wanda can later claim, "I never said that."
- Hiding critical information in clouds of irrelevance
- When Willis feels compelled to disclose something he'd rather withhold, he can bury it in other spew he doesn't mind revealing. For example, in claiming that he knew in advance that a certain wrong-headed decision should never have been made, he might not explicitly mention his own absence from the meeting that made that decision.
- Clear away the fluff. Maintain a focus on the purpose of the exercise.
- Withholding relevant information unless specifically requested
- Here Wanda withholds a critical fact, and everything related to it, unless someone happens to probe for it.
- Ask broad, random, open questions: "Does anyone know anything about any email messages that never arrived?" Spread a wide net that will oblige everyone with related information to speak up. Special safety measures might be required. For example, consider accepting anonymous responses.
I'm still gathering entries for this catalog. If you have candidates, rbrenBWKGABpgSKrNvxmoner@ChacsZwvZmrPJVqmQqUEoCanyon.comsend them along. First in this series Next in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Project Management:
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latest thinking about designing teams for extended space exploration.
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to improvise. How a group improvises tells us much about the group.
- Yet More Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why
- Part III of our catalog of obstacles encountered in retrospectives, when we try to uncover why we succeeded
— or failed.
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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.