Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 3, Issue 30;   July 23, 2003:

Poverty of Choice by Choice

by

Sometimes our own desire not to have choices prevents us from finding creative solutions. Life can be simpler (if less rich) when we have no choices to make. Why do we accept the same tired solutions, and how can we tell when we're doing it?

Since it was a longish layover, Terri suggested that they go up to the observation deck, where they could watch the take-offs and landings, and where she knew there were about a dozen wooden rocking chairs. Reluctantly, Kyle agreed.

A rocking chairAfter only three rocks Kyle felt the urge to thank Terri. "Good idea, Terri. Thank you."

She smiled. They rocked a while.

Kyle spoke. "I wonder how we got here," he said.

"You mean…" Terri left it open.

"You know, shipping it when we knew it was a mess. This trip is so predictable, so unnecessary."

"Yeah. But we really didn't have a choice."

Perhaps. It does happen. Or perhaps they didn't want to have a choice.

Choosing from alternatives that cause discomfort or anxiety can make life complex. Often, we're more comfortable with limited options, even though later we might regret having chosen one of them.

Here are just a few of the reasons why we limit our own choices.

Taboos
Difficult choices can cause
discomfort. Sometimes, we'd
rather not have a choice.
We're afraid of — or can't discuss — some of the unspoken choices. For instance, even though canceling a troubled project is always a choice, we seldom consider cancellation. See "Workplace Taboos and Change," Point Lookout for February 26, 2003.
It's my football
Those controlling the decision process have a favored option, which is already on the table. They don't want to develop more options.
It's their football
The options we already have include one that would please those who finally approve our choice. We converge on the one we think they want.
Fear of success
We prefer to go with what we know, rather than take risks that might lead to something better. Virginia Satir captured this situation when she said, "People prefer the familiar to the comfortable."
Trips to Abilene
We're all so careful to avoid rocking the boat that we end up rowing in a direction nobody wants to go. This is one form of a dynamic called "a trip to Abilene." See "Trips to Abilene," Point Lookout for November 27, 2002.

Noticing that we're avoiding uncomfortable choices can be difficult. Here are some of the phrases we hear when we're limiting our own choices.

  • We're forced to
  • You leave me no choice
  • It's in God's hands now
  • They made me do it
  • I don't know what else to do; I see no other way
  • I had no choice
  • I couldn't help it
  • It's our only option
  • We're out of moves (options)
  • We have only one real choice
  • We're between a rock and a hard place
  • Our hands are tied
  • Beggars can't be choosers
  • We have to bite the bullet
  • There's only one way to do this
  • Here's what we have to do
  • I'll go along with whatever you decide
  • If you say so…you're the expert.
  • It doesn't make any difference — we lose either way
  • Been there, done that
  • We tried that last time

Limiting our own choices is actually a choice in itself. It can be a wise choice only if we're aware we've made it. Go to top Top  Next issue: Choices for Widening Choices  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!

If you notice this happening, what can you do about it? We'll look at that next time.

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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A possibly difficult choiceComing April 21: Choice-Supportive Bias
Choice-supportive bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to evaluate our past choices as more fitting than they actually were. The erroneous judgments it produces can be especially costly to organizations interested in improving decision processes. Available here and by RSS on April 21.
Two people engaged in pair collaborationAnd on April 28: The Self-Explanation Effect
In the learning context, self-explanation is the act of explaining to oneself what one is learning. Self-explanation has been shown to increase the rate of acquiring mastery. The mystery is why we don't structure knowledge work to exploit this phenomenon. Available here and by RSS on April 28.

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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.

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