Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 3, Issue 31;   July 30, 2003:

Choices for Widening Choices

by

Choosing is easy when you don't have much to choose from. That's one reason why groups sometimes don't recognize all the possibilities — they're happiest when choosing is easy. When we notice this happening, what can we do about it?

After an hour of debate, their choices had narrowed. Dylan summarized: "Either we deliver the original package using only our downsized team and downsized budget, or we cancel. I think we have no choice. We go ahead with what we have left." He turned to Helen. "Don't you agree?"

Horns of a dilemmaHelen felt pressured. Dylan, along with the rest of the group, was seeing only some of their choices. Helen decided to tell them that. "I do agree that those are two of our choices. I'm just wondering about our other options. What happens if we offer to stretch out the schedule?"

Helen is gently trying to widen the team's choices by describing one alternative specifically, to see if the team will consider it. How well that tactic works depends on why the group has chosen not to look for other options.

Here are some choice-widening tactics tailored to situations when teams might not see their full range of choices.

When a group is reluctant
to look at all its choices,
what can you do?
It's their football
If the team is in a dependent stance, it might decide that its choices are limited, considering only those options that it believes are approved.
Question those beliefs. Instead of proposing a specific alternative choice, as Helen did, try to move the team to explore possibilities directly with those who have approval authority.
Taboos
Taboos sometimes prevent the discussion of certain alternatives. For instance, a taboo against acknowledging failure can close down any discussion of a schedule slip or a cancellation.
Direct attention toward the taboo. Ask about it, and ask what will happen if the taboo suspended for five minutes. Use humor. Once the taboo is suspended, open a discussion of alternatives.
Imaginary responsibility shift
By letting others dictate the choice, team members transfer the responsibility for the consequences of the choice — at least in their own minds.
Open a discussion of responsibility. Ask directly who is responsible for the consequences of the choices the team makes. Can it ever be anyone other than the team?
Fear of success
Virginia Satir observed that people often choose the familiar over the comfortable. Sometimes success looks risky.
Explore the upside of the alternatives you have in mind. For instance, Helen could ask, "If we slip by three months, how much better would our product be?"
Trips to Abilene
Sometimes a group decides to do something nobody in the group wants to do ("Trips to Abilene," Point Lookout for November 27, 2002).
Ask "are we on a trip to Abilene?" Explore the reasons behind the choices the group has made.

A narrow range of choices produces a narrow range of outcomes. When a team needs more choices, a wide range of choice-widening tactics helps. Some of the tactics above might serve in your situation, but what if you need more choices for widening choices? How can you find more? Go to top Top  Next issue: Finger Puzzles and "Common Sense"  Next Issue

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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.
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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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