Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 4, Issue 13;   March 31, 2004: The Hypothetical Trap

The Hypothetical Trap

by

Politicians know that answering hypothetical questions is dangerous, but it's equally dangerous for managers and project managers to answer them in the project context. What's the problem? Why should you be careful of the "What If?"
Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, and Toto too

Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, and Toto too. Photo from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.

Warren fumed, "Now hold it. I might be getting on, but I'm not losing my mind. Last week you claimed you could have them both by October," he said, referring to the emergency meeting where they'd agreed on the plan for Marigold.

Suddenly, Rita understood. "Ah," she began, "You asked, 'if we extend till October, could we finish the A list?' and I said yes. Then later you asked, 'If we extend till October, could we get the XP revisions?' And I said yes. But I thought you wanted budget and schedule for both scenarios separately, not both together. Now I understand."

Warren held his ground. "That's right, and that's what you're going to do, because that's what you agreed to."

Rita has just been reminded of how dangerous it can be to answer hypothetical questions in conversation. In the project context, perhaps the most common form is "If <some set of conditions>, can you achieve <some set of goals>?" There are other forms too, but we'll deal with this one.

Answering these hypotheticals in conversation is often dangerous. Although it's probably safe enough to respond to hypotheticals in writing, conversational responses often lead to the Hypothetical Trap.

In meetings or other conversation, the only safe answers are either "No, I don't think so," or "Hmm, I'll get back to you." Here are some reasons why answering more concretely is risky.

I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore
By definition, Answering hypotheticals
in conversation
is often dangerous
the hypothetical conditions don't exist now, and they might be outside your experience. Answering a question outside your experience is always tricky.
Questions are usually ambiguous
Even a carefully framed question is just a sketch — it doesn't completely describe a real situation. Your answer is necessarily based on some assumptions, which might differ from the questioner's assumptions.
Contingencies rarely stick
People remember your answers much better than they remember the question's contingencies or any conditions you placed on your answers. For instance, if you answer "Yes" to "If we gave you a million two and another seven months, could you do it?" people remember the "Yes" better than they remember the "million two" or the "seven months."
Incompatible combinations
If you're asked two hypotheticals with two sets of assumptions, and you give two answers, people might remember your answers as if they were the answers to a single question, even if the contingencies are incompatible. This is what happened to Rita.
Nonlinear superposition
If you said that you could do A for $A in M months, and B for $B in M months, you might be required to achieve both A and B for $A + $B (or less!) in M months, even though the world doesn't work that way.

Now what would you do if someone asked you a hypothetical question? Go to top Top  Next issue: Who Would You Take With You to Mars?  Next Issue

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? rbrenzLzZHJpqtdgVTmibner@ChacHUOANQPgNmUPQEMAoCanyon.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 Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

The Night Café, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888Changing the Subject: II
Sometimes, in conversation, we must change the subject, but we also do it to dominate, manipulate, or assert power. Subject changing — and controlling its use — can be important political skills.
A frost-covered spider webSome Limits of Root Cause Analysis
Root Cause Analysis uses powerful tools for finding the sources of process problems. The approach has been so successful that it has become a way of thinking about organizational patterns. Yet, resolving organizational problems this way sometimes works — and sometimes fails. Why?
U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Christa Quam holds her puppyBe With the Real
When the stream of unimportant events and concerns reaches a high enough tempo, we can become so transfixed that we lose awareness of the real and the important. Here are some suggestions for being with the Real.
Mohandas K. Ghandi, in the 1930sJust Make It Happen
Many idolize the no-nonsense manager who says, "I don't want to hear excuses, just make it happen." We associate that stance with strong leadership. Sometimes, though, it's little more than abuse motivated by ambition or ignorance — or both.
North Fork Fire in Yellowstone, 1988The Risks of Too Many Projects: II
Although taking on too many projects risks defocusing the organization, the problems just begin there. Here are three more ways over-commitment causes organizations to waste resources or lose opportunities.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The Jolly RogerComing August 22: Dealing with Credit Appropriation
Very little is more frustrating than having someone else claim credit for the work you do. Worse, sometimes they blame you if they get into trouble after misusing your results. Here are three tips for dealing with credit appropriation. Available here and by RSS on August 22.
RMS Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912And on August 29: Please Reassure Them
When things go wildly wrong, someone is usually designated to investigate and assess the probability of further trouble. That role can be risky. Here are three guidelines for protecting yourself if that role falls to you. Available here and by RSS on August 29.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenuqynJIXSuMuoiFoMner@ChacUKOHiNSWYmphmuPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, 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.

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.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
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.
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.