Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 8, Issue 51;   December 17, 2008: The Perils of Piecemeal Analysis: Content

The Perils of Piecemeal Analysis: Content

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

A team member proposes a solution to the latest show-stopping near-disaster. After extended discussion, the team decides whether or not to pursue the idea. It's a costly approach, because too often it leads us to reject unnecessarily some perfectly sound proposals, and to accept others we shouldn't have.

You're in a meeting, with eight other anxious souls, discussing the latest burning issue. Dale has just presented a proposal that's innovative, elegant, and creative. One by one, people raise questions about the idea. Well, not questions…they're more like objections. "What if X happens?" or "Does it deal with the Y problem?" or "Is it compatible with Z?" or "Can we can get budget approval?" And so on.

Albert Einstein playing his violin on his 50th birthday in 1929

Albert Einstein playing his violin on his 50th birthday in 1929. In 1935, he published a paper with two of his research associates, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen. The paper posed a problem in quantum mechanics which has become known as the EPR Paradox, and which has been debated ever since (though most physicists now believe the matter is settled). The debate of this question, much like most scientific debates, has been fairly symmetric, in that all participants contributed both proposals and objections with more or less similar intensity and formality. Science has little tolerance for the asymmetry we see in piecemeal analysis, which leads so often to incorrect conclusions. Photo courtesy Town Topics, community newspaper of Princeton, New Jersey. Read more about the EPR Paradox.

Some objections have immediate answers. Most don't. Since the details are unknown, nobody has all the answers. Unanswered objections are added to a growing Issues List.

Eventually the list becomes intimidating enough that some lose faith, and the initial optimism starts to fade. With momentum dissipating, someone suggests another approach, and promises to have a proposal tomorrow. Dale's idea is abandoned.

Sometimes the opposite happens: we find answers to all the questions we can think of, and we think all is well when it isn't.

I call this pattern of group discussion piecemeal analysis. It can mean the end for perfectly fine proposals, and it can lead to a "go" for some truly dumb proposals. Why? In this first part, we approach the question from a content perspective. In the second part, we examine the group dynamics of piecemeal analysis. Here are five ways in which the reasoning of piecemeal analysis might go astray.

Objectors have an advantage
Since we see the objections as independent of each other, responding effectively to one objection leaves the credibility of the other objections intact. By contrast, because of the halo effect, flaws in one part of the proposal degrade the credibility of the whole.
Objections might not be logically consistent
Since objections are independent, they and their implications need not be mutually consistent. Moreover, some objections, taken together, might have subtly inconsistent implications that we miss in a fast-paced discussion. What might seem to be flaws in the proposal might not be, because the conditions of the objections cannot all be met.
Some objections are invalid
Some objections seem plausible, but their conditions cannot actually occur. Yet, in error, we add them to the Issues List. They become part of the case against the proposal, almost as if they were demonstrably valid.
Some of our answers to objections are incorrect
As the defenders of the proposal respond to the objections, the group assesses the validity of their responses. Sometimes both the response and the assessment are incorrect. The proposal moves ahead when it should not.Some objections might
seem plausible, but
cannot actually occur
We overlook some valid objections
When we rely only on the open discussion to analyze the proposal, we might overlook some material issues that are truly problematic, or we might reject them incorrectly. This is most likely when things are going well for the proposal.

But even if we could address these content issues of piecemeal analysis, issues related to the dynamics of the group remain. We'll look at that side of the question in two weeks.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Making Memories to Cherish  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!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.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:

A stormEmailstorming
Most of us get too much email. Some is spam, but even if we figured out how to eliminate spam, most would still agree that we get too much email. What's happening? And what can we do about it?
Lewis and Clark on the Lower ColumbiaAstonishing Successes
When we have successes that surprise us, we do feel good, but beyond that, our reactions are sometimes self-defeating. What happens when we experience unanticipated success, and how can we handle it better?
One site auditing a virtual presentationVirtual Presentations
Modern team efforts almost certainly involve teleconferences, and many teleconferences include presentations, often augmented with video or graphics. Delivering these virtual presentations effectively requires an approach tailored to the medium.
Christ's Indian PaintbrushFour Popular Ways to Mismanage Layoffs: I
When layoffs are necessary, the problems they are meant to address are sometimes exacerbated by mismanagement of the layoff itself. Here is Part I of a discussion of four common patterns of mismanagement, and some suggestions for those managers and other employees who recognize the patterns in their own companies.
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.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness, Problem Solving and Creativity and Effective Meetings for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

An excavator loads spoil into rail cars in the Culebra Cut, Panama, 1904Coming October 23: Power Distance and Teams
One of the attributes of team cultures is something called power distance, which is a measure of the overall comfort people have with inequality in the distribution of power. Power distance can determine how well a team performs when executing high-risk projects. Available here and by RSS on October 23.
John Frank Stevens, who conceived the design and method of construction of the Panama CanalAnd on October 30: Power Distance and Risk
Managing or responding to project risks is much easier when team culture encourages people to report problems and question any plans they have reason to doubt. Here are five examples that show how such encouragement helps to manage risk. Available here and by RSS on October 30.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.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 Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership

On 14The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership 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. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in leadership and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at leadership from the vantage point of history. 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 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.
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.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.