Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 11, Issue 35;   August 31, 2011: Is the Question "How?" or "Whether?"

Is the Question "How?" or "Whether?"

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

In group decision-making, tension sometimes develops between those who favor commitment to the opportunity at hand, and those who repeatedly ask, "If we do that, how will we do it?" Why does this happen?
President Lincoln and Gen. George B. McClellan in the general's tent

President Lincoln (left) and Gen. George B. McClellan (right) in the general's tent near the Antietam battlefield, October 3, 1862. View a larger image. Although the Battle of Antietam is regarded as a Union victory, McClellan's performance was so questionable that many believe a more effective general could have utterly destroyed Gen. Robert E. Lee's army, given the advantages Gen. McClellan had. In a truly astounding bit of luck, on September 12th, 1862, as the Union's Twelfth Army Corps bivouacked about five miles from Frederick, Maryland, Corporal Barton W. Mitchell found an envelope lying in the tall grass. It contained three cigars and a copy of Gen. Lee's battle plans. Within hours, the plans, without the cigars, were passed up the chain of command to Gen. McClellan. After assessing the plans as real, Gen. McClellan formulated and executed a response, but he did not act with urgency, nor did he communicate any sense of urgency to his subordinates. The slowness of his response enabled Gen. Lee to avoid a catastrophe. That is why this incident is used so often to demonstrate Gen. McClellan's ineffectiveness as a commander.

There is much speculation about the reasons for Gen. McClellan's unwillingness to commit forces with alacrity. One possibility is that he had a low tolerance for the unknown. In a pattern demonstrated repeatedly as a commander, he tended to wait for situations to develop, rather than act earlier in the face of uncertainty. We cannot know for certain why he moved so slowly so often, but we do know that President Lincoln found the pattern so frustrating that he eventually relieved the general of command. Photograph by Alexander Gardner, courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.

When deciding whether to adopt a goal, groups sometimes fall into destructive conflict between those who want the group to commit to the goal (the advocates) and those, less willing, who want to know more about how the group can achieve that goal (the skeptics). Because the skeptics often express their concerns by asking "How?", the debate about whether to commit to the goal can descend into inappropriate problem-solving.

Here are some common reasons for the differences between advocates and skeptics.President Lincoln and Gen. George B. McClellan in the general's tent

Tolerance for failure
The decision to adopt the goal often requires a commitment to the goal long before a path to success becomes clear. For some, the possibility of insurmountable obstructions yet unrecognized creates internal tension. For others, trying and failing can be very costly emotionally. To reduce the tension about possible obstructions, or to limit the risk of failure, some people ask the How question.
Tolerance for the unknown
Even if all obstacles are eventually overcome, the cost of overcoming them, and the time required, might be unknown at the outset. Cost and schedule are just two of the unknowns. Other examples: Who do we need to help us? What do we have to learn? What resources are required?
Tolerance for conflict
Sometimes striving for the goal entails conflict with people. Conflict can be creative or toxic, but even if it's creative, healthy, and constructive, some people are unwilling to engage in it. Perhaps they've had experiences that suggest to them that the coming conflict will be unhealthy. In any case, some people are unwilling to commit to the goal if they anticipate conflict.
Unfamiliarity with the problem space
For some, general unfamiliarity with the problem space or the problem itself can be troubling. To cope with this, they seek to manage the overall risk of approaching the problem by demanding information that might not be available. If the information is forthcoming, they feel comforted. If not, they argue for rejecting the proposal.
Hat hanging
Some people make For some, general unfamiliarity
with the problem space or the
problem itself can
be troubling
connections — usually outside their awareness — between the current situation and some other situation they've known. If that other situation was painful or didn't turn out well, they might feel hesitant to commit to the proposed goal. This can lead them to ask the How question, demanding more details than they might otherwise require.
Toxic politics
Some are skeptical because they see adoption as a threat to their narrow political interests. By asking the How question, and demanding clarity at a level of detail that isn't available, they hope to dissuade the group from pursuing the goal.

Advocates of the goal can experience frustration when repeatedly restrained by the skeptics. If the group can distinguish skepticism from problem solving, it can keep tension from building, and focus on Whether, instead of How. Go to top Top  Next issue: Inappropriate Levels of Regard  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!

For more about differences and disagreements, see "Appreciate Differences," Point Lookout for March 14, 2001; "When You Think They've Made Up Their Minds," Point Lookout for May 21, 2003; "Towards More Gracious Disagreement," Point Lookout for January 9, 2008; and "Blind Agendas," Point Lookout for September 2, 2009.

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 Problem Solving and Creativity:

A rocking chairPoverty of Choice by Choice
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?
Artist's drawing of a pterosaurLearning
What have you learned today? What has enriched you, changed your understanding of the world, or given you a new view of history or the future? Learning something new every day is a worthy goal.
James Madison, author of the Bill of RightsTeamwork Myths: Conflict
For many teams, conflict is uncomfortable or threatening. It's so unpleasant so often that many believe that all conflict is bad — that it must be avoided, stifled, or at least managed. This is a myth. Conflict, in its constructive forms, is essential to high performance.
A waterfall and spray cliff in the mountains of VirginiaDecisions: How Looping Back Helps
Group decision-making often proceeds through a series of steps including forming a list of options, researching them, ranking them, reducing them, and finally selecting one. Often, this linear approach yields disappointing results. Why?
COL Michael Wyly, USMC (ret)Call in the Right Expert
When solving a problem is beyond us, we turn to experts, but sometimes we turn to the wrong experts. That can make the problem even worse. Why? How does this happen? What can we do about it?

See also Problem Solving and Creativity and Effective Meetings for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill BridgeComing September 25: Planning Disappointments
When we plan projects, we make estimates of total costs and expected delivery dates. Often these estimates are so wrong — in the wrong direction — that we might as well be planning disappointments. Why is this? Available here and by RSS on September 25.
Samples of bubble wrapAnd on October 2: Start Anywhere
Group problem-solving sessions sometimes focus on where to begin, even when what we know about the problem is insufficient for making such decisions. In some cases, preliminary exploration of almost any aspect of the problem can be more helpful than debating what to explore. Available here and by RSS on October 2.

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.