Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 7;   February 15, 2012: How to Foresee the Foreseeable: Focus on the Question

How to Foresee the Foreseeable: Focus on the Question

by

When group decisions go awry, we sometimes feel that the failure could have been foreseen. Often, the cause of the failure was foreseen, but because the seer was a dissenter within the group, the issue was set aside. Improving how groups deal with dissent can enhance decision quality.
Roger Boisjoly of Morton Thiokol, who tried to halt the launch of Challenger in 1986

Roger Boisjoly, the Morton Thiokol engineer who, in 1985, one year before the catastrophic failure of the Space Shuttle Challenger, wrote a memorandum outlining the safety risks of cold-weather launches. He successfully raised the issue then, and many times subsequently, including the evening prior to the launch. In 1988, he was awarded the Prize for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, for "…his exemplary and repeated efforts to fulfill his professional responsibilities as an engineer by alerting others to life-threatening design problems of the Challenger space shuttle and for steadfastly recommending against the tragic launch of January 1986."

Mr. Boisjoly did not succeed in gaining acceptance of his objections to the Challenger launch. Moreover, he was shunned by colleagues, even after the investigation concluded, showing that his objections had been correct. He eventually resigned from Morton Thiokol. It is difficult to say from this distance, but this outcome could be an example of excoriation and ejection of a dissenter.

Photo courtesy the Online Ethics Center at the National Academy of Engineering.

Note: Roger Boisjoly died on January 6, 2012. When I wrote this essay (January 30), I was unaware of his passing. For more about him, see "Towards More Gracious Disagreement," Point Lookout for January 9, 2008.

When someone in a decision-making group raises a disquieting question — about a supposed fact, an assumption, a report, whatever — the group might focus on the individual who raised the question, rather than the question itself. They might attribute to the questioner dark motives or character defects, such as intentionally sowing dissension, or not being a team player, or being negative, or worse. If the group sees a pattern of such behavior, or if the questioner is in the minority, the group might stigmatize the questioner, even if the questions raised were legitimate.

This pattern of group behavior can prevent the group from foreseeing the foreseeable. By limiting its access to questions about its decisions, it exposes itself to the risk of flaws in its process, which can lead to errors.

Here are three indicators that a group might be focusing on the questioner, rather than the question. In what follows, I'll use the term dissenter to denote the person who has raised the disquieting question.

Issues raised by dissenters remain unaddressed
Groups can fail to address dissenters' issues in several ways. Issues can be dismissed; brushed aside after cursory, biased, or disingenuous investigation; simply ignored; moved to the "parking lot" never to be retrieved; or assigned to investigative committees that fail to report back until too late.
Does your group deal forthrightly and promptly with disquieting issues raised by dissenters?
Identity of the dissenter determines how issues are treated
Sometimes the respect paid to disquieting issues is based, in part, on the identity of the originator. In effect, the group confuses the importance of the issue with the social status or motives of the dissenter. When this happens, groups are less likely to foresee the foreseeable, because they're more likely to overlook important issues.
When disquieting issues are Sometimes the respect paid to
disquieting issues is based, in
part, on the identity
of the originator
raised, is the action taken truly independent of the originator's identity?
Issues once raised by dissenters, and dismissed, are later resurrected
Some groups resurrect issues that were initially raised by dissenters, but which were eventually set aside. The issue can suddenly become legitimate when someone else resurrects it, possibly with new terminology, or accompanied by claims that conditions have changed and the issue is now worthy of consideration. A pattern of issues originated by dissenters, then set aside but later dealt with after being resurrected by members of the majority, suggests that the identity of an issue's advocate influences the group's evaluation of issue significance.
Does your group resurrect issues originated by dissenters after they have been set aside?

Excoriation or ejection of dissenters is perhaps the pattern most likely to degrade decision quality, because it prevents any future contribution from those ejected, and because it deters others. Does your group focus on the questioner or the question? First in this series | Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: How to Foresee the Foreseeable: Preferences  Next Issue

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