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Volume 12, Issue 9;   February 29, 2012: The Tyranny of Singular Nouns

The Tyranny of Singular Nouns

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Last updated: August 8, 2018

When groups try to reach decisions, and the issue in question has a name that suggests a unitary concept, such as "policy," they sometimes collectively assume that they're required to find a one-size-fits-all solution. This assumption leads to poor decisions when one-size-fits-all isn't actually required.
Henri Laurence Gantt, inventor of the Gantt Chart

Henri Laurence Gantt (1861-1919), an American mechanical engineer and management consultant, and inventor of the Gantt Chart. As an advocate of the methods of his associate, Frederick Winslow Taylor, Gantt's work was important in propagating the concepts of scientific management. One of Taylor's concepts, important even today, is the idea that there is "One Best Way" to carry out any task. While that principle might have been valid in some of the narrow contexts of early twentieth century manufacturing processes, it is much less often — even rarely — valid in the much more complex domains of knowledge work. Yet, people continue to operate as if there is one best solution to the problems that arise in the modern workplace. This assumption might be a contributing factor in driving many discussions towards singular resolutions that might not even exist. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Group decision-making can be so difficult that many believe that vesting decision-making authority in a single individual is always preferable. Yet, much of the difficulty is self-imposed. For many impasses groups encounter, the cause of the divisiveness is neither the group itself nor a clash of the personalities of its people. Rather, it is a trick of the mind that I call the Tyranny of Singular Nouns.

This problem arises when groups are engaged in debate that they regard inappropriately as requiring a unitary solution. Often, such issues could actually be resolved by solutions with multiple components. One cause of this error of thinking is the name we give to the issue. If that name is one we think of as singular, we're more likely to slip into the trap. For example, policy is a singular noun that sometimes leads us to seek an elegant, one-size-fits-all statement that covers all situations. If we can do so easily, that's fine. But when we can't, we might not actually need to find a unitary formulation. Too many debates are undertaken without first considering whether unitary resolution is truly necessary.

Here are four examples of debate topics that often generate unnecessary searches for singular resolutions.

Assessing defect severity
In product development, we usually consider defect severity to be a singular attribute. But defects affect different populations differently. Is it necessary that we reach a singular conclusion as to severity? Often, it is. But always?
Formulating policy
We usually regard policies as applying equally to all, but policies can have exclusions and allowances for special situations without necessarily eroding fairness.
Choosing solutions to problems
When we seek solutions to problems, we tend to hold singular solutions in highest regard. But workable solutions with multiple components, available now, can be superior to elegant solutions not yet in hand.
Estimating cost and schedule
When we're undertaking something for the Workable solutions with multiple
components, available now, can
be superior to elegant solutions
not yet in hand
first time, we can't anticipate every challenge. To account for uncertainty, our estimates must be expressed as ranges, rather than single numbers or dates. To insist upon a single figure for cost or duration is naïve.

The impulse to seek singular resolution might be related to the relatively recent (in cultural terms) innovation of mass production, which depends on uniformity. As a culture, we're still enamored of mass production.

But modern manufacturing methods now allow for variety. We've moved beyond one-size-fits-all. And when we're "manufacturing" non-physical things — ideas, policies, estimates, and so on — one-size-fits-all might be precisely the wrong approach.

Educate your teams in the Tyranny of Singular Nouns. When they do seek singular resolution to an issue, let it not be driven by a reflexive urge for uniformity. Let it be driven by reasoned, conscious choice. Go to top Top  Next issue: Speak for Influence  Next Issue

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