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 handfirst 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" nonphysical 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. Top Next Issue
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- And on April 5: The Fallacy of Division
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