Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 49;   December 5, 2012: When Over-Delivering Makes Trouble

When Over-Delivering Makes Trouble

by

When responding to inquiries such as "Is that correct?" we sometimes err by giving too many reasons why it's incorrect. Patterns of over-delivery can lead to serious trouble. Here's how.
A schematic representation of the flagellar components of Salmonella enterica serovar Typhimurium

A schematic representation of the flagellar components of Salmonella enterica serovar Typhimurium, in cross-section. View a larger image. The flagellum, which provides locomotion for the bacterium, is a long helical structure that is shown in abbreviated form at the top of the drawing. Locomotion is achieved by rotating the flagellum. The apparatus at the bottom of the figure, shown in cross-section, is the motor. The motor is approximately 150 Å in diameter. For reference, an oxygen molecule is approximately 3 Å in diameter.

The structure itself is a marvel, but even more wondrous is the process by which it is built. That process is the topic of the paper from which this figure is drawn. As described by F.F. Chevance and K.T. Hughes, the proteins required are manufactured within the cell, and passed along the portions of the apparatus that have so far been assembled. As the different components are completed, chemical signals are fed back to the cell with instructions for what proteins are needed next, and what proteins are no longer needed. This complex choreography is a sequence of messages — requests and responses — that results in a complete motor and flagellum.

The sequence of requests and responses that builds a flagellum and motor would fail utterly if any element of the system decided to over-deliver. That is, if, say, the cell body decided to anticipate the needs of the flagellum under construction, it would deliver proteins that could not yet be used. Or, if used, they would clutter the "construction site," resulting in malformations and a nonfunctional motor assembly or flagellum. Nature and evolution have solved this problem by inhibiting over-deliveries of the kind discussed here. People in organizations must learn to do the same.

The image is from Chevance F.F. and Hughes K.T. "Coordinating assembly of a bacterial macromolecular machine." Nature Reviews Microbiology. 2008,6:455-465.

When asked a question such as "Is that correct?" some of us embark on paths that create trouble in our working relationships. For example, suppose Jan knows that the premise isn't correct, because she knows of at least one counterexample — call it X. Instead of responding, "No, it isn't correct, because of X," she begins forming a mental catalog of all possible counterexamples. If Jan receives the query in conversation, she pauses while she assembles her response. If she receives the query in email, she takes a day or two to do research.A schematic representation of the flagellar components of Salmonella enterica serovar Typhimurium

That's why it takes Jan longer to respond than the person who asked the question expects. Often, people interpret these delays as shiftiness, evasiveness, or secretiveness. They might see her as being careful in her words, or plotting, or scheming, or taking time to manufacture lies or misleading responses, or lacking in confidence.

Questioners who fairly evaluate her responses are much less likely to make these erroneous conclusions. But some questioners don't want the complete responses Jan always delivers. Questioners who ask, "Is that correct" sometimes don't want a full catalog of the reasons why it isn't correct, and they ignore it when she delivers it. Their preferences thus lead them to misunderstand what takes Jan so long to respond.

By over-delivering, some people, like Jan, convey the impression of being untrustworthy, scheming, reluctant, or incompetent.

To avoid this problem, apply a general principle:

When asked for an opinion or judgment, and the request doesn't specify a need for a complete or absolutely reliable response, a partial and estimated response — delivered right now — might suffice. If you're unsure, deliver the short answer, then ask.

Some examples:

Is this possible?
If you know one reason why it's impossible, that might be enough. Offer it and ask if more are needed.
Can you do it by Friday?
One reason why you can't might be enough.
Why is that so?
If you know one possible explanation, provide it, acknowledging that it isn't 100% certain or complete.
Who do you think can do this?
This is a question about capability, not availability. A complete list might not be required.
Can we do this for under $X?
This just requires a By over-delivering, some people
convey the impression of being
untrustworthy, scheming,
reluctant, or incompetent
yes-or-no answer. Yes can require significant research. No can be very easy.
Who told you that? Or: Where did you hear that?
A complete list isn't required. It might not be necessary to provide the date on which you were told, or the order in which various people told you.
Would any changes be required to meet that requirement?
If you know of one, then the answer is yes. You don't necessarily need to devise a complete, priority-ranked or cost-ranked list of all changes that would be required.

And I don't think I need to supply any more examples. You get the idea. Go to top Top  Next issue: Problem-Solving Preferences  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

See "How to Create Distrust," Point Lookout for May 18, 2011, for a catalog of other behaviors that erode trust.

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrendbTtLLSVlUPPCNkAner@ChacthFxWKdRwnLylOCDoCanyon.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 Effective Communication at Work:

Shaking an orange treeWhen You Aren't Supposed to Say: III
Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or even more sensitive than that. Sometimes people who want to know what we know try to suspend our ability to think critically. Here are some of their techniques.
A daffodilTwelve Tips for More Masterful Virtual Presentations: I
Virtual presentations are like face-to-face presentations, in that one (or a few) people present a program to an audience. But the similarity ends there. In the virtual environment, we have to adapt if we want to deliver a message effectively. We must learn to be captivating.
A 155 mm artillery shell is visible as it exits the barrel of an M-198 howitzer during trainingWhen the Answer Isn't the Point: II
Sometimes, when we ask questions, we're more interested in eliciting behavior from the person questioned, rather than answers. Here's Part II of a set of techniques questioners use when the answer to the question wasn't the point of asking.
Senator Jeff Sessions grills Budget Director Sylvia Burwell on President Obama's 2015 Budget March 5, 2014That Was a Yes-or-No Question: I
In tense situations, one person might question another. As the respondent replies, the questioner interjects, "That was a yes-or-no question." The intent is to trap the respondent. How does this work, and how can the respondent escape the trap?
Three gears in a configuration that's inherently locked upFour Overlooked Email Risks: I
Working together to resolve issues or make decisions in email is fraught with risk. Most discussions of these risks emphasize using etiquette to manage emotional content. But email has other limitations, less-often discussed, that make managing email exchanges very difficult.

See also Effective Communication at Work and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The future site of 2 World Trade Center as it appeared in 2013Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerAnd on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrendbTtLLSVlUPPCNkAner@ChacthFxWKdRwnLylOCDoCanyon.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 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

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.