When we succeed, we rarely have difficulty finding possible explanations. People tend to volunteer them, especially if they're seeking personal credit. But when we fail, candidate explanations can be more difficult to uncover, even when we gather for sessions intended to find those explanations.
When we work as groups to learn what might be the underlying causes of failures, we can encounter patterns that create obstacles to learning. I cataloged some of them back in 2012, but I've since encountered a few more.
The scene is a group session convened to determine what we might do better, what we might stop doing, or what we might start doing. I'll use the names Willis or Wanda for the person who is withholding information.
- Withholding in case of plausible ignorance
- When Wanda has a critical piece of information, but feels that it might reflect badly on her, or on someone who might retaliate if she reveals it, she is inclined to withhold it if she feels certain that nobody else knows that she knows.
- Psychological safety is a prerequisite for productive retrospectives. Learn how to establish it, and how to verify that you have it.
- Withholding when misapprehension is clear
- Even though Willis believes that people misunderstand what happened, he doesn't offer his view of the events, for reasons similar to Wanda's above.
- Do what you can to verify that the interpretation of events you believe is shared is actually shared. Ask open-ended questions about how things could have gone differently, and what would have been necessary for other things to happen.
- Intentionally underplaying or slanting
- In a Do what you can to verify
that the shared interpretation
of events is actually sharedtechnique commonly known as spinning, Wanda presents a slanted view of the information she's disclosing.
- Watch for "weasel words" — constructions that present an impression of substance, but which are unattributed, or so ambiguous, or so cleverly hedged that Wanda can later claim, "I never said that."
- Hiding critical information in clouds of irrelevance
- When Willis feels compelled to disclose something he'd rather withhold, he can bury it in other spew he doesn't mind revealing. For example, in claiming that he knew in advance that a certain wrong-headed decision should never have been made, he might not explicitly mention his own absence from the meeting that made that decision.
- Clear away the fluff. Maintain a focus on the purpose of the exercise.
- Withholding relevant information unless specifically requested
- Here Wanda withholds a critical fact, and everything related to it, unless someone happens to probe for it.
- Ask broad, random, open questions: "Does anyone know anything about any email messages that never arrived?" Spread a wide net that will oblige everyone with related information to speak up. Special safety measures might be required. For example, consider accepting anonymous responses.
I'm still gathering entries for this catalog. If you have candidates, rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.comsend them along. First in this series Next in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Project Management:
- Who Would You Take With You to Mars?
- What makes a great team? What traits do you value in teammates? Project teams can learn a lot from the
latest thinking about designing teams for extended space exploration.
- The Retrospective Funding Problem
- If your organization regularly conducts project retrospectives, you're among the very fortunate. Many
organizations don't. But even among those that do, retrospectives are often underfunded, conducted by
amateurs, or too short. Often, key people "couldn't make it." We can do better than this.
What's stopping us?
- Design Errors and Group Biases
- Design errors can cause unwanted outcomes, but they can also lead to welcome surprises. The causes of
many design errors are fundamental attributes of the way groups function. Here is Part II of our exploration.
- Unnecessary Boring Work: I
- Work can be boring. Some of us must endure the occasional boring task, but for many, everything about
work is boring. It doesn't have to be this way.
- Power Distance and Teams
- One of the attributes of team cultures is something called power distance, which is a measure
of the overall comfort people have with inequality in the distribution of power. Power distance can
determine how well a team performs when executing high-risk projects.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 8: Kerfuffles That Seem Like Something More
- Much of what we regard as political conflict is a series of squabbles commonly called kerfuffles. They captivate us while they're underway, but after a month or two they're forgotten. Why do they happen? Why do they persist? Available here and by RSS on February 8.
- And on February 15: Four Razors for Organizational Behavior
- Deviant organizational behavior can harm the people and the organization. In choosing responses, we consider what drives the perpetrators. Considering Malice, Incompetence, Ignorance, and Greed, we can devise four guidelines for making these choices. Available here and by RSS on February 15.
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