Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 17, Issue 12;   March 22, 2017:

Unanswerable Questions

by

Some questions are beyond our power to answer, but many of us try anyway. What are some of these unanswerable questions and how can we respond?
Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Comey

Director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Comey, testifies before the House Judiciary Committee at a hearing on October 22, 2015. On July 7, 2016, Director Comey testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in the matter of Sen. Hillary Clinton's email practices. He explained in his testimony that he found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing, because of the absence of mens rea — literally "guilty mind." In other words, the investigation was unable to answer the question, "What were you thinking?" with evidence of criminality. Photo courtesy U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.

If your job requires you to have the answers, a trap awaits: even though you might feel obliged to have all the answers, you actually don't. You might have most of the answers most of the time, but nobody has all the answers all the time. Eventually, someone will ask you something, and you'll begin to answer before you realize you're clueless.

At that point, most people choose one of four options. Some, recognizing their own cluelessness, make up something they hope will satisfy the questioner. Others feel so obliged to answer that they suppress their feelings of cluelessness, and then respond with their best guess, concealing (or not realizing) that they're only guessing. A third group claims to know how to find the answer, even if they don't, and says something like, "I'll get back to you." The last and smallest group responds with some version of, "I don't know."

To make the I-don't-know choice a little easier, here's a little collection of unanswerable questions.

What were you thinking?
Even if asked about the present moment, this question is difficult enough, but reconstructing what you were thinking in the past is even more difficult. In a carefully facilitated retrospective, with safety assured, an honest answer is best. Otherwise, the question is likely rhetorical, and in public, you probably have to fall on your sword. Try not to let the sword nick any important body parts.
Where is person P?
Unless P is in the room with you, you don't actually know. The best you can offer is your latest information: "I saw him in the hall an hour ago;" or, "Clackamas, last I heard."
What is/was person P thinking?
If even P can't answer this question, nobody else can. One reasonable response: "I don't know, exactly, have you asked P?"
Why did person P make decision D?
People make decisions for all kinds of reasons, most of them non-rational. Unless there's documentation, you're speculating. One response: "Hmmm…I'd be speculating."
Why didn't event E happen?
When things happen, we can often trace causes. But when things don't happen, the reasons can be many, many indeed. One possible response: "Could be any number of reasons…I'm not sure."
What happened when you were out of the room (on travel, off line, …)?
You can't You can't offer first-hand
information on anything
that happened when
you weren't present
offer first-hand information on anything that happened when you weren't present. One possible response: "I'm not sure, have you asked the people who were there?"
Why do we do things the way we do them?
Usually, we do what we do because we think we're following a pattern set by our predecessors. But maybe not. Unless you've actually researched this particular topic, you're just guessing.

Perhaps the most reasonable unanswerable question is, "How much better can we make this?" Any response must be conditional. One possible answer: "Lots. How much do you want to spend?" Go to top Top  Next issue: Virtual Blowhards  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

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More articles on Workplace Politics:

A Julius Caesar coinOn Organizational Coups d'Etat
If your boss is truly incompetent, or maybe even evil, organizing a coup d'etat might have crossed your mind. In most cases, it's wise to let it cross on through, all the way. Think of alternative ways out.
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Most of us have to talk to other people at work. Whether to peers, subordinates, or superiors, sometimes we must convey information that can be complicated when delivered in full detail. To convey complicated ideas effectively, avoid suspense.
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Workplace speech and writing sometimes strays into the land of pretentious but overused business phrases, which I like to call "high falutin' goofy talk." We use these phrases with perhaps less thought than they deserve, because they can be trite or can evoke indecorous images. Here's Part III of a collection of phrases and images to avoid.
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A capability inversion occurs when the person in charge of an effort is far less knowledgeable than are the people doing that work. Capability inversions are common and usually harmless if effectively addressed. But when the person in charge conceals the inversion, and falsely claims expertise he or she lacks, trouble looms.

See also Workplace Politics and Emotions at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A possibly difficult choiceComing April 21: Choice-Supportive Bias
Choice-supportive bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to evaluate our past choices as more fitting than they actually were. The erroneous judgments it produces can be especially costly to organizations interested in improving decision processes. Available here and by RSS on April 21.
Two people engaged in pair collaborationAnd on April 28: The Self-Explanation Effect
In the learning context, self-explanation is the act of explaining to oneself what one is learning. Self-explanation has been shown to increase the rate of acquiring mastery. The mystery is why we don't structure knowledge work to exploit this phenomenon. Available here and by RSS on April 28.

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Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

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