Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 22, Issue 14;   April 13, 2022:

Cassandra at Work


When a team makes a wrong choice, and only a tiny minority advocated for what turned out to have been the right choice, trouble can arise when the error at last becomes evident. Maintaining team cohesion can be a difficult challenge for team leaders.
Cassandra, from a painting by Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919)

Cassandra, from a painting by Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919). The Cassandra pattern gets its name from Greek mythology. Cassandra was a Trojan priestess who was gifted (and cursed) by Apollo to make accurate prophecies that nobody would believe.

From Cassandra, a painting of the mythical Cassandra by Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919) courtesy Wikipedia.

When teams confront difficult decisions, two groups of patterns emerge. In Closed patterns, only a few people participate in decision-making. In some cases of Closed patterns, only one person makes decisions for the entire team. In other cases, the team doesn't make a decision — it allows a decision to be dictated by events. On the other hand, in what we might call Open patterns, the team reaches decisions following (but not always as a result of) a period of debate. The Cassandra pattern is one kind of Open pattern. The Cassandra pattern gets its name from Greek mythology. Cassandra was a Trojan priestess who was gifted (and cursed) by Apollo to make accurate prophecies that nobody would believe.

When a team debates the choice of options it has to address a problem, some people take positions based on what they believe will be the results of the various options. They make predictions of what the future holds. In the end, the team settles on an option based, in part, on these predictions. In the Cassandra pattern, the team chooses to reject one particular set of predictions (Option R for "Reject"), and instead chooses another (Option A for "Accept"). This proves over time to have been a seriously bad choice, because Option A turns out to be a miserable failure, and Option R does indeed turn out to be correct.

So the In some cases, after the advocate of a
rejected approach is proven by events
to have been correct, a series of
challenges confronts the team
as it discovers its error
team finds itself in deep yogurt. In the Cassandra pattern, this develops into a serious fracture among the team's people. That happens when one of the team (call her Cassandra) strongly advocated for Option R, despite being outnumbered by those who favored Option A. Isolated, Cassandra tried every approach she could devise to win adherents for Option R. She assembled massive amounts of evidence. That failed. She sought additional, more detailed, reviews of Option A. That failed. She retained outside experts. That failed. Nothing worked.

In some cases, after events prove that Cassandra had been correct, she faces a series of challenges as the team confronts its error. Below is a little catalog of these problems and some suggestions for dealing with them. In what follows I refer to three phases of the incident:

  1. The Decision phase, during which the team debates it options
  2. The Execution phase leading up to and including the failure
  3. The Acknowledgement phase in which the failure has become evident to everyone

I-told-you-so might be unavoidable

Cassandra might become a walking I-told-you-so, even if she never once utters that phrase. Her mere presence might become a reminder to team members and team leaders that they had made a wrong choice.

Equanimity during the Decision phase is essential to safety in the Acknowledgment phase. The intensity of the I-told-you-so effect is related to the intensity with which Cassandra advocated her position during the Decision phase, and the intensity with which her opponents advocated theirs. To limit this risk, Cassandra would do well to limit the passion with which she expressed her views, even if her opponents do not.

Being accepted as a team player can be challenging

During the Execution phase, before the failure becomes clear, Cassandra might be required to support the team in some way as it executes on the decision she opposed. Some of the people around her expect her to passively subvert the team in its efforts to execute the option she opposed.

Cassandra must therefore clear a high bar to avoid being accused of not being a team player. People might make judgments and accusations even if she provides excellent performance. There are two defenses: stellar performance and a strong network of allies.

Social isolation presents enhanced risk

Cassandra is certainly isolated in her views of the subject matter related to the decision. But her minority views are more likely to be identified as outliers if Cassandra herself is also socially isolated during the Decision phase. The combination of subject matter isolation and social isolation enables the majority to reject Cassandra's views more readily.

Cassandra will likely find difficulty addressing her own social isolation during the Decision phase. But team leaders would do well to monitor the degree of social isolation affecting holders of minority views. Integrating the team socially can be helpful in limiting the risk of adopting an option for social reasons rather than reasons related to subject matter.

Repetition has cumulative effects

Rarely does a team make only one decision in its lifetime. Usually teams make many decisions, and each one has the potential to produce a Cassandra. The emergence of a pattern of producing Cassandras could indicate something deeply amiss. When the same individuals are isolated in several consecutive decision incidents, the Cassandra phenomenon can manifest itself earlier and more readily.

Explanations for repeated patterns abound. Consider only as a last resort explanations that focus on personal flaws. The temptation to blame individuals can be strong, but doing so is rarely helpful. A more likely possibility is an uneven distribution of subject matter expertise. That can occur, for example, when there is only one expert in the team, and he or she isn't recognized as such. The Dunning-Kruger effect [Kruger 1999] can create significant obstacles to recognizing the expertise of others.

Last words

Some people become invested in the success of Option A — so invested that they cannot accept the possibility that it might need adjustment, or worse, that it might not be workable at all. If you were among the advocates of Option R (the rejected option that turned out to be the correct choice), you're at risk of being a candidate for the Cassandra role. If those who advocated Option A have superior political power, tread carefully during the Acknowledgment phase. Dark days might lie ahead. Go to top Top  Next issue: Anticipatory Disappointment at Work  Next Issue

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[Kruger 1999]
Justin Kruger and David Dunning. "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77:6 (1999), 121-1134. Available here. Retrieved 17 December 2008. Back

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