Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 23, Issue 28;   July 12, 2023: Would Anyone Object?

Would Anyone Object?


When groups consider whether to adopt proposals, some elect to poll everyone with a question of the form, "Would anyone object if X?" It's a risky approach, because it can lead to damaging decisions that open discussion in meetings can avoid.
NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter, which was lost on attempted entry into Mars orbit

NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter, which was lost on attempted entry into Mars orbit on September 23, 1999. It either crashed onto the surface of Mars or escaped Mars gravity and entered a solar orbit. The failure was due to mismatch of measurement units in two software systems. A NASA-built system used metric units and a system built by Lockheed Martin used "English" units. If the two teams had conducted more open discussions, the loss of the orbiter might have been averted. NASA artist's rendering courtesy Wikimedia.

Would anyone object? It's an innocent question that might be posed by a team member who's acting in a role that serves the rest of the team in some way. Example: "Would anyone object if we move the Backlog Review Meeting to 1100 on Thursdays?" Perhaps the role in question is Secretary, or Host Site rep, or Scribe, or meeting planner, or ScrumMaster, or project manager, or speaker committee chair. To people in these roles, asking for objections before making a decision seems like a convenient way to ensure acceptable levels of decision quality in a timely fashion. It avoids convening a meeting, with all the hassle and delay that accompanies meetings.

Convenient and quick it may be, but there are risks. Many of those risks trace to one root cause: constraining the time spent in open discussion.

The risks of asking only for objections

To exhibit these risks clearly, one need only compare the would-anyone-object process, conducted through chats or email, to the lets-discuss-it-in-a-meeting process. In what follows, I refer to the team member who posed the question as Quentin (Q for Question). And I assume that the meeting would be a meeting or videoconference of the individuals Quentin queried, in which the attendees conduct an open discussion.

Risk of abusing delegated authority
In an open discussion in a meeting, all attendees can see each other and hear each other's responses to Quentin's question. When Quentin poses the question in a chat or email, the people queried might not have access to each other's responses. If some people respond only to Quentin, he's free to count their responses as he chooses. That would be an outrageous abuse of authority, of course, but it could happen. More likely, but still problematic, are errors Quentin might make in processing the responses.
Risk of overlooking important factors
When Asking for objections before making a
decision might seem like a convenient
way to ensure acceptable levels of
decision quality, but it comes
with some significant risks
Quentin asks for objections only, respondents might not provide other pertinent information that could affect the decision. For example, suppose Kelly knows that an audit that has been underway will finish on Thursday, making unnecessary consideration of the matter at hand. Kelly might not mention this, because it isn't an objection. In a meeting, on the other hand, an open discussion might be more likely to surface such information.
Risk of working with misinformation
Similar to the risk of overlooking important factors is the risk of working with misinformation — information that's outdated, incomplete, or just plain wrong. In an open discussion in a meeting, intentional efforts to vet all assumptions and contributions can mitigate this risk. For example, someone might object on the basis of outdated information. In a meeting, other attendees can question the basis of the objection, and that can reveal the error. Asking for objections in a chat or email is much less likely to provide such mitigation.
Risk of overlooking important constituents
If all individuals affected by the decision are included in the group from whom Quentin seeks objections, then the risk of overlooking constituents might be no greater for Quentin's approach than it would be for a meeting. But if there are many other affected individuals, Quentin's approach has a high risk of missing the objections of people not included in his query. And this point would likely surface (read: "should be surfaced") in a meeting.
Risk of communication gaps
When we rely on asking for objections in a chat or email, communication gaps can appear in a variety of forms:
  • Intended recipients might not receive Quentin's query
  • The query might have been sent to people who should not have been queried
  • The recipient might misunderstand the query
  • The recipient might choose not to respond
  • The recipient might forget to respond
  • Quentin might not receive the recipient's response
  • Quentin might not understand the recipient's response
  • …and many more
A face-to-face meeting is likely to experience these difficulties at a much lower rate. Even if they do occur in a meeting, they're more evident to everyone and more easily resolved. The same is true, to a lesser extent, for virtual meetings.

Last words

If you've read to this point, you might have noticed an unstated assumption underlying this risk catalog. That unstated assumption is that Quentin earnestly wants to know whether or not there are objections. He wants to ensure that the decision he makes is a good one. But there are other much less benign possibilities.

Quentin might want to suppress open discussion. The would-anyone-object process actually suppresses discussion, which reduces the probability of new information coming to light. Reducing the probability of discovering issues enhances the probability that the decision process will produce the outcome Quentin is proposing. Anyone intent on producing the outcome they favor would thus find the would-anyone-object process appealing. It's an effective tool for controlling group decision-making, and when used for that purpose, it's ethically questionable. Go to top Top  Next issue: On Managing Life Event Risk  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A close-up view of a chipseal road surfaceComing July 3: Additive bias…or Not: II
Additive bias is a cognitive bias that many believe contributes to bloat of commercial products. When we change products to make them more capable, additive bias might not play a role, because economic considerations sometimes favor additive approaches. Available here and by RSS on July 3.
The standard conception of delegationAnd on July 10: On Delegating Accountability: I
As the saying goes, "You can't delegate your own accountability." Despite wide knowledge of this aphorism, people try it from time to time, especially when overcome by the temptation of a high-risk decision. What can you delegate, and how can you do it? Available here and by RSS on July 10.

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