Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 24, Issue 4;   January 24, 2024: I Don't Know Where to Begin

I Don't Know Where to Begin


Sometimes we find ourselves engaged in debate about how to approach solving a problem. When the delays and costs due to these debates exceed any possible benefit, consideration of the causes of these debates can dramatically improve group performance.
A graphical representation of a strategic analysis tool known as the "SWOT Matrix"

A graphical representation of a strategic analysis tool known as the "SWOT Matrix." It's used as a means of uncovering what is known about a strategic situation. It is therefore useful in choosing among possible strategies. However, one of its weaknesses is its limited ability to create new knowledge that is not derived from existing knowledge. That requires exploration beyond what is already known.

Image (cc) Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic by Xhienne courtesy Wikipedia.

As a formulaic utterance, "I don't know where to begin" can be a condescending put-down of a comment or proposal that the speaker energetically opposes. [Brenner 2021.1] The meaning conveyed is something like, "This idea is so wrong-headed that we should all just set our hair on fire if it would prevent the organization from adopting this idiotic scheme." When used in this way, as with many formulaic utterances, the speaker gains time to compose what to say next.

Still, the Sometimes we believe we know where to
begin, and we believe we have begun, but that
belief is mistaken. We haven't really begun.
experience of not knowing where to begin can be real. Some problems are so resistant to solution, so resistant to understanding, and so tangled up with other problems, that we truly do not know where to begin. And sometimes when we don't know where to begin, we don't even know why we don't know where to begin. Even worse, sometimes we believe we know where to begin, and we believe we have begun, but that belief is mistaken. We haven't really begun.

Here are some of the situations that tend to elicit feelings of I-don't-know-where-to-begin.

Sometimes where we begin doesn't matter
For many efforts, it doesn't matter where we begin. If we begin somewhere, anywhere, we can learn something about the challenge. After a bit of effort, if there's a better place to have begun, that place might become clear. The effort expended to that point might not have solved the problem, but it might have revealed the start of a path to a solution.
This insight suggests a way to resolve the dilemma of having two candidates for places to begin, when neither one seems to present clear advantages over the other. That resolution: try both at once for a short time, then review progress. The review can provide information that makes a choice clear.
The need to know where to begin can be a form of perfectionism
Perfectionism is a personality trait that's associated with seeking flawless results for whatever efforts are underway. With respect to the question of where to begin, perfectionism means finding the perfect place to begin — the place the leads most directly to the desired result. The perfectionist thus focuses more on choice of approach than on progress to the result.
Compare two expenditure scales: the anticipated budget A for solving the problem, and the cost B of deciding how to solve the problem. Include in B the cost of delay in solving the problem. When B/A becomes large enough, perfectionism might be in play.
The debate about where to begin can be a form of political conflict
Discussing where to begin can be a convenient excuse for avoiding the issue altogether. Or it can be a symptom of unresolved political conflict. That is, the where-to-begin discussion might be a form of a deeper conflict that the parties are unwilling to see publicly expressed. The parties to the deeper conflict might be more comfortable engaging in the where-to-begin discussion because it's less likely to reveal the deeper issues.
If where-to-begin discussions erupt with regularity, and if the parties to these discussions repeatedly include the same cast of characters, deeper political conflict is a plausible candidate for the root cause of the pattern. Check for other conflicts. If you find some, resolving them might reduce the incidence of where-to-begin discussions.

Last words

Although formulaic utterances are generally associated with patterns of individual speakers, an organizational analog might also exist. For example, we might consider patterns of conceiving projects, or patterns of solving problems in projects. For solving problems, the where-do-we-begin pattern might consist of expending resources to study alternative approaches, in order to buy time to resolve political conflicts. Things are not always what they seem. Go to top Top  Next issue: Improvement Bias  Next Issue

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Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Brenner 2021.1]
Richard Brenner. "Formulaic Utterances: I," Point Lookout blog, September 22, 2021. Available here. Back

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