Saturday, June 26, 2010

Evaluating a Proposed Course of Action

This is the last posting on the topic of “what questions should I ask?”. As you may remember, I started this thread on May 23 to cover the four kinds of claims people can make in a logical conversation and the kinds of questions to ask about each kind of claim in order to logically evaluate it. The fourth kind of claim is a Claim of Policy, and is what I’ll cover today.

A Claim of Policy is made when a person is prescribing a course of action. These claims usually contain statements like “we should” or “we ought” or “we need to”. You get the idea – the claim is describing something we should do.

As usual, we always ask “is it relevant?”, “what does the claim mean?”, and once we fully understand the meaning, we again ask “is it relevant?”. If we feel we need to explore the logic of the claim, we will need to ask questions in six categories. Policy claims have the most categories because determining a course of action has more variables than the three other types of claims (fact, definition, and value).

Question #1 - What is the problem?

We need to understand why we are changing or course of action, or adopting one. Ask questions about what the problem is; what are the symptoms, what makes them problematic. Do NOT begin discussing solutions until you have agreement on what the problem is. That is a very common mistake.

Question #2 - How big is the problem?

The answers to this category of questions will help us prioritize and frame discussions on just how much resource we should spend discussing, debating, and addressing the problem. You can see that a problem that inconveniences a few people should consume less time and effort than one than could potentially stop your business from providing important services. It is therefore important to have a general agreement on the impact of the problem and its eventual consequences.

Question #3 - What is causing the problem?

Knowing what causes the problem is very helpful in knowing what to do about it. Unfortunately, many times we can’t be sure what the exact cause because causation can be very difficult to determine. In fact, there are special logical tests for determining causation, and I will discuss those in a future series. For right now, just know that you DON’T have to agree on the cause, but you should all be AWARE that you don’t agree on the cause. As many classic logical missteps can be traced back to false certainty as to doing nothing WAITING to become certain. Both need to be watched carefully.

Question #4 - What should be done to correct the problem?

At last, we are ready to talk about what to do about the problem. Note that in many conversations, this is the first question people start with. In this model it is the fourth. The three that precede it are key agreements that we must reach if we are to determine a solution.

Question #5 - How well does the proposal solve the problem?

Is the proposed solution a quick fix? A certain fix? What if we are wrong about the cause; does it still work? What contingencies should we allow for?

Question #6 - Will the action create other benefits or harm?

Here we go! What are the potential side effects of the proposed solution, both positive and negative? Will we be able to parlay this into a bigger win if we do it in a different way? Will we be exposed to a different danger if we adopt the proposed solution? How can we monitor it so that it doesn’t surprise us?

In the last month we have covered the basics of questioning claims. When claims are questioned, the next thing that should happen is that the claimant offers evidence to support the claim. This in not “courtroom” evidence, because we managers don’t argue in courtrooms (I hope!).

In the next series, I’ll discuss evidence. Specifically, I’ll discuss what kinds of evidence there are (just 3 different kinds) and how to rate their strength. You’ll find it comes in handy when people question YOUR claims, that you have already done the work to make them as bullet proof as possible.

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