John Crossan | Manufacturing Ownership Blog
Facilitation - Dealing with Considius PDF Print E-mail

Lately I read a great history of Julius Caesar by Goldsworthy and ran across this incident, which triggered  thoughts about facilitating problem solving sessions.

Publius Considius was a tribune in the army of Julius Caesar, during Caesar's campaign against the Helvetii. A warlike tribe, living in Switzerland, but who found with the poor farmland there, that there were few other tribes to pillage, and their pillaging talents were really being wasted (clearly the Swiss Banking Industry had not yet been established).

So they began to move to Gaul where there were lots of tribes with lots of possessions and some really great opportunities for their pillaging expertise. There were about 340,000 of them, so this was a pretty significant migration.

Caesar at the time was administering Gaul, meaning he had to provide protection for the tribes there. (Who were of course paying significantly to Rome for it. The Italian and later Sicilian Protection Business was apparently, already thriving).

Caesar pursued the Helvetii with a very much smaller force, around 35,000. He located them and set up for a surprise attack.. Labienus one of his generals, by night, would take two legions and occupy hills overlooking the camp of the Helvetii. Caesar would allow some time,  then would approach directly with his main force of four legions, and both would attack at first light. (It was apparently OK given the difference in the size of the forces, to attack the camp of an unsuspecting enemy, even with all the women and children present. Perhaps an early use of the term collateral damage from the latin collateralis).

Labienus moved his legions out in the dark. Then sometime later, Caesar moved his legions out close to the Helvetii. He then sent out a scouting party under Considius, a supposedly experienced soldier, to verify that Labienus was in position.

Considius returned at a gallop, and reported that the enemy were in possession of the hills, and there was no sign of Labienus. When questioned, Considius was emphatic that he had seen the banners and emblems of the enemy on top of the hills. Based on this information, Caesar had to assume that the enemy was prepared for him. He cancelled his plan and took up a defensive position waiting for an attack.

After waiting all day, the attack never came, so another scouting party was sent out. They found that indeed Labienus was in possession of the hilltops, and had been there the whole time. The Helvetii had been completely unaware of Caesar's presence and a great opportunity (for a complete massacre) had been missed. The Helvetii had since decamped and moved on.

The premise is that Considius, in the dark, thought that he had been discovered by the Helvetii and simply panicked and ran, but felt that it was important to be emphatic about the probable facts to not diminish Caesar's perception of him.

This incident was a great embarrassment to Caesar (missing an opportunity to massacre an entire tribe being really frowned on in those days), and it is not reported what happened to Considius. Although probably safe to assume nothing good. His action was well reported in Caesar's journals, where he was of course blamed for the entire fiasco.

A short time later Caesar's Legions did indeed defeat the Helvetii at the Battle of Bibracte (but with significant losses), and forced them to return to their homeland (No doubt to become the eventual founders of the Swiss Banking Industry. If you can't pillage violently, there are other ways, like funding private equity predators).

So when I first read this, I thought, you know, I remember S.O.Bs just like that (even their names) in discussions over the years. There were some facts in question, but they were so emphatic about the correctness of their version of the facts, that the rest of us who had some doubt about our versions, felt that, well, they must be right.

Later on, it turned out that their facts were indeed wrong, and we had made a wrong decision because of that. Sometimes they fessed up and apologized. But there were some who were simply incapable of admitting that they could have been wrong. Even with the facts in front of them. There were extenuating circumstances, or someone had reported incorrectly to them. But they had definitely not been incorrect in what they said, based on what they knew at the time.

This would always drop them a notch, or so, in my and some others' regard for them. But many times, they moved on and up in the organization. Their absolute total confidence in what they said apparently viewed as a sign of strength by those whose opinions really mattered.

For some, virtually everything is a contest and it is really important to them that they always win, simply to preserve their own perceptions of themselves, and their perception of what others value in them.

The two greatest winning a golfers of all time are generally felt to be Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. Both have prodigious physical talent, but so do others. Their real strength, why they win so often, is in the mental game. They have tremendous focus and confidence in what they can do. If you had something really, really important riding on a putt, you would want one of these two making that putt, Either one of them, in preference to someone more renowned just for putting excellence.

Jack Nicklaus is known to have insisted that he had never missed a short putt to win a tournament. He had simply put any of them completely out of his memory to maintain the confidence that was the key to his success.

Quote I remember from somewhere "If you think you can, or if you think you can't, you're probably right."

But you know, Considius like behavior is insidious in all of us. (Sorry, couldn't resist). Problem-solving facilitators need to be very aware of this apparent human tendency to evaluate ourselves and others based on whether knowledge is rock solid or not.

I've struggled with this in facilitating problem-solving sessions with someone taking an absolutely emphatic position on facts that seem questionable. The natural facilitator tendency seems to be to continually poke at those facts without regard for the feelings of the individual. In fact, with some individuals, it feels like it's almost a plus if you can embarrass them in front of the group.

Of course, doing that, you really knock back their participation for the rest of the session. That and the participation of others who don't want that to happen to them.

This is very poor facilitation. Getting the best facts possible and verifying uncertain facts, is essential to the problem-solving process.
It is really important to create an environment where individuals can state facts without feeling that they're in some kind of contest. If there is uncertainty to the evidence that someone is offering, then they need to be comfortable stating this. Facilitators need to make clear that it's not any reflection on the character or capability of a person that they are not emphatically sure of what they're offering.

Good facilitators can question the substance behind facts without forcing someone to become defensive and driving them to stating unwarranted certainty. (And they make sure that others in the session don't force them either).