When I was in military staff college, we always used to say “Don’t fight the whites.” The “whites” were the instruction sheets we would get that would describe the particular planning or tactical problem we had to resolve for that day’s assignment. The white sheets contained assumptions and a situation. Many of the students at staff college would then proceed to “fight the whites,” meaning they would try to get the instructor to dispense them from the hard part of the problem or the most constraining assumptions. I can distinctly remember trying to do this myself, although with no success. Presumably I did so in the hope that the problem would then be easier to solve.

But here’s the real lesson: hard questions are good. They force us to consider fundamental issues that we normally wouldn’t even sniff at, simply because we think they are too intractable. I was recently facilitating a brainstorming session with a group of corporate directors and executives. As they went off in their respective teams to consider the questions my colleague and I had posed, the most common initial response was “We don’t like these questions.” This is astonishing, considering the fact that these people were convened specifically to answer this type of hard questions.

Many of the teams reluctantly ploughed on with the exercise, only to discover after about 15 minutes that our searching questions were exactly what they needed to be considering for the future of the organization. Others “fought the whites” for the whole time alloted for discussion, which was admittedly very limited. Perhaps predictably, the teams that actually tried to answer the questions, despite their initial discomfort at doing so, produced the best feedback for our brainstorming. Those that chose to do it their own way or to put in their own questions produced input of dubious quality and usefulness.

Another lesson learned: If everyone likes the questions, then they mustn’t be truly revelatory.

© 2011 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted for non-commercial purposes with full and proper attribution.

  1. Pappy Gunn says:

    I put together exercise for a certain military. We would have a general theme, but all the different sections/branches or whatever you want to call them had to get value out of the exercise. So their directors submitted scenarios to the Ex director to roll into the main exercise to practice a certain capability. So these would be “inputs” during the exercise. The blue force commander receiving an input didn’t know what capability the original director wanted to exercise. So he’s go with his gut/assessment. Sometimes activating the wrong response (that’s why we exercise). After a few aborted tries, he would get a hint (from the “trusted agent” a guy on the blue team that knew what the input was all about) of what to do, what capabilities to exercise was, getting the exercise out of the rabbit hole and back on the tracks. The friendly team is the blue team. The enemy is the red team. The exercise controllers are the white team. Hence: Don’t fight the whites. Yeah, we know how the commander wants to react to this, but here’s what we want him to do because that is the scenario his own staff submitted to the white team. Don’t fight the whites.

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