Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 3, Issue 38;   September 17, 2003: Coincidences Do Happen

# Coincidences Do Happen

When we notice similarities between events, or possible patterns of events, we often attribute meaning to them beyond what we can prove. Sometimes we guess right, and sometimes not. How can we improve our guesses?

As Ellen left, closing the door behind her, Irene wrote "Ellen" across the top of her pad, tore off the top sheet, opened her right side desk file drawer, and filed the sheet in the growing file she was keeping on Mort. She closed the drawer, and realized again how many people had come to her complaining about him. Mort was becoming a problem.

She picked up her phone and punched Sid's number. "Sid here," he answered.

"Hi Sid, Irene. I need some advice. Got another complaint about Mort."

"Ah," Sid replied. "Does it fit the pattern?"

"In some ways. I mean, it is another complaint. But you might be right — it might not really be about Mort. That's why I want to talk."

Irene and Sid are struggling to decide whether a string of similar events — in this case, complaints about Mort — are really part of a pattern, or whether, perhaps, they're just a coincidental string of similar events. It's sometimes difficult to tell.

Too often,
we see patterns
that aren't there
When we make important decisions, we can't always tell whether the event streams on which we base those decisions are actually trends that convey deeper meaning, or whether they're just coincidences. Too often, we attribute meaning incorrectly, and we use that meaning to make choices that we later come to regret. Here are some insights about streams of similar events.

Coincidences do happen
We hear people say sometimes "There are no coincidences," or "I don't believe in coincidences." Sounds nice, but such expressions are a little melodramatic. Coincidences do happen.
We see more patterns than there are
We often extrapolate data we have to cover situations not yet observed, and we predict behavior in those situations. This is one of the abilities that has made humans so successful as a species. And often, we're mistaken about patterns. Our ability to err in this way is the basis of optical illusions, magic tricks and con games.
We misunderstand statistics
When we experience two similar events, we ask ourselves, "What are the odds of this being a coincidence?" The odds often seem so sky-high that we decide that it cannot be a coincidence. Yet, coincidences do happen, because the universe is so big. For instance, the last two US Presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, were born in 1946, 44 days apart. The next US President will be the 44th. Coincidence? Absolutely.

When you next say to yourself "This can't be a coincidence," ask, "How do I know that?" If the answer is along the lines of, "It just seems so unlikely," try harder to find real evidence. Unless you find evidence, admit to yourself that you're just using your judgment.

It's OK to use your judgment. But using your judgment while you believe you aren't can lead to trouble. And when trouble comes, that's no coincidence.

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Scott Lord
Edward De Bono has some interesting insights into patterns in some of his books. The main point he makes is that our minds are trained early to look for patterns. When we identify one, we can stop thinking. We already know where this line of thinking, or sequence of events or quotation or whatever will lead. We think until we see a pattern, then we stop thinking. It's scary because coincidences can do the same thing. We see a trend, a pattern and we take them to the end. (Stop thinking).

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## Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Appreciate Differences
In group problem solving, diversity of opinion and healthy, reasoned debate ensure that our conclusions take into account all the difficulties we can anticipate. Lock-step thinking — and limited debate — expose us to the risk of unanticipated risk.
When You Think They've Made Up Their Minds
In tough negotiations, when attempts to resolve differences have failed, we sometimes conclude that "they've made up their minds," but other explanations abound. Keeping an open mind about why other people seem to have closed theirs can help us find a resolution.
Troublesome Terminology
The terms we use at work to talk about practices, policies, and procedures are serviceable, for the most part. But some of them carry connotations and hidden messages that undermine our larger purposes.
Self-Serving Bias in Organizations
We all want to believe that we can rely on the good judgment of decision makers when they make decisions that affect organizational performance. But they're human, and they are therefore subject to a cognitive bias known as self-serving bias. Here's a look at what can happen.
Unnecessary Boring Work: II
Workplace boredom can result from poor choices by the person who's bored. More often boredom comes from the design of the job itself. Here's Part II of our little catalog of causes of workplace boredom.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

## Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Coming May 2: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VII
Narcissistic behavior at work prevents trusting relationships from developing. It also disrupts existing relationships, and generates toxic conflict. One class of behaviors that's especially threatening to relationships is disregard for the feelings of others. In this part of our series we examine the effects of that disregard. Available here and by RSS on May 2.
And on May 9: Unethical Coordination
When an internal department or an external source is charged with managing information about a large project, a conflict of interest can develop. That conflict presents opportunities for unethical behavior. What is the nature of that conflict, and what ethical breaches can occur? Available here and by RSS on May 9.

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