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.

## Reader Comments

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).

The article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

## Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenbemaXIbdFoWJzSdLner@ChacSyPPujejfqTVNQpWoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

## About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

## Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Keep a Not-To-Do List
Unless you execute all your action items immediately, they probably end up on your To-Do list. Since they're a source of stress, you'll feel better if you can find a way to avoid acquiring them. Having a Not-To-Do list reminds you that some things are really not your problem.
Illusory Incentives
Although the theory of incentives at work is changing rapidly, its goal generally remains helping employers obtain more output at lower cost. Here are some neglected effects that tend to limit the chances of achieving that goal.
Mitigating Outsourcing Risks: Part I
Outsourcing internal processes modifies the usual risk configuration of those processes, but it also creates a special class of risks that are peculiar to the outsourcing relationship. What are some of those risks and what can we do about them?
Action Item Avoidance
In some teams, members feel so overloaded that they try to avoid any additional tasks. Here are some of the most popular patterns of action item avoidance.
Avoid Having to Reframe Failure
Yet again, we missed our goal — we were late, we were over budget, or we lost to the competition. But how can we get something good out of it?

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

## Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Coming March 29: Virtual Blowhards
Controlling meeting blowhards is difficult enough in face-to-face meetings, but virtual meetings present next-level problems, because techniques that work face-to-face are unavailable. Here are eight tactics for controlling virtual blowhards. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
And on April 5: Listening to Ramblers
Ramblers are people who can't get to the point. They ramble, they get lost in detail, and listeners can't follow their logic, if there is any. How can you deal with ramblers while maintaining civility and decorum? Available here and by RSS on April 5.

## Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenrfxZhQuZddSbTlRKner@ChacgfBBGpRMcGYIzbpVoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

## Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

## Public seminars

Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
Mastery of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:

Conflict Resolution Skills for Leaders
Conflict is inherent in collaborative work. When conflict is constructive, it produces better outcomes. When it's destructive, it can be an insurmountable obstacle to success. In this program, we explore the connections between the outcomes of collaboration and conflict in both of its forms. And we emphasize the skills needed most by leaders. The leader's task is to manage conflict so as to ensure that the group achieves its objective with its capacity to collaborate intact, or even enhanced. Rick Brenner shows team leaders and team sponsors the techniques they need to manage team conflict for relationship safety and better outcomes. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Influencing Outcomes Without Authority
Your ability to influence others — whether upward, downward, laterally, or within a team — always depends on both the quality of your relationships with the people you influence, and on your perception and their perception of your personal power. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you the techniques for making things happen not by using formal organizational power, but by using informal, personal power. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Strategies for Leading Teams in Hard Times
When a project team is on task, the contributions of leaders are important, and little noticed. Sometimes the team encounters unexpected difficulty, or requirements change, or budgets are reduced, or any of a number of other things might happen. In these cases, the leader must make or facilitate decisions about how to respond or how to revise the plan. We get through it somehow. Hard times are something else altogether. Despondency, disillusionment, resource shortages, unexpected and severe failure of the plan, and toxic conflict can erode morale. How can leaders deal with such situations? Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Strategies for Technical Debt: A Workshop for Enterprise Leaders
Technical debt is more than mere IT jargon. It's a metaphor that refers to the accumulation of technical artifacts that really ought to be retired, replaced, rewritten, re-implemented, or, if absent, created. We can find technical debt in almost any system, including those that seem to be working well. So what's the problem? The problem is the "interest charges." Systems carrying technical debt are more difficult to maintain, more difficult to extend or enhance, and more difficult to use, than they would be if we "retired" the debt. This engaging and eye-opening program points the way to a path that leads your organization out of technical debt, to make it more adaptable, more transformable, and more agile. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many people experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

### Follow Rick

The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Are your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Bad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
Is every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
Reader Comments About My Newsletter
A sampling:
• Your stuff is brilliant! Thank you!
• You and Scott Adams both secretly work here, right?
• I really enjoy my weekly newsletters. I appreciate the quick read.
• A sort of Dr. Phil for Management!
• …extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day … invaluable.
• More
Fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.