Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 1, Issue 41;   October 10, 2001: The Mind Reading Trap

The Mind Reading Trap

by

When we think, "Paul doesn't trust me," we could be fooling ourselves into believing that we can read his mind. Unless he has directly expressed his distrust, we're just guessing, and we can reach whatever conclusion we wish, unconstrained by reality. In project management, as anywhere else, that's a recipe for trouble.
A bear trap

To manage projects effectively, we must know the true state of the effort. We must distinguish between what we know for certain and what we merely believe. Yet many of us have acquired a habit of speaking and thinking — "mind reading" — that limits our ability to make this important distinction.

Have you ever said, "I know what you're thinking…"? It's a common expression. It's less common, though, to actually know what someone else is thinking. Heck, most of the time, we have trouble knowing our own minds. Yet, we use language that can lead us to believe that we can read minds. An example from The Wall Street Journal (August 23, 2001):

Stocks finished higher as economic worries sparked by the Fed's decision to reduce interest rates again gave way to a more accommodating view of corporate-profit potential.

I suppose (though I don't know) that the authors didn't research the opinions of all stock traders. Maybe they made a pretty good guess, but it's probably just a guess — it could be wrong. If you doubt that, maybe you haven't checked your 401(k) in the past year or two.

Mind reading is so pervasive that we no longer see it. Here are some key phrases that might indicate mind-reading:

  • The real reason you're doing that is
  • You're only saying that because
  • Don't hand me that
  • You know what I mean
  • You would never do that unless

Whether you're mind reading depends on the answer to "How do you know that?" If the answer doesn't involve a direct report from the owner of the mind in question, you might be mind reading.

We don't actually know
what someone else is thinking.
Heck, most of the time,
we have trouble knowing
our own minds.
When we accept uncritically any supposition that could be erroneous — such as a conclusion based on mind reading — then anything we derive from it is questionable. It's dangerous enough when we do it personally, but in the project context, we could be risking the well being of many others in addition to ourselves. Some examples:

  • Our customers aren't requesting that feature, but let's include it — we know what's best for them.
  • They're estimating $11.2 million for that project, but they always pad estimates — I'll cut it 30%.
  • They always cut our estimates, so let's pad them by 30%.
  • The engineers never cooperate if we just ask them to, so make it a condition of employment. If they don't do it, they're out.

It's difficult to catch yourself mind reading, so watch the people around you for one week. Collect the phrases they use. Gradually your observation skills will improve, and soon you'll be better able to observe yourself. Take care, though — if you ever come to conclude that someone else is mind reading, you're mind reading. Go to top Top  Next issue: Running Your Personal Squirrel Cage  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe 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

For more on mind reading and how we make meaning out of our observations, see "Making Meaning," Point Lookout for January 16, 2008.

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We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.

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