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

Coincidences Do Happen

by

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.

A pattern that isn't a patternShe 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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Devious Political Tactics: Credit Appropriation  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

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).

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenCHVCbNEXRkagtNYSner@ChaceAwjjpspoTnrgHBAoCanyon.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:

A voteDecisions, Decisions: II
Most of us have participated in group decision-making. The process can be frustrating and painful, but it can also be thrilling. What processes do groups use to make decisions?
The Samuel Morse Telegraph ReceiverRemote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: III
Facilitators of synchronous distributed meetings (meetings that occur in real time, via telephone or video) can make life much easier for everyone by taking steps before the meeting starts. Here's Part III of a little catalog of suggestions for remote facilitators.
A grove of quaking aspenFinding Work in Tough Times: Infrastructure
Finding work in tough times goes a lot more easily if you have at least a minimum of equipment and space to do the job. Here are some thoughts about getting that infrastructure and managing it.
An F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter test aircraft AA-1 undergoes flight testing over Fort Worth, TexasThe Deck Chairs of the Titanic: Task Duration
Much of what we call work is as futile and irrelevant as rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic. We continue our exploration of futile and irrelevant work, this time emphasizing behaviors that extend task duration.
A view from the false summit of the Manitou incline in ColoradoFalse Summits: I
Mountaineers often experience "false summits," when just as they thought they were nearing the summit, it turns out that there is much more climbing to do. So it is in project work.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) speaks at a recent Senate hearingComing October 17: Overt Belligerence in Meetings
Some meetings lose their way in vain attempts to mollify a belligerent participant who simply will not be mollified. Here's one scenario that fits this pattern. Available here and by RSS on October 17.
A man, standing, explaining something to a woman, seatedAnd on October 24: Conversation Irritants: I
Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous. But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection of their techniques. Available here and by RSS on October 24.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenNhkvbeTRoSTuWVItner@ChackYZAEMltcbrEpxqSoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, 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

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs 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
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed 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.