Nan pushed the door open, and she and Trish stepped out of the conference center into the morning air. On their first break from the off-site meeting, they hadn't quite yet relaxed from the pressure cooker that was the final stretch of Marigold, their latest project. It hadn't gone well, and they were all spending three days trying to figure out what happened.
"So what do you think?" Nan opened.
"I've been to off-sites before," said Trish. "But this is the first time I've felt hopeful that truth would come out."
Nan agreed. "Me too. I liked the bit about myths and fallacies."
Nan sat down on one of the plastic chairs. Trish sat too. "But knowing these fallacies," she asked, "won't we just get better at fooling ourselves? If we could get any better which I seriously doubt."
Nan smiled. "Well, I think his point was that by naming the fallacies, it gets harder to use them."
And Nan is right about that. By naming the fallacies, the patterns become obvious to everyone, which deters us from using them. Here's Part I of a little catalog of the fallacies of project management. For Part II, see "Nine Project Management Fallacies: II," Point Lookout for December 14, 2005.Universal awareness
of common fallacies
deters us all
from using them
- The Fallacy of Positivism
- The Fallacy of Positivism holds that if we believe we can accomplish something, we're more likely to actually accomplish it; and inversely, if we express doubts about accomplishing something, we're less likely to execute it successfully.
- This fallacy is especially tempting to leaders who want to motivate reluctant teams to attempt (or keep trying to do) the impossible. They're using it as a tool of manipulation.
- All things being equal, it's probably helpful to have a positive attitude. But Truth is most important. Be positive when it's appropriate, and express doubts when they're real and relevant. Both staying positive and expressing doubt inappropriately can lead to catastrophe.
- The Bad Actor Fallacy
- If a team exhibits a repeated pattern of dysfunction, we commit the Bad Actor Fallacy when we assume that one single team member is the likely cause of the problem.
- Isolating the cause of a team problem to a single individual is tempting because it suggests that dealing with that individual can resolve the problem. No need for messy and expensive team interventions; no need for involving more than one person.
- While it's possible for a single individual to keep a team in a state of dysfunction, more typically many individuals contribute to team problems. Team performance is an attribute of the team's system, and the organization in which that team is embedded.
One more fallacy is perhaps most common: the Purity Fallacy, which holds that we are personally pure: we never use fallacies ourselves. We all use them, of course — we're human. The trick is to catch yourself when you do. Next in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Project Management:
- Are You Changing Tactics or Moving the Goal Posts?
- When we make a mid-course correction in a project, we're usually responding to a newly uncovered difficulty
that requires a change in tactics. Sometimes, we can't resist the temptation to change the goals of
the project at the same time. And that can be a big mistake.
- Beyond Our Control
- When bad things happen, despite our plans and our best efforts, we sometimes feel responsible. We failed.
We could have done more. But is that really true? Aren't some things beyond our control?
- Guidelines for Sharing "Resources"
- Often, team members belong to several different teams. The leaders of teams whose members have divided
responsibilities must sometimes contend with each other for the efforts and energies of the people they
share. Here are some suggestions for sharing people effectively.
- Unresponsive Suppliers: I
- If we depend on suppliers for some tasks in a project, or for necessary materials, their performance
can affect our ability to meet deadlines. What can we do when a supplier's performance is problematic,
and the supplier doesn't respond to our increasingly urgent pleas for attention?
- Seven Planning Pitfalls: III
- We usually attribute departures from plan to poor execution, or to "poor planning." But one
cause of plan ineffectiveness is the way we think when we set about devising plans. Three cognitive
biases that can play roles are the so-called Magical Number 7, the Ambiguity Effect, and the Planning Fallacy.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 7: Reaching Agreements in Technological Contexts
- Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.
- And on December 14: Straw Man Variants
- The straw man fallacy is a famous rhetorical fallacy. Using it distorts debate and can lead groups to reach faulty conclusions. It's ad readily recognized, but it has some variants that are more difficult to spot. When unnoticed, trouble looms. Available here and by RSS on December 14.
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