Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 6, Issue 2;   January 11, 2006: Nine Project Management Fallacies: IV

Nine Project Management Fallacies: IV

by

Some of what we "know" about managing projects just isn't so. Understanding these last three of the nine fallacies of project management helps reduce risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully.

Nan picked up the last chunk of cookie and ate it. Peter and Trish had long ago finished theirs, but Nan liked making cookies last. "The critical thinking fallacies were my favorites," she said. "I like learning how to think more clearly."

A white shark off the California coast

A white shark off the California coast.
Photo courtesy U.S. NOAA.

Peter sipped his coffee. "Mmm." He swallowed. "But how do we avoid those fallacies?"

Nan had an idea. "Maybe we should inspect our project plans, like we inspect components."

Trish was intrigued. "Yeah, and I know what I'd put at the top of the checklist."

"OK, I'll bite," said Peter. "What?"

Trish was ready. "The Nine Project Management Fallacies."

Not a bad idea. These last three fallacies (Part IV of a little catalog of the fallacies of project management) are errors of critical thinking. For Part III, see "Nine Project Management Fallacies: III," Point Lookout for December 28, 2005.

Nonrandom polling
might provide comfort,
but it's hardly
scientific
The Normative Fallacy
This fallacy holds that when we ask some people their opinions, and most of them agree, then they're correct. Usually we select people nonrandomly, choosing those who will give us desirable answers, or those we can trust, or those of high rank.
Nonrandom polling might provide comfort, but it's hardly scientific, and it almost always leads to biased conclusions.
To get truly useful polling data, you must poll people randomly.
The Availability Heuristic
In risk management, we often estimate the probabilities of certain events. We're using the Availability Heuristic [Tversky 1973] when we estimate these probabilities by sensing the difficulty of imagining or understanding the string of events that lead to the risk.
For instance, when we ask people whether death resulting from being attacked by a shark is more or less likely than from being hit by falling airplane parts, they usually answer that death by shark attack is more likely. Actually, death from being hit by falling airplane parts is 30 times more likely, but people are fooled because it's easier to imagine shark attacks, which are more common.
Estimating probabilities is unlikely to produce reliable results. For this reason, the Availability Heuristic is usually considered an example of a cognitive bias. Use real data, or use huge error bars.
The Grandiosity Fallacy
Confronting a problem, we sometimes address a generalization of the problem instead, hoping to solve a host of similar problems, and thereby solving the original problem almost "for free." Rarely does the reality match the wish.
Grandiosity usually generates two kinds of trouble. First, it's often more expensive and time-consuming than originally estimated. Second, the people of the organization rarely want the general solution. If they did, they probably would have sought it in the first place.
Sometimes customers don't know the value of the general solution, and telling them about it might produce a better outcome. But usually they want only what they asked for. Work with them on that first.

Track the incidence of these nine fallacies in your organization. Use them to inspect project plans. Probably your projects will have fewer surprises, or at least you'll be just a little less likely to be hit by falling airplane parts. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Filtered Perceptions  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

For more on cognitive biases, see "The Focusing Illusion in Organizations," Point Lookout for January 19, 2011.

Footnotes

[Tversky 1973]
Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. "Availability: a heuristic for judging frequency and probability," Cognitive Psychology 5 (1973), 207-232. Available here. Retrieved 23 April 2021. Back

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrendbTtLLSVlUPPCNkAner@ChacthFxWKdRwnLylOCDoCanyon.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 Project Management:

Two U.S. Army soldiers use binoculars and a riflescope to watch for insurgentsScheduling as Risk Management
When we schedule a complex project, we balance logical order, resource constraints, and even politics. Here are some techniques for using scheduling to manage risk and reduce costs.
Emergency extrication trainingEmergency Problem Solving
In emergencies, group problem solving is unusually challenging, especially if lives, careers, or companies depend on finding a solution immediately. Here are some tips for members of teams that are solving problems in emergencies.
"Taking an observation at the pole."Risk Management Risk: II
Risk Management Risk is the risk that a particular risk management plan is deficient. Here are some guidelines for reducing risk management risk arising from risk interactions and change.
Erecting a floating bridge in Korea (1952)When Change Is Hard: II
When organizational change is difficult, we sometimes blame poor leadership or "resistance." But even when we believe we have good leadership and the most cooperative populations, we can still encounter trouble. Why is change so hard so often?
Ross Marshall and Don Pugh at the kickoff meeting for the Expeditionary Combat Support System (ECSS) at Tinker Air Force BaseDeep Trouble and Getting Deeper
Here's a catalog of actions people take when the projects they're leading are in deep trouble, and they're pretty sure there's no way out.

See also Project Management and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The future site of 2 World Trade Center as it appeared in 2013Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerAnd on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
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.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrendbTtLLSVlUPPCNkAner@ChacthFxWKdRwnLylOCDoCanyon.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 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet 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.
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.