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."
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.Non-random polling
might provide comfort,
but it's hardly
- 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 non-randomly, choosing those who will give us desirable answers, or those we can trust, or those of high rank.
- Non-random 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 Top Next Issue
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For more on cognitive biases, see "The Focusing Illusion in Organizations," Point Lookout for January 19, 2011.
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More articles on Project Management:
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- What makes a great team? What traits do you value in teammates? Project teams can learn a lot from the
latest thinking about designing teams for extended space exploration.
- Long-Loop Conversations: Asking Questions
- In virtual or global teams, where remote collaboration is the rule, waiting for the answer to a simple
question can take a day or more. And when the response finally arrives, it's often just another question.
Here are some suggestions for framing questions that are clear enough to get answers quickly.
- The Politics of Lessons Learned
- Many organizations gather lessons learned — or at least, they believe they do. Mastering the political
subtleties of lessons learned efforts enhances results.
- Seven Ways to Get Nowhere
- Ever have the feeling that you're getting nowhere? You have the sense of movement, but you're making
no real progress towards the goal. How does this happen? What can you do about it?
- Managing Wishful Thinking Risk
- When things go wrong, and we look back at how we got there, we must sometimes admit to wishful thinking.
Here's a framework for managing the risk of wishful thinking.
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- And 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.
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- Many people 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.