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

Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[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

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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When we alter existing systems to enhance them, we tend to favor adding components even when subtracting might be better. This effect has been attributed to a cognitive bias known as additive bias. But other forces more important might be afoot. Available here and by RSS on June 26.
A close-up view of a chipseal road surfaceAnd on July 3: Additive bias…Not: II
Additive bias is a cognitive bias that many believe contributes to bloat of commercial products. When we change products to make them more capable, additive bias might not play a role, because economic considerations sometimes favor additive approaches. Available here and by RSS on July 3.

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