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.Nonrandom 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 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 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:
- Scheduling 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 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
- 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.
- 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?
- Deep 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.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming 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.
- And 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.
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