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:
- Projects as Proxy Targets: I
- Some projects have detractors so determined to prevent project success that there's very little they
won't do to create conditions for failure. Here's Part I of a catalog of tactics they use.
- More Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why
- Retrospectives — also known as lessons learned exercises or after-action reviews — sometimes
miss important insights. Here are some additions to our growing catalog of obstacles to learning.
- 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?
- The Planning Fallacy and Self-Interest
- A well-known cognitive bias, the planning fallacy, accounts for many unrealistic estimates of project
cost and schedule. Overruns are common. But another cognitive bias, and organizational politics, combine
with the planning fallacy to make a bad situation even worse.
- Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
- Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products often involve accelerating problem
solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help, but a curious paradox stands in the way.
See also Project Management and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 7: Toxic Disrupters: Tactics
- Some people tend to disrupt meetings. Their motives vary, but they use techniques drawn from a limited collection. Examples: they violate norms, demand attention, mess with the agenda, and sow distrust. Response begins with recognizing their tactics. Available here and by RSS on June 7.
- And on June 14: Pseudo-Collaborations
- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
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