Wishful thinking is a means of reaching pleasing conclusions, maintaining preferred beliefs, or rejecting unfavorable beliefs. We think wishfully by cherry-picking evidence, bending the rules of rational thought, or creating substitutes for reality. Wishful thinking can be a source of risk in every human endeavor, whether we're rebuilding the U.S. Air Traffic Control system, or deciding whether or not to have a third child, or crossing a street in heavy traffic.
Because we can detect wishful thinking much more easily in others than in ourselves, tools for detecting it are important assets for people who must make decisions of consequence. For thinking about thinking, useful tools must be simple, because we need them while thinking about something else is actually happening. One such simple framework is the "Ingredients of an Interaction," a model of the person-to-person communication process developed by Virginia Satir [Satir 1991]. For our Wishful Thinking interventions, we'll use an even simpler form of the Satir Interaction Model, due to Jerry Weinberg [Weinberg 1993]. And instead of applying it to the case of person-to-person interaction, we'll be applying it to the more general case of person-World interactions.
For our purposes, the model describes the thought process that occurs from the moment we take in data from the World, to the moment when we execute a response to that data. The process has four stages, though we don't necessarily move through these stages in a strictly linear fashion. They are:
- During Intake, Wishful thinking can be
a source of risk in every
human endeavorwe acquire information about the outside World. For example, we might receive a message that an "all hands" meeting will be held this afternoon at 3PM.
- Here we interpret the data we've acquired, and ascribe meaning to it. In our example, the meaning might be that we must attend an all-hands meeting at 3PM. There really isn't much more to it than that.
- In this stage, we evaluate the significance of the meaning we made of the data. In our example, we might realize that we must reschedule our daily 3PM team meeting. Or we might begin to worry that layoffs are coming. Minds can easily boggle.
- Finally, we formulate and execute some kind of action. In our example, we might decide to notify the team that today's 3PM meeting is cancelled, and remind them that tomorrow's meeting will be held as usual. Or we might phone a trusted ally and suggest a meeting over coffee to discuss the layoffs.
That's the simplified form of the Satir Interaction Model. Our wishes, desires, and preferences can enter at any stage, and when they do, they do so in different ways peculiar to the stage involved. In coming weeks, we'll investigate how our wishes influence each stage of the process. Until then, think about which stage might be most vulnerable to wishful thinking for you. Next in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Project Management:
- Are You Changing Tactics or Moving the Goal Posts?
- When we make a mid-course correction in a project, we're usually responding to a newly uncovered difficulty
that requires a change in tactics. Sometimes, we can't resist the temptation to change the goals of
the project at the same time. And that can be a big mistake.
- Resuming Projects: Team Morale
- Sometimes we cancel a project because of budgetary constraints. We reallocate its resources and scatter
its people, and we tell ourselves that the project is on hold. But resuming is often riskier, more difficult
and more expensive than we hoped. Here are some reasons why.
- Managing Non-Content Risks: II
- When we manage risk, we usually focus on those risks most closely associated with the tasks at hand
— content risks. But there are other risks, to which we pay less attention. Many of these are
outside our awareness. Here's Part II of an exploration of these non-content risks, emphasizing those
that relate to organizational politics.
- Wishful Interpretation: I
- Wishful thinking comes from more than mere imagination. It can enter when we interpret our own observations
or what others tell us. Here's Part I of a little catalog of ways our wishes affect how we interpret
- Risk Creep: II
- When risk events occur, and they're of a kind we never considered before, it's possible that we've somehow
invited those risks without realizing we have. This is one way for risk to creep into our efforts. Here's
Part II of an exploration of risk creep.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 22: Disjoint Awareness: Bias
- Some cognitive biases can cause people in collaborations to have inaccurate understandings of what each other is doing. Confirmation bias and self-serving bias are two examples of cognitive biases that can contribute to disjoint awareness in some situations. Available here and by RSS on January 22.
- And on January 29: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
- Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products usually involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help. Available here and by RSS on January 29.
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