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:
- Films Not About Project Teams: I
- Here's part one of a list of films and videos about project teams that weren't necessarily meant to
be about project teams. Most are available to borrow from the public library, and all are great fun.
- On the Risk of Undetected Issues: II
- When things go wrong and remain undetected, trouble looms. We continue our efforts, increasing investment
on a path that possibly leads nowhere. Worse, time — that irreplaceable asset — passes.
How can we improve our ability to detect undetected issues?
- Avoid Having to Reframe Failure
- Yet again, we missed our goal — we were late, we were over budget, or we lost to the competition.
But how can we get something good out of it?
- Down in the Weeds: II
- To be "down in the weeds," in one of its senses, is to be lost in discussion at a level of
detail inappropriate to the current situation. Here's Part II of our exploration of methods for dealing
with this frustrating pattern so common in group discussions.
- How We Waste Time: I
- Time is the one workplace resource that's evenly distributed. Everyone gets exactly the same share,
but some use it more wisely than others. Here's Part I of a little catalog of ways we waste time.
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- Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?
Decision-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
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.