We began last time to explore how we can err when assessing the significance of observations. We saw that the significance of an observation is the set of implications and consequences that follow from it, where the key word is follow. We like to believe that we deduce the implications and consequences from evidence and clear reasoning, but we don't always work that way, especially under pressure. Here are three phenomena that can distort assessments of significance.
- Dunning-Kruger effect
- The Dunning-Kruger effect leads to confusion between confidence and competence, and between cautious prudence and incompetence, both of which distort estimations of competence. We then assess the significance of information based on the manner of delivery, rather than the credibility of the messenger. If the messenger is non-sentient, we assess significance based on immediacy, suddenness, or directness — the non-sentient analogs of "confidence."
- For example, a report written in a confident style, well-documented, and presenting conclusions without acknowledging uncertainties, can be more influential than an equally well-drafted report presenting the same conclusions but also clearly explaining the uncertainties.
- Optimism bias
- This bias is the tendency to underestimate the likelihood of unwelcome events befalling us personally, compared to the likelihood of similar events befalling others. It can cause errors in estimating risk probabilities. See "Wishful Interpretation: I," Point Lookout for November 11, 2015.
- Under the influence of this bias people might express sentiments such as:
- No need for concern, that will never happen
- No need for concern, that will never happen twice in a row
- Yes, but they won't realize it until it's too late to respond
- Semmelweis effect
- The Semmelweis Wishful thinking can result from
errors in assessing the significance
of our observations, because we
don't always assess significance
logically from objective evidenceeffect is the tendency to reject new approaches or theories not on the basis of disconfirming evidence, but because they contradict established practice and belief. It's named for a Hungarian physician, Ignac Semmelweis (1818-1865), who proposed in 1847 that high maternal mortality rates in a Vienna maternity ward were due to physicians treating mothers directly after performing autopsies without washing their hands. This practice seems evidently abhorrent now, but the germ theory of disease wasn't firmly established until Pasteur's work 15 years later. As the story goes, Semmelweis met fierce resistance because of the essence of his theory, but that interpretation of the cause of the resistance has been discredited [Nuland 1979]. Still, the name has stuck. The Semmelweis effect can cause us to resist change even in the presence of mounting evidence of the need for it.
- Under the influence of the Semmelweis effect, people might express sentiments such as:
- It didn't work that one time, but let's try again. I'm sure it will work out.
- If you're right, then we just wasted two months. You must be wrong.
- We don't have the resources for that. To get this job done, we agreed we must take a few shortcuts.
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For more about the Dunning-Kruger Effect, see "The Paradox of Confidence," Point Lookout for January 7, 2009; "How to Reject Expert Opinion: II," Point Lookout for January 4, 2012; "Devious Political Tactics: More from the Field Manual," Point Lookout for August 29, 2012; "Overconfidence at Work," Point Lookout for April 15, 2015; "Wishful Thinking and Perception: II," Point Lookout for November 4, 2015; "Cognitive Biases and Influence: I," Point Lookout for July 6, 2016; and "The Paradox of Carefully Chosen Words," Point Lookout for November 16, 2016.
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More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:
- Problem Defining and Problem Solving
- Sometimes problem-solving sessions are difficult because we get started solving a problem before we
know what problem we're solving. Understanding the connection between stakeholders, problem solving,
and problem defining can reduce conflict and produce better solutions.
- Organizing a Barn Raising
- Once you find a task that you can tackle as a "barn raising," your work is just beginning.
Planning and organizing the work is in many ways the hard part.
- Exploiting Failed Ideas
- When the approach you've been using fails, how do you go about devising Plan B? Or Plan C? Here are
some ways to find new approaches by examining failures.
- Hill Climbing and Its Limitations
- Finding a better solution by making small adjustments to your current solution is usually a good idea.
The key word is "usually."
- Conway's Law and Technical Debt
- Conway's Law is an observation that the structures of systems we design tend to replicate our communication
patterns. This tendency might also contribute to their tendency to accumulate what we now call technical debt.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming November 20: Paid-Time-Off Risks
- Associated with the trend to a single pool of paid time off from separate categories for vacation, sick time, and personal days are what might be called paid-time-off risks. If your team must meet customer expectations or a schedule of deliverables, managing paid-time-off risks can be important. Available here and by RSS on November 20.
- And on November 27: Implicit Interrogations
- Investigations at work can begin with implicit interrogations — implicit because they're unannounced and unacknowledged. The goal is to determine what people did or knew without revealing that an investigation is underway. When asked, those conducting these interrogations often deny they're doing it. What's the nature of implicit interrogations? Available here and by RSS on November 27.
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- The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. 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.