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Volume 23, Issue 14;   April 5, 2023: The Fallacy of Division

The Fallacy of Division


Errors of reasoning are pervasive in everyday thought in most organizations. One of the more common errors is called the Fallacy of Division, in which we assume that attributes of a class apply to all members of that class. It leads to ridiculous results.
Bust of Aristotle. Marble. Roman copy after a Greek bronze original

Bust of Aristotle. Marble. Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BCE. The alabaster mantle is a modern addition. Aristotle identified the fallacy of reasoning known as the "Fallacy of Division" (and 12 others) in his work, Sophistical Refutations. [Aristotle 350 BCE] Image courtesy Wikimedia.

The fallacy of division is an error of reasoning. It occurs when we conclude that entity A, which is a member of class B, must have attribute C solely because class B has attribute C. For example, "Last year, our IT project budget overran the plan by 13%. All of our access management projects are IT projects. Therefore all of our access management projects overran the plan by 13%." Most of us can easily identify this fallacy when it's applied in such an artificial example.

Examples of the Fallacy of Division

In real life, the fallacy of division can be difficult to spot. When it escapes notice, trouble lurks. Here are five examples.

Studies suggest that for software development projects, overall, Scrum has produced disappointing results
Translation: Since we do most of our work as projects, Scrum will produce disappointing results if we try it for our projects.
This line of reasoning ignores many possible conditions of the projects that were studied, including:
  • Scrum might have been deployed in a defective manner
  • The people using Scrum might not have been properly trained
  • The people using Scrum might have opposed it and intentionally circumvented it
The conclusion might be valid, but any possible basis for that conclusion is absent.
Research has shown that in organizations generally, meetings are a wasteful way for teams to reach decisions
Translation: Because we are an organization, and we conduct meetings, they will be a wasteful way for us to reach decisions.
The problem here is that the reasoning fails to account for differences between the meetings as conducted in the studied organizations, and the meetings as conducted in "our" organization.
Because sales will decline by 15% over the next three quarters, we must curtail spending across the board
Translation: Every department, including the Sales Department, must reduce its spending by 15% over the next three quarters.
In this In real life, the fallacy of division
can be difficult to spot. When it
escapes notice, trouble lurks.
example, there is a hidden assumption that operating expenses are directly proportional to sales, which is almost certainly invalid. But even if it were a valid assumption, across-the-board expense reductions are rarely justifiable. This example actually advocates "level" reductions in the Sales Department, which is most likely counter-effective.
Studies suggest that most corporate training is ineffective and wasteful
Translation: We must immediately review our training programs. Unless our metrics can show that a training program is producing added value, we must terminate that program.
This example shows how to avoid the Fallacy of Division by insisting that the problem of zero-value training be shown to be present in the organization before the training program is ended. However, it also illustrates the effect of succumbing to the fallacy, because the review of the training program suddenly appears on the organizational agenda. The hidden assumption is that if training programs are problematic elsewhere, they must be problematic here.
Employee compensation accounts for 80% of expenses
Translation: If we must reduce expenses by 10%, then 80% of that reduction must come from employee compensation.
The error here is the idea that since employee compensation accounts for 80% of expenses, it must bear its "fair share" of the overall reduction. This approach is erroneous for multiple reasons. Some examples:
  • It's possible that reducing employee compensation could reduce revenue even more.
  • Opportunities for improving efficiency might not be evenly distributed across expense categories.
  • The real problem might be that employee compensation is too low, which has limited the organization's ability to recruit the people needed to compete more effectively in the market.

Last words

Instances of the use of the Fallacy of Division escape notice, in part, because they seem so reasonable. Devious actors can use this property of the fallacy to persuade others to adopt positions that might be favorable to the devious actor, while harming the organization. Go to top Top  Next issue: Commenting on the Work of Others  Next Issue

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Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Aristotle 350 BCE]
Aristotle. On Sophistical Refutations. Written approximately 350 BCE. Translated 1994 by W. A. Pickard-Cambridge. Available here. Retrieved 20 March 2023. Back

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The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill BridgeComing May 29: Rescheduling: Project Factors
Rescheduling is what we do when we can no longer honor the schedule we have now. Of all causes of rescheduling, the more controllable are those found at the project level. Attending to them in one project can limit their effects on other projects. Available here and by RSS on May 29.
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When the current schedule is no longer viable, we reschedule. But rescheduling is unlike devising a schedule before work has begun. People know that we're "behind" and taking time to reschedule only makes things worse. Political pressure doesn't help. Available here and by RSS on June 5.

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