- Coming October 17: Overt Belligerence in Meetings
- Some meetings lose their way in vain attempts to mollify a belligerent participant who simply will not be mollified. Here's one scenario that fits this pattern. Available here and by RSS on October 17.
- And on October 24: Conversation Irritants: I
- Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous. But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection of their techniques. Available here and by RSS on October 24.
Other topical archives:
July 25, 2018
- Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
- A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness.
June 20, 2018
- Managing Dissent Risk
- In group decision making, dissent risk is the risk that dissents about important decisions will be rejected without due consideration. As a result, group decision quality can suffer, and some groups will actually eject dissenters. How can we manage dissent risk?
February 14, 2018
- How to Get Overwhelmed
- Here's a field manual for those who want to get overwhelmed by all the work they have to do. If you're already overwhelmed, it might explain how things got that way.
February 7, 2018
- Nine Brainstorming Demotivators: II
- Brainstorming sessions produce output of notoriously variable quality, but understanding what compromises quality can help elevate it. Here's Part II of a set of nine phenomena that can limit the quality of contributions to brainstorming sessions.
November 29, 2017
- Manipulators Beware
- When manipulators try to manipulate others, they're attempting to unscrupulously influence their targets to decide or act in some way the manipulators prefer. But some targets manage to outwit their manipulators.
November 22, 2017
- Motivation and the Reification Error
- We commit the reification error when we assume, incorrectly, that we can treat abstract constructs as if they were real objects. It's a common error when we try to motivate people.
November 15, 2017
- Exploiting Functional Fixedness: I
- Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias that creates difficulty in seeing novel uses of things that have familiar uses. Some devious moves in workplace politics exploit functional fixedness.
October 18, 2017
- Missing the Obvious: II
- With hindsight, we sometimes recognize that we could have predicted the very thing that just now surprised us. Somehow, we missed the obvious. Why does this happen?
October 11, 2017
- Missing the Obvious: I
- At times, when the unexpected occurs, we recognize with hindsight that the unexpected could have been expected. How do we miss the obvious? What's happening when we do?
September 20, 2017
- Comfort Zone Discomfort
- The phrase "comfort zone" is a metaphor that can distort how we think about situations in which we feel comfortable and confident. Here are four examples illustrating how the metaphor distorts our thinking.
July 5, 2017
- Tackling Hard Problems: II
- In this Part II of our look at solving hard problems, we continue developing properties of the solution, and look at how we get from the beginning to the end.
June 28, 2017
- Tackling Hard Problems: I
- Hard problems need not be big problems. Even when they're small, they can halt progress on any project. Here's Part I of an approach to working on hard problems by breaking them down into smaller steps.
November 16, 2016
- The Paradox of Carefully Chosen Words
- When we take special care in choosing our words, so as to avoid creating misimpressions, something strange often happens: we create a misimpression of ignorance or deceitfulness. Why does this happen?
July 13, 2016
- Cognitive Biases and Influence: II
- Most advice about influencing others offers intentional tactics. Yet, the techniques we actually use are often unintentional, and we're therefore unaware of them. Among these are tactics exploiting cognitive biases.
July 6, 2016
- Cognitive Biases and Influence: I
- The techniques of influence include inadvertent — and not-so-inadvertent — uses of cognitive biases. They are one way we lead each other to accept or decide things that rationality cannot support.
May 25, 2016
- Wacky Words of Wisdom: V
- Adages, aphorisms, and "words of wisdom" are true often enough that we accept them as universal. They aren't. Here's Part V of some widely held beliefs that mislead us at work.
March 30, 2016
- Still More Things I've Learned Along the Way
- When I have an important insight, or when I'm taught a lesson, I write it down. Here's another batch from my personal collection.
February 10, 2016
- Patterns of Conflict Escalation: II
- When simple workplace disagreements evolve into workplace warfare, they often do so following recognizable patterns. If we can recognize the patterns early, we can intervene to prevent serious damage to relationships. Here's Part II of a catalog of some of those patterns.
January 27, 2016
- Virtual Clutter: II
- Thorough de-cluttering at work involves more than organizing equipment and those piles of documents that tend to accumulate so mysteriously. We must also address the countless non-physical entities that make work life so complicated — the virtual clutter.
January 20, 2016
- Virtual Clutter: I
- With some Web searching, you can find abundant advice for decluttering your home or office. And people are even thinking about decluttering email inboxes. But the problem of clutter is far more widespread.
January 13, 2016
- When Fixing It Doesn't Fix It: II
- When complex systems misbehave, repairs can require deep thought, inspiration, and careful reasoning. Here are guidelines for a systematic approach to repairing complex systems.
January 6, 2016
- When Fixing It Doesn't Fix It: I
- When complex systems misbehave, a common urge is to find any way at all to end the misbehavior. Succumbing to that urge can be a big mistake. Here's why we succumb.
December 30, 2015
- Call in the Right Expert
- When solving a problem is beyond us, we turn to experts, but sometimes we turn to the wrong experts. That can make the problem even worse. Why? How does this happen? What can we do about it?
December 23, 2015
- Wishful Significance: II
- When we're beset by seemingly unresolvable problems, we sometimes conclude that "wishful thinking" was the cause. Wishful thinking can result from errors in assessing the significance of our observations. Here's a second group of causes of erroneous assessment of significance.
December 16, 2015
- Wishful Significance: I
- When things don't work out, and we investigate why, we sometimes attribute our misfortune to "wishful thinking." In this part of our exploration of wishful thinking we examine how we arrive at mistaken assessments of the significance of what we see, hear, or learn.
November 18, 2015
- Wishful Interpretation: II
- Wishful "thinking," as we call it, can arise in different ways. One source is the pattern of choices we make when we interpret what we see, what we hear, or any other information we receive. Here's Part II of an inventory of ways our preferences and wishes affect how we interpret the world.
November 11, 2015
- 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 the world.
August 5, 2015
- Wacky Words of Wisdom: IV
- Words of wisdom are pithy sayings that can be valuable so often that we believe them absolutely. Although these sayings are often valuable, they aren't universally valid. Here's Part IV of a growing collection.
April 15, 2015
- Overconfidence at Work
- Confidence in our judgments and ourselves is essential to success. Confidence misplaced — overconfidence — leads to trouble and failure. Understanding the causes and consequences of overconfidence can be most useful.
December 17, 2014
- 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?
December 10, 2014
- On the Risk of Undetected Issues: I
- In complex projects, things might have gone wrong long before we notice them. Noticing them as early as possible — and addressing them — is almost always advantageous. How can we reduce the incidence of undetected issues?
July 16, 2014
- Constancy Assumptions
- We necessarily make assumptions about our lives, including our work, because assumptions simplify things. And usually, our assumptions are valid. But not always.
July 9, 2014
- What Groupthink Isn't
- The term groupthink is tossed around fairly liberally in conversation and on the Web. But it's astonishing how often it's misused and misunderstood. Here are some examples.
June 4, 2014
- Anecdotes and Refutations
- In debate and argumentation, anecdotes are useful. They illustrate. They make things concrete. But they aren't proof of anything. Using anecdotes as proofs leads to much trouble and wasted time.
January 1, 2014
- The Nominal Fallacy at Work
- Using logical fallacies at work — intentionally or otherwise — costs real money. The nominal fallacy is probably responsible for much delay in addressing our real problems.
July 25, 2012
- How to Avoid Getting What You Want
- Why would you want to know how to avoid getting what you want? Well, suppose you had perfected ways of avoiding getting what you want, but you weren't aware that you were doing it. This one's for you.
July 11, 2012
- Wacky Words of Wisdom: III
- Adages are so elegantly stated that we have difficulty doubting them. Here's Part III of a collection of often-misapplied adages.
June 6, 2012
- Wacky Words of Wisdom: II
- Words of wisdom are so often helpful that many of them have solidified into easily remembered capsules. And that's where the trouble begins. We remember them too easily and we apply them too liberally. Here's Part II of a collection of often-misapplied words of wisdom.
May 2, 2012
- On Noticing
- What we fail to notice about any situation — and what we do notice that isn't really there — can be the difference between the outcomes we fear, the outcomes we seek, and the outcomes that exceed our dreams. How can we improve our ability to notice?
March 21, 2012
- The Halo Effect
- The Halo Effect is a cognitive bias that causes our evaluation of people, concepts, or objects to be influenced by our perceptions of one attribute of those people, concepts, or objects. It can lead us to make significant errors of judgment.
March 14, 2012
- Apophenia at Work
- The urge to identify as meaningful the patterns we see in winning streaks in sports, or streaks of successes in business, can lead us to accept bogus explanations prematurely. It's a common human tendency that can put people and organizations in desperate situations.
January 18, 2012
- A Review of Performance Reviews: The Checkoff
- As practiced in most organizations, performance reviews, especially annual performance reviews, are toxic both to the organization and its people. A commonly used tool, the checkoff, is especially deceptive.
October 20, 2010
- Forward Backtracking
- The nastiest part about solving complex problems isn't their complexity. It's the feeling of being overwhelmed when we realize we haven't a clue about how to get from where we are to where we need to be. Here's one way to get a clue.
July 14, 2010
- Wacky Words of Wisdom
- Words of wisdom are so often helpful that many of them have solidified into easily remembered capsules. We do tend to over-generalize them, though, and when we do, trouble follows. Here are a few of the more dangerous ones.
October 14, 2009
- Logically Illogical
- Discussions in meetings and in written media can get long and complex. When a chain of reasoning gets long enough, we sometimes make fundamental errors of logic, especially when we're under time pressure. Here are just a few.
August 26, 2009
- I've Got Your Number, Pal
- Recent research has uncovered a human tendency — possibly universal — to believe that we know others better than others know them, and that we know ourselves better than others know themselves. These beliefs, rarely acknowledged and often wrong, are at the root of many a toxic conflict of long standing.
May 13, 2009
- Misleading Vividness
- Group decision-making usually entails discussion. When contributions to that discussion include vivid examples, illustrations, or stories, the group can be at risk of making a mistaken decision.
March 4, 2009
- The Fallacy of Composition
- Rhetorical fallacies are errors of reasoning that introduce flaws in the logic of arguments. Used either intentionally or by accident, they often lead us to mistaken conclusions. The Fallacy of Composition is one of the more subtle fallacies, which makes it especially dangerous.
January 7, 2009
- The Paradox of Confidence
- Most of us interpret a confident manner as evidence of competence, and a hesitant manner as evidence of lesser ability. Recent research suggests that confidence and competence are inversely correlated. If so, our assessments of credibility and competence are thrown into question.
August 6, 2008
- Projection Errors at Work
- Often, at work, we make interpretations of the behavior of others. Sometimes we base these interpretations not on actual facts, but on our perceptions of facts. And our perceptions are sometimes erroneous.
June 25, 2008
- Unintended Consequences
- Sometimes, when we solve problems, the solutions create new problems that can be worse than the problems we solve. Why does this happen? How can we limit this effect?
May 21, 2008
- What have you learned today? What has enriched you, changed your understanding of the world, or given you a new view of history or the future? Learning something new every day is a worthy goal.
January 16, 2008
- Making Meaning
- When we see or hear the goings-on around us, we interpret them to make meaning and significance. Some interpretations are thoughtful, but most are almost instantaneous. Since the instantaneous ones are sometimes goofy or dangerous, here's a look at how we make interpretations.
November 21, 2007
- Difficult Decisions
- Some decisions are difficult because they trigger us emotionally. They involve conflicts of interest, yielding to undesirable realities, or possibly pain and suffering for the deciders or for others. How can we make these emotionally difficult decisions with greater clarity and better outcomes?
October 3, 2007
- Some Limits of Root Cause Analysis
- Root Cause Analysis uses powerful tools for finding the sources of process problems. The approach has been so successful that it has become a way of thinking about organizational patterns. Yet, resolving organizational problems this way sometimes works — and sometimes fails. Why?
June 20, 2007
- More Stuff and Nonsense
- Some of what we believe is true about work comes not from the culture at work, but from the larger culture. These beliefs are much more difficult to root out, but sometimes just a little consideration does help. Here are some examples.
June 13, 2007
- Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True
- Maxims and rules make life simpler by eliminating decisions. And they have a price: they sometimes foreclose options that would have worked better than anything else. Here are some things we believe in maybe a little too much.
May 30, 2007
- Snares at Work
- Stuck in uncomfortable situations, we tend to think of ourselves as trapped. But sometimes it is our own actions that keep us stuck. Understanding how these traps work is the first step to learning how to deal with them.
May 23, 2007
- Ten Reasons Why You Don't Always Get What You Measure: III
- The phrase "You get what you measure," has acquired the status of "truism." Yet many measurement-based initiatives have produced disappointing results. Here's Part III of an examination of the idea — a look at management's role in these surprises.
May 2, 2007
- Ten Reasons Why You Don't Always Get What You Measure: II
- Although many believe that "You get what you measure," metrics-based management systems sometimes produce disappointing results. In this Part II, we look at the effects of employee behavior.
April 25, 2007
- When Stress Strikes
- Most of what we know about person-to-person communication applies when levels of stress are low. But when stress is high, as it is in emergencies, we're more likely to make mistakes. Knowing those mistakes in advance can be helpful in avoiding them.
April 18, 2007
- Ten Reasons Why You Don't Always Get What You Measure: I
- One of the "truisms" floating around is that "You get what you measure." Belief in this assertion has led many to a metrics-based style of management, but the results have been uneven at best. Why?
January 24, 2007
- An Emergency Toolkit
- You've just had some bad news at work, and you're angry or really upset. Maybe you feel like the target of a vicious insult or the victim of a serious injustice. You have work to do, and you want to respond, but you must first regain your composure. What can you do to calm down and start feeling better?
July 26, 2006
- Working Journals
- Keeping a journal about your work can change how you work. You can record why you did what you did, and why you didn't do what you didn't. You can record what you saw and what you only thought you saw. And when you read the older entries, you can see patterns you might never have noticed any other way.
July 19, 2006
- Workplace Myths: Motivating People
- Up and down the org chart, you can find bits of business wisdom about motivating people. We generally believe these theories without question. How many of them are true? How many are myths? What are some of these myths and why do they persist?
May 31, 2006
- If Only I Had Known: I
- Have you ever regretted saying something that you wouldn't have said if only you had known just one more little fact? Yeah, me too. We all have. Here are some tips for dealing with this sticky situation.
May 24, 2006
- Inner Babble
- It goes by various names — self-talk, inner dialog, or internal conversation. Because it is so often disorganized and illogical, I like to call it inner babble. But whatever you call it, it's often misleading, distracting, and unhelpful. How can you recognize inner babble?
March 8, 2006
- Interviewing the Willing: Tactics
- When we need information from each other, even when the source is willing, we sometimes fail to expose critical facts. Here are some tactics for eliciting information from the willing.
March 1, 2006
- Interviewing the Willing: Strategy
- At times, we need information from each other. For example, we want to learn about how someone approached a similar problem, or we must interview someone about system requirements. Yet, even when the source is willing, we sometimes fail to expose critical facts. How can we elicit information from the willing more effectively?
January 18, 2006
- Filtered Perceptions
- How we see things influences how we see things, almost like a filter or sunglasses. What are your filters?
January 11, 2006
- Nine Project Management Fallacies: IV
- Some of what we "know" about managing projects just isn't so. Understanding these last three of the nine fallacies of project management helps reduce risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully.
December 28, 2005
- Nine Project Management Fallacies: III
- Some of what we "know" about managing projects just isn't so. Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully.
December 14, 2005
- Nine Project Management Fallacies: II
- Some of what we "know" about managing projects just isn't so. Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully.
December 7, 2005
- Comfortable Ignorance
- When we suddenly realize that what we've believed is wrong, or that what we've been doing won't work, our fear and discomfort can cause us to persevere in our illusions. If we can get better at accepting reality and dealing with it, we can make faster progress toward real achievement.
November 30, 2005
- Nine Project Management Fallacies: I
- Most of what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we "know" just isn't so. Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully.
September 28, 2005
- Give Me the Bad News First
- I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that if you wait long enough, there will be some bad news. The good news is that the good news helps us deal with the bad news. And it helps a lot more if we get the bad news first.
September 21, 2005
- My Boss Is Driving Me Nuts
- When things go badly, many of us experience stress, and we might indulge various appetites in harmful ways. Some of us say things like "My boss is driving me nuts," or "She made me so angry." These explanations are rarely legitimate.
June 1, 2005
- Most of us follow paths through our careers, or through life. We get nervous when we're off the path. We feel better when we're doing what everyone else is doing. But is that sensible?
May 11, 2005
- Nine Positive Indicators of Negative Progress
- Project status reports rarely acknowledge negative progress until after it becomes undeniable. But projects do sometimes move backwards, outside of our awareness. What are the warning signs that negative progress might be underway?
April 20, 2005
- Knowing Where You're Going
- Groups that can't even agree on what to do can often find themselves debating about how to do it. Here are some simple things to remember to help you focus on defining the goal.
March 2, 2005
- Working Lunches
- To save time, or to find a time everyone has free, we sometimes meet during lunch. It seems like a good idea, but there are some hidden costs.
February 23, 2005
- Recovering Time: I
- Where do the days go? How can it be that we spend eight, ten, or twelve hours at work each day and get so little done? To recover time, limit the fragmentation of your day. Here are some tips for structuring your working day in larger chunks.
November 10, 2004
- The Fine Art of Quibbling
- We usually think of quibbling as an innocent swan dive into unnecessary detail, like calculating shares of a lunch check to the nearest cent. In debate about substantive issues, a detour into quibbling can be far more threatening — it can indicate much deeper problems.
September 15, 2004
- Begging the Question
- Begging the question is a common, usually undetected, rhetorical fallacy. It leads to unsupported conclusions and painful places we just can't live with. What can we do when it happens?
September 1, 2004
- The Power of Presuppositions
- Presuppositions are powerful tools for manipulating others. To defend yourself, know how they're used, know how to detect them, and know how to respond.
July 7, 2004
- Believe It or Else
- When we use threats and intimidation to win debates or agreement, we lay a flimsy foundation for future action. Using fear may win the point, but little more.
May 5, 2004
- The Fundamental Attribution Error
- When we try to understand the behavior of others, we often make a particularly human mistake. We tend to attribute too much to character and disposition and too little to situation and context. When we seek a better balance, we can adopt a more accepting view of events around us.
April 14, 2004
- When we steer the discussion away from issues to attack the credibility, motives, or character of our debate partners, we often resort to a technique known as the ad hominem attack. It's unfair, it's unethical, and it leads to bad, expensive decisions that we'll probably regret.
March 31, 2004
- The Hypothetical Trap
- Politicians know that answering hypothetical questions is dangerous, but it's equally dangerous for managers and project managers to answer them in the project context. What's the problem? Why should you be careful of the "What If?"
February 11, 2004
- Decision-Making and the Straw Man
- In project work, we often make decisions with incomplete information. Sometimes we narrow the options to a few, examine their strengths and risks, and make a choice. In our deliberations, some advocates use a technique called the Straw Man fallacy. It threatens the soundness of the decision, and its use is very common.
September 17, 2003
- Coincidences Do Happen
- When we notice similarities between events, or possible patterns of events, we often attribute meaning to them beyond what we can prove. Sometimes we guess right, and sometimes not. How can we improve our guesses?
August 6, 2003
- Finger Puzzles and "Common Sense"
- Working on complex projects, we often face a choice between "just do it" and "wait, let's think this through first." Choosing to just do it can seem to be the shortest path to the goal, but it rarely is. It's an example of a Finger Puzzle.
June 18, 2003
- Demanding Forgiveness
- Working together under stress, we do sometimes hurt each other. Delivering apologies is a skill critical to repairing those hurts and maintaining our relationships.
April 23, 2003
- Critical Thinking and Midnight Pizza
- When we notice patterns or coincidences, we draw conclusions about things we can't or didn't directly observe. Sometimes the conclusions are right, and sometimes not. When they're not, organizations, careers, and people can suffer. To be right more often, we must master critical thinking.
June 26, 2002
- Think in Living Color
- Feeling trapped, with no clear way out, often leads to anger. One way to defuse your anger is to notice false traps, particularly the false dichotomy. When you notice that you're the target of a false dichotomy, you can control your anger more easily — and then the trap often disappears.
October 10, 2001
- The Mind Reading Trap
- When we think, "Paul doesn't trust me," we could be fooling ourselves into believing that we can read his mind. Unless he has directly expressed his distrust, we're just guessing, and we can reach whatever conclusion we wish, unconstrained by reality. In project management, as anywhere else, that's a recipe for trouble.
July 11, 2001
- The Fallacy of the False Cause
- Although we sometimes make decisions with incomplete information, we do the best we can, given what we know. Sometimes, we make wrong decisions not because we have incomplete information, but because we make mistakes in how we reason about the information we do have.
June 6, 2001
- You Remind Me of Helen Hunt
- At a dinner party I attended recently, Kris said to Suzanne, "You remind me of Helen Hunt." I looked at Suzanne, and sure enough, she did look like Helen Hunt. Later, I noticed that I was seeing Suzanne a little differently. These are the effects of hat hanging. At work, it can damage careers and even businesses.
March 28, 2001
- The Slippery Slope That Isn't
- "If we promote you, we'll have to promote all of them, too." This "slippery-slope" tactic for winning debates works by exploiting our fears. Another in a series about rhetorical tricks that push our buttons.
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