An Insidious Cause of Poor Project Decisions

According to Professor Michael Roberto, author of Know What You Don’t Know, one of the skills to uncover potential problems in business and on projects is to “Hunt for Patterns.” Roberto fleshes this out, detailing how some problems stem from using faulty analogies. Intuition depends on “our ability to draw appropriate analogies”–a connecting the dots of sorts between situations.

But what about when we tie a current situation to one that is quite different? We choose to react (or not) because this situation appears to be the same as a previous one when, in fact, it’s notably different.

A boss gives us constructive feedback and we walk away assuming we’re going to get fired because that was the way it started when we were let go from a previous job years ago.

A seemingly innocent bug is found during testing and we decide to ship without fixing it because similar problems in the past were never discovered by customers.

Faulty analogies can be insidious. And they often can be sparked from a simple converation. A few words stated during a meeting or presentation and suddenly we’ve connected the dots pointing the wrong direction.

Roberto shares lessons from researchers Neustadt and May who recommend “leaders scrutinize their analogies closely by drawing up two lists, before they try to determine how to act in the current situation. These lists should identify all the Likenesses and Differences between the current situation and the analogous one.”

Put pen to paper. There’s so much wisdom in that advice. Yet haven’t you struggled to convince yourself or at least team members to do so? Taking time to generate reams of paper seems like a waste of time for some project managers and members of their teams.

Neustadt and May cite former Chrysler CEO Lee Iococca in response: “In conversation, you can get away with all kinds of vagueness and nonsense, often without realizing it. But there’s something about putting your thoughts on paper that forces you to get down to specifics. That way, it’s harder to deceive yourself–or anybody else.”

Getting it in writing helps us to think it through more clearly. And in doing so, it helps others get a better understanding of your thinking, allowing them to validate (or invalidate) your facts and assumptions.

In our conflict management e-learning offering, we warn learners to “watch their stories”–making sure they don’t dream up faulty analogies about what is going on in a conflict situation. Similarly, watch for faulty analogies in your decision-making process. It can help you avoid over- or under-reacting based on the past.

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