Truth Decay

The truth is not a constant. Knowledge changes and you must change with it if you are to stay in control.

When I was a child, enchanted by science, I learned about planets and dinosaurs. I learned about the outermost planet, Pluto, and the giant saurischian, Brontosaurus.
Now, Pluto is no longer classed as a planet (but as a dwarf planet, along with Eris, Ceres, Haumea & Makemake) and the name Brontosaurus has been relegated to a curious historical footnote against Apatosaurus (whose skeleton body was once insulted by the wrong head and called a Brontosaurus).

In every field of human knowledge – from astronomy to zoology and from geology to sociology – we make progress when new knowledge challenges old ideas. Consequently, the wisest stance to adopt is scepticism: ‘a tendency to doubt’.

For project mangers, doubt is a valuable weapon in your professional arsenal.  Let’s look at some examples.

Project Planning and Doubt

Amos Tversky & Daniel Kahneman (whose wonderful book, ‘Thinking: Fast and Slow‘ I have recommended before) coined the term ‘Planning Fallacy‘ to describe the well-observed tendency to assume that the time things will take is pretty close to the best case scenario. I would add to that ‘Planning Delusion‘; a tendency to believe our plans will be a true reflection of events. They rarely will. Doubt is the key to proper planning and preparation – doubt your best case scenario and doubt your plan.

The only rule I think we can rely on here (and notice, I say ‘think’, connoting doubt) is ‘Hofstadter’s Law’:

‘It always takes longer than you expect;
even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.’

This was coined in his book ‘Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid‘.

Project Delivery and Doubt

When things go well, we fall into an optimistic bias that leads us to suspect that we are working on a special project that is an exception to Hofstadter’s Law. What rot. Healthy scepticism keeps your senses attuned to the problems, delays, and general foul-ups that are the very nature of life. The sooner you spot them, the simpler it tends to be to fix them, so the heightened awareness that doubt brings is the key to staying in control of your project.

Risk and Doubt

The nature of risk is uncertainty, so where can doubt be of more value? And there are different types of risk.

  • ‘Aleatory risks’ represent inherent uncertainty in the system – we cannot know where a ball will land when the roulette wheel spins.
  • ‘Epistemic risks’ arise uncertainty the uncertainty due to the gaps our knowledge.
  • ‘Ontological risks’ are those about which we are wholly unaware.

We therefore tend to believe that absence of evidence is evidence of absence – and are frequently wrong. Once again, doubt would prevent this mistake. For a summary of these kinds of risk, take a look at my simplified  ‘Four Types of Risk’ infographic.

Stakeholders and Doubt

I am working on my book on stakeholder engagement (publication spring 2014, Palgrave Macmillan) and spoke with a former colleague about his experiences – thank you Paul Mitchell. I loved his tip that:

‘just because they are quiet; it doesn’t mean they agree.’

Spot on – absence of evidence again.

Resistance and Doubt

When people resist our ideas our first instinct is to tackle that resistance – to take it on and aim to overcome it. Wrong! Step 1 is doubt: ‘what if they are right and I am wrong?’ It is a crazy notion, I know, but if it turns out to be true, doubt can save you a lot of wasted time and a possible loss of reputational capital.

Performance and Doubt

I attended an excellent one-day seminar on Positive Psychology in Organisations, led by the inspirational Sarah Lewis. One take away is the doubt we should apply to excellent performance. We tend to consider it to be ‘what we expect’ so we focus on fixing poor performance. One of the vital practices of the best and most flourishing organisations is to focus on this ‘positive deviance’ and work hard to understand and then replicate it.

Decisions and Doubt

Doubt frustrates decision making so it cannot be a good thing, can it? Well, yes, it can. Often, doubt arises from ‘gut instinct’. We know what the facts are telling us, but our intuition disagrees. Daniel Kahneman (yes, him again) will tell us that our instincts are fuelled by bias and faulty thinking, but another excellent thinker, Gary Klein (author of ‘The Power of Intuition’) reminds us that in domains where we have true and deep expertise, that intuition may be working on data we have not consciously processed. Doubt should lead us to look more deeply before committing to an important decision.

Time Management and Doubt

One of the reasons clients most value my time management seminars is that I don’t have a system. Which is good for them, because their people have numerous interruptions in their working day, meaning that any plan they draw up will be stymied by necessary reactions to events. I do advocate making a plan; but I also advocate reviewing it frequently. Sticking to an out of date plan, based on yesterday’s priorities is worse than having no plan at all. This is, of course, a cornerstone of good monitoring and control for us as project managers.

Stress and Doubt

Doubt causes stress, because doubt robs us of control. Is the solution, therefore to work hard to eliminate doubt? It could be in some circumstances, but the solution to removing stress is to regain control, and this need not require you to remove doubt, but to embrace it and make it part of your process. That way, you keep the value of doubt, but take control of how you apply it.

Wisdom and Doubt

Doubt and scepticism suffuse my whole concept of wisdom. It arises from the combination of perception – noticing new evidence – and evolution – altering your world view in accordance with your new knowledge. It features in conduct and judgement, and even in fairness. And what authority can you have, if you hold fast to old certainties in the face of new realities? For more about my concept of what wisdom is, and how to develop it as a professional, take a look at my book, Smart to Wise.


This article was first published in June 2013, in my monthly newsletter/tipsheet, ‘Thoughtscape’. Why not subscribe to my Thoughtscape newsletter?


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