Finger Puzzles and "Common Sense"
by Rick Brenner
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.
Glen had heard enough. "So what you're saying is that you need another three weeks to finish the requirements, and work on the specifications would begin three weeks after that, right?"
A little disturbed by Glen's manner, Bernice held her ground. "Right. We can shorten the requirements process, but for every day we cut, we should tack on about a month to the schedule overall."
Glen was exasperated. "Well, I don't believe your 20-to-1 ratio. There must be some way to get started on something while the requirements process finishes."
Glen and Bernice are locked in a common struggle — between "getting started on real work" and "thinking about it some more." How they resolve this can determine whether the project is a success or a money pit — or somewhere in between.
Sometimes the way out
of a trap is counterintuitiveTypical factions in such struggles are "technical folks" advocating thought and planning, and "business folks" advocating "action." When their influence is balanced, the organization makes fairly good decisions. When one dominates, problems arise.
Both can learn from the finger puzzle.
A finger puzzle is a braided straw tube about 2-3 inches (5-8 cm) long, and about a half-inch (2 cm) in diameter. You put one finger into each end, and when you pull your fingers apart to remove them, the tube stretches, tightening its grip. Try as you might, you can't break free.
To free yourself, you have to do something counterintuitive — you push your fingers together, shortening the tube, and increasing its diameter. Then, holding the tube with your thumbs, you can easily extract your fingers.
Life is full of Finger Puzzles — situations that call for action that's almost exactly the opposite of what our "common sense" tells us to do.
The Requirements phase of a complex project is like a Finger Puzzle. The business folks want "progress" to start, but ironically, the project will finish sooner if we wait until the requirements are clear. During the requirements phase, the way to speed things up is to wait.
Action is a Finger Puzzle, too. The technical folks want to get the design right before going "public" with customers, but, ironically, we get things right faster when we have customer input. We think more clearly when we take action to get more information.
Even the debate between these two factions — "just do it" vs. "think about it some more" — can be a finger puzzle. While the antagonists contend, they give each other energy to continue the debate. Resisting one's opponent in debate, ironically, extends the debate. We reach agreement faster by exploring each other's positions, rather than asserting our own.
Get a finger puzzle. Tack it on your wall. It will remind you to question your common sense. Top Next Issue
The article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More
Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmOUZGVpMcjxmacnNner@ChacWXNMXoUpBRbUwlvzoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email
, or by Web form
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful,
and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend
Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive
of past issues. Subscribe for free.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout,
as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in,
anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Project Management:
- Restarting Projects
- When a project gets off track, we sometimes cancel it. But since canceling projects takes a lot of courage, we look for ways to save them if we can. Often, things do turn out OK, and at other times they don't. There's a third choice, between pressing on with a project and canceling it. We can restart.
- Are You Changing Tactics or Moving the Goal Posts?
- When we make a mid-course correction in a project, we're usually responding to a newly uncovered difficulty that requires a change in tactics. Sometimes, we can't resist the temptation to change the goals of the project at the same time. And that can be a big mistake.
- Personnel-Sensitive Risks: Part I
- Some risks and the plans for managing them are personnel-sensitive in the sense that disclosure can harm the enterprise or its people. Since most risk management plans are available to a broad internal audience, personnel-sensitive risks cannot be managed in the customary way. Why not?
- Scope Creep, Hot Hands, and the Illusion of Control
- Despite our awareness of scope creep's dangerous effects on projects and other efforts, we seem unable to prevent it. Two cognitive biases — the "hot hand fallacy" and "the illusion of control" — might provide explanations.
- Design Errors and Groupthink
- Design errors cause losses, lost opportunities, accidents, and injuries. Not all design errors are one-offs, because their causes can be fundamental. Here's a first installment of an exploration of some fundamental causes of design errors.
See also Project Management, Problem Solving and Creativity and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming September 2: That Was a Yes-or-No Question: Part II
- When, in the presence of others, someone asks you "a simple yes or no" question, beware. Chances are that you're confronting a trap. Here's Part II of a set of suggestions for dealing with the yes-or-no trap. Available here and by RSS on September 2.
- And on September 9: Holding Back: Part I
- When members of teams or groups hold back their efforts toward achieving group goals, schedule and budget problems can arise, along with frustration and destructive intra-group conflict. What causes this behavior? Available here and by RSS on September 9.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact Rick for details at rbrennWhoKTGgQWKkoDTFner@ChacVbAlqlkJwtLEtwpOoCanyon.com
or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout
are available in six ebooks:
Reprinting this article
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline?
Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
- Most of what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Managing in Fluid Environments
- Most people now work in environments that can best be characterized as fluid, because they're subject to continual change. We never know whats coming next. In such environments, managing — teams, projects, groups, departments, or the enterprise — often entails moving from surprise to surprise while somehow staying almost on track. It's a nerve-wracking existence. This program provides numerous tools that help managers who work in fluid environments. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:
- Download to
your calendarCharleston, South Carolina: October 15, Monthly Meeting, Charleston Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
- Download to
your calendarMITRE, in Bedford, MA: November 17, Monthly Meeting, Boston SPIN. Register now.
- Wherever you are: it's a webinar: May 4, 2016, Webinar, IT Metrics and Productivity Institute. Register now.
- The Race to the South Pole: The Organizational Politics of Risk Management
- 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. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in risk management, its application to organizational efforts, and how workplace politics enters the mix. A fascinating and refreshing look at risk management from the vantage point of history and workplace politics. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Team Development for Leaders
- Teams at work are often teams in name only — they're actually just groups. True teams are able to achieve much higher levels of performance than groups can. In this program, Rick Brenner shows team leads and team sponsors the techniques they need to form their groups into teams, and once they are teams, how to keep them there. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program: