Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 17, Issue 42;   October 18, 2017: Missing the Obvious: II

Missing the Obvious: II

by

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?
British mathematician Christopher Zeeman in 2009

British mathematician Christopher Zeeman FRS (1925-2016), in a photo taken at the University of Warwick Mathematics Institute in 2009. In 2007, he was interviewed by Justin Mullins of New Scientist. In the interview he speaks of his experience giving the Christmas lectures for children at the Royal Institution in 1978, in which he proved 20 mathematics theorems rigorously. He cites as an example Euclid's theorem that there are an infinite number of prime numbers. (Primes are integers that are divisible only by themselves and 1.) He gives the proof this way: assume that "there is a finite number of primes. Multiply them all together and add one. Call this new number n. Now n is not divisible by any of the primes you started with so it's another prime. The original assumption of a finite number of primes must be wrong."

Confirmation of one of your conjectures sometimes becomes possible only if you're willing to assume for the moment that it is false.

Photo (cc) Nicholas Jackson courtesy Wikipedia.

In Part I of this series, we suggested that deep thought about difficult subject matter can sometimes cause blindness to related and important ideas — a kind of looking, but not seeing. And when we have preconceptions or we think we know what's happening, we sometimes don't even look.

Let's continue exploring ways of missing the obvious.

Not knowing your own patterns
If you don't know your own patterns, repetitions are likely. Recall situations in which you or your team missed the obvious. Whatever caused those oversights might still be in place, waiting to trip you once again.
Track the patterns you tend to repeat. Data on repetitions is valuable.
Seeking confirmation but not counterexamples
When we have hunches or conjectures about something, we tend to search for confirmation rather than disconfirmation. It's satisfying to prove guesses correct — especially if they're our own guesses. And it's risky to prove guesses incorrect, especially if they're someone else's guesses.
Falsifying conjectures can generate new insight. Examine past efforts. An imbalance in favor of seeking confirmation, rather than disconfirmation, could indicate this bias.

Sometimes entire groups or teams miss the obvious. Here are two common patterns.

Media distortion
The medium a team uses for meetings or other communication can strongly affect outcomes. It can even prevent effective communication, especially when virtual teams rarely or never meet face-to-face. It can conceal the fact that someone is withholding information. It can so distract people in meetings that they forget to mention something important. And the audio quality can be so poor that people miss subtle points — or even the main point — of the discussion.
If your team or group depends on a virtual workspace, distribute notes and meeting summaries regularly to clarify issues and decisions. It's a poor substitute for co-located meetings, but it does help.
Information siloing
Groups If your team or group depends
on a virtual workspace, distribute
notes and meeting summaries to
clarify issues and decisions
convened to resolve issues or solve problems usually include representatives of all functions that have relevant skills, information, or assets. Typically, they assume that everyone shares whatever they know. But when some keep information within their individual delegations, declining to share it, the knowledge that is shared acquires a bias, which can lead to poor decisions and missing the obvious.
This comes about, in part, because of a cognitive bias known as shared information bias, which causes group members to discuss what all group members know already. They're less inclined to discuss what only a few group members know. The effect is more marked when there's a sense of urgency, or when group members are uncomfortable with ambiguity or lack of consensus. The effect is less marked when the group, as a whole, is concerned with decision quality. Sharing knowledge about the shared information bias is one way of mitigating its effects.

The human mind is endlessly inventive. Of the many more ways to miss the obvious, I'm sure I've missed some that are obvious. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Workplace Memes  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenlQngapkkWqYNhnVyner@ChacoVflaRKMyhWYmWJeoCanyon.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.

Related articles

More articles on Project Management:

The interior of an Apple store, location unknownPersonnel-Sensitive Risks: 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?
Flooding in Metarie, Louisiana, following Hurricane Katrina in 2005Mitigating Risk Resistance Risk
Project managers are responsible for managing risks, but they're often stymied by insufficient resources. Here's a proposal for making risk management more effective at an organizational scale.
Ice on Challenger's launch pad hours before the launchDesign 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.
An A-10 Thunderbolt II over Afghanistan in 2011Down in the Weeds: I
When someone says, "I think we're down in the weeds," a common meaning is that we're focusing on inappropriate — and possibly irrelevant — details. How does this happen and what can we do about it?
Lt. Gen. Donald Kutyna, Ret., when he was Commander of the U.S. Space CommandMore Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why
Retrospectives — also known as lessons learned exercises or after-action reviews — sometimes miss important insights. Here are some additions to our growing catalog of obstacles to learning.

See also Project Management and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A review meetingComing December 13: Reframing Revision Resentment: II
When we're required to revise something previously produced — prose, designs, software, whatever, we sometimes experience frustration with those requiring the revisions. Here are some alternative perspectives that can be helpful. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
Raquel Welch (left) and Gilda Radner (right) from a @Cite{Saturday Night Live rehearsal, April 24, 1976And on December 20: Conceptual Mondegreens
When we disagree about abstractions, such as a problem solution, or a competitor's strategy, the cause can often be misunderstanding the abstraction. That misunderstanding can be a conceptual mondegreen. Available here and by RSS on December 20.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenzwFmjoEPYFJzQeyrner@ChacLVFEzZSukZSNmZoEoCanyon.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

Public seminars

Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applications
When Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applicationswe talk, listen, send or read emails, read or write memos, or when we leave or listen to voice mail messages, we're communicating person-to-person. And whenever we communicate person-to-person, we risk being misunderstood, offending others, feeling hurt, and being confused. There are so many ways for things to go wrong that we could never learn how to fix all the problems. A more effective approach avoids problems altogether, or at least minimizes their occurrence. In this very interactive program we'll explain — and show you how to use — a model of inter-personal communications that can help you stay out of the ditch. We'll place particular emphasis on a very tricky situation — expressing your personal power. In those moments of intense involvement, when we're most likely to slip, you'll have a new tool to use to keep things constructive. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof 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 a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.