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Critical Thinking at Work

Here are links to the previous issues of Point Lookout that touch on Critical Thinking at Work. Bookmark this page. Or browse this archive by date. Subscribe now.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur (left) and Willie Keeler (right)Coming November 26: Ten Approaches to Managing Project Risks: Part II
Managing risk entails coping with unwanted events that might or might not happen, and which can be costly if they do happen. Here's Part II of our exploration of coping strategies for unwanted events. Available here and by RSS on November 26.

Phoenix caissons being towed to form a Mulberry harbor off Normandy, June 1944And on December 3: Ten Approaches to Managing Project Risks: Part II
Project risk management strategies are numerous, but these ten strategies are among the most common. Here are the last three of the ten strategies in this little catalog. Available here and by RSS on December 3.

Other topics:

July 16, 2014

Two components of the U.S. Consumer Price Index for 1994-2010Constancy 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

Marching chickens, a metaphor for groupthinkWhat 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

The late Cameron Todd Willingham, wrongfully executed in Texas in 2004 for the murder of his daughtersAnecdotes 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

A view of the South Canyon Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, at noon on July 4, 1994The 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

Cheshire Cat fading to a smile, from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis CarrollHow 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

The business end of a spark plugWacky Words of Wisdom: Part 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

Arrival of Cortés in Vera CruzWacky Words of Wisdom: Part 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

Male Red-Winged Blackbird displaying during breeding seasonOn 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

Two halos: the Ring Nebula and a solar haloThe 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

The "Face on Mars" as seen by Viking 1 in 1976, compared to the MGS image taken in 2001Apophenia 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.

October 20, 2010

Part of one of the tunnel boring machines used to build the tunnel under the English ChannelForward 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

A dwarf apple tree typical of modern commercial varietiesWacky 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

Well-wishers greet physicist Stephen Hawking (in wheelchair) at the Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing FacilityLogically 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

President George W. Bush and President Vladimir PutinI'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

The mushroom cloud from the Grable test of 1953Misleading 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

Old River Control StructureThe 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

U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin (left) with Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan GreenspanThe 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

President Richard Nixon resignsProjection 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

Ice on Challenger's launch pad hours before the launchUnintended 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

Artist's drawing of a pterosaurLearning
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

A lunar eclipseMaking 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

Archibald Cox, Special Watergate ProsecutorDifficult 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

A frost-covered spider webSome 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

The Declaration of IndependenceMore 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

An old-fashioned punch clock, still in wide useThings 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

The Rindge Dam, in Malibu Canyon, CaliforniaSnares 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

The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill BridgeTen Reasons Why You Don't Always Get What You Measure: Part 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

The Western Electric Plant at Hawthorne, IllinoisTen Reasons Why You Don't Always Get What You Measure: Part 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

Secretary Tom Ridge, President George W. Bush, and Administrator Michael BrownWhen 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

The Mars Climate Orbiter, which was lost in 1999Ten Reasons Why You Don't Always Get What You Measure: Part 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

A calm seaAn 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

A page from the Bradford JournalWorking 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

The Town of Wescott, Wisconsin is recognized as Tree City 2005Workplace 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

An appealing plate of pasta (not what I ate that evening)If Only I Had Known: Part 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

An anxious dogInner 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

In the conference roomInterviewing 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

In the conference roomInterviewing 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

The sun wearing sunglassesFiltered Perceptions
How we see things influences how we see things, almost like a filter or sunglasses. What are your filters?

January 11, 2006

A white shark off the California coastNine Project Management Fallacies: Part 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

Chocolate chip cookiesNine Project Management Fallacies: Part 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

Chocolate chip cookiesNine Project Management Fallacies: Part 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

FearComfortable 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

Two colleagues chatting on their morning breakNine Project Management Fallacies: Part 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

Apple PieGive 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

A cheeseburger with friesMy 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

A hiker on a pathPaths
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

A traffic sign warning of trouble aheadNine 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

Two people using an information kioskKnowing 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

A sandwich piled highWorking 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

A dog taking a napRecovering Time: Part 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

Three penniesThe 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

Circular reasoningBegging 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

A nervous dogThe 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

Two dinosaurs fightingBelieve 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

A moccasinThe 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

Two dinosaurs fightingMudfights
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

Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion and Toto tooThe 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

A straw manDecision-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

A pattern that isn't a patternCoincidences 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 PuzzlesFinger 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

An elevatorDemanding 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

PizzaCritical 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

A sunsetThink 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

Stepping into a trapThe 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

Good news/bad newsThe 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

HatsYou 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

Capitol Hill at nightThe 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.

Rick BrennerWhether you're a decision maker or someone about whom other people make decisions — or both! — the right coach can make a difference in your life. I might be the right coach for you. Call me, Rick Brenner, at (866) 378-5470 for a no-cost informal chat. Sign up in November and receive two hours as a bonus. Check it out!
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