Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 5, Issue 50;   December 14, 2005: Nine Project Management Fallacies: II

Nine Project Management Fallacies: II

by

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.

Trish sipped her coffee and set down the paper cup. Missing her own coffee mug was one thing she hated about off-sites. "I didn't quite get some of those fallacies," she said to Nan. "They're a little confusing."

Nan nodded. "Yeah, me too. But what did he say about that — something about the confusion is what makes them so common?"

Chocolate chip cookies

In 1997, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts adopted a bill proposed by the third grade class of a school in Somerset, and thereby designated the chocolate chip cookie as the official state cookie of Massachusetts. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons (cc) Lara Schneider.

Just then, Peter came through the doorway, carrying a paper cupful of coffee and three huge chocolate chip cookies wrapped in a napkin. He sat down in the empty chair next to Nan.

Nan smiled at Peter and, gazing at the cookies, she said, "Peter, how nice of you to think of us."

Peter smiled back, took a cookie, and pushed the others to Nan. Then he turned to Trish. "So what's your favorite project fallacy?"

Trish reached for a cookie. "I don't know," she said. "We were just saying that they're a bit confusing."

"Yeah," said Nan. "I think he was saying that their wrongness is so subtle that we just accept them as conventional wisdom."

And so it is with most fallacies. Their subtlety makes them durable. Here's Part II of a little catalog of the fallacies of project management. For Part I, see "Nine Project Management Fallacies: I," Point Lookout for November 30, 2005, and for Part III, see "Nine Project Management Fallacies: III," Point Lookout for December 28, 2005.

The Naturalistic Fallacy
A cousin of the Fundamental Attribution Error, this fallacy holds that professional credentials — experience, education, seniority, or past performance — are equivalent to abilities. For instance, if a particular project manager led a few projects that failed, we conclude that he or she is incapable.
Judgments based on credentials and past performance alone are likely to omit from consideration the past prevailing context, which might have been a significant contributor to past results.
To assess the capabilities of a person, an organization, a technology, or a design, consider not only credentials and past performance, but also contextual factors.
The Culturalistic Fallacy
We commit It is their subtlety
that makes fallacies
so durable
this fallacy when we believe that the project manager, or some other organizational leader, creates a high performance team, without the assistance or influence of the people who belong to that team.
To measure the prevalence of this fallacy, track the attributed causes of team performance. In organizations where the credit for high performance tends to flow to leaders, while the blame for dysfunction tends to flow to team members, it's likely that the Culturalistic Fallacy is at work.
While any one person can undermine a team's performance, no single person is responsible for creating high performance. External factors certainly contribute, but a team's performance is most directly due to the choices of the members of that team.

These two fallacies are related — the Naturalistic Fallacy undervalues contextual factors, while the Culturalistic Fallacy undervalues the contributions of people. They're two different ways to misperceive reality. In Part III, we'll look at fallacies based on wishful thinking. First in this series | Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Is It Blame or Is It Accountability?  Next Issue

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More articles on Project Management:

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When projects founder, we're often shocked — we thought everything was moving along smoothly. Sometimes, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that we had — or could have had — enough information to determine that trouble was ahead. Somehow it was obscured by fog. How can we get better at seeing through the fog?
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A toxic project is one that harms its organization, its people or its customers. We often think of toxic projects as projects that fail, but even a "successful" project can hurt people or damage the organization — sometimes irreparably.
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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.
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When reality trips up our project plans, we improvise or we replan. When we do, we create new risks and render our old risk plans obsolete. Here are some suggestions for managing risks when we improvise.
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Here's a catalog of actions people take when the projects they're leading are in deep trouble, and they're pretty sure there's no way out.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Prof. Tom PettigrewComing February 21: The Ultimate Attribution Error at Work
When we attribute the behavior of members of groups to some cause, either personal or situational, we tend to make systematic errors. Those errors can be expensive and avoidable. Available here and by RSS on February 21.
Daffodils of the variety Narcissus 'Barrett Browning'And on February 28: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: I
Briefly, when people exhibit narcissistic behavior they're engaging in activity that systematically places their own interests and welfare ahead of the interests and welfare of anyone or anything else. It's behavior that threatens the welfare of the organization and everyone employed there. Available here and by RSS on February 28.

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