5 Places Decisions Go South!

  1. Errors in logic

  2. False assumptions

  3. Unreliable memories

  4. Mistaking the symptom for the problem

  5. Biases

"1.   Errors in Logic

A logical fallacy is an error of reasoning. When someone comes to a conclusion based on a bad piece of reasoning, he or she commits a fallacy, an error in logic. The conclusion may or may not be a good one, but the process of arriving at it is flawed and continued use of fallacious reasoning will lead to many more bad conclusions than good ones.

Decision making in a project context requires deductive logic far more often than inductive logic. Deductive arguments are supposed to be rational and logical. For a deductive argument to be “valid” it must be impossible for its premises to be true and its conclusion to be false. The classic example of a deductively valid argument is:

(1) All men are mortal. (2) Socrates is a man. Therefore: (3) Socrates is mortal.

It is simply not possible that both (1) and (2) are true and (3) is false, so this argument is deductively valid.

Errors in logic are very difficult to identify because they produce what are seemingly reasonable decisions. They are generally not the best decisions possible and often do not take into account the long-term impacts of the decision, but they seem reasonable and so are not questioned.

Errors in logic do not only occur because our thinking processes are faulty. They can also occur when we are under a lot of stress and under time pressure. Hallowell (Hallowell) says: “studies have shown that as the human brain is asked to process dizzying amounts of data, its ability to solve problems flexibly and creatively declines and the number of mistakes increases.”

The best approach to identifying that this is happening is to log every major decision, the assumptions you made when you made the decision, and the resulting long-term impacts of the decision. Comparing the actual results to what you thought they would be can help identify any logical errors in the decision process.

2.   False Assumptions

Assumptions, as we have all been taught, are fraught with danger. If they turn out not to be true we now have a problem. Yet our brains (see the description of System 1 above) are perfectly happy to make assumptions because they make the decision process a lot easier. We don't have to think hard. With the right assumptions our decision is straightforward.

The most dangerous assumptions we make are that we, and the people working with us and providing us information, are always unbiased and rational. As a rule this is not true, but only by understanding our own biases and those of the people around us can we recognize this as an assumption and compensate for it. It is almost always true that information from any one person is biased in a way that emphasizes one decision over another. The person providing the information may or may not realize that it is biased.

The most obvious examples are the “talking heads” on radio and television shows. These paid “experts” are espousing their own particular viewpoint over those of others by over-emphasizing some facts and ignoring other, inconvenient facts that don't support their pet theories. Blindly thinking that you are getting accurate and unbiased information from them is a very dangerous assumption.

3.   Unreliable Memories

What is experience? It is the accumulation of our memories of what happened in the past that we witnessed or were a part of.

Memories are stored in the more primitive areas of our brain and so less subject to rational analysis.

Medical research in the past twenty years shows increasingly how unreliable those memories are. Our memories are highly biased to increasing our own self-image. We remember our actions, behaviors, and their effects in a very positive way and by comparison denigrate the actions of others. The longer ago those memories are they more positive they become. Memory is also highly manipulatable. Criminal trials for violent crimes are relying less and less on eyewitness testimony because their memory of what happened can be very easily manipulated.

When our brains process data to make a decision, the information is held in short-term memory. We juggle the information to make sense of it, prioritizing some of it as relevant and other data as irrelevant. Unfortunately, the data in short term memory decays very rapidly. As Kahneman says (Kahneman 2012) “Like a juggler with several balls in the air, you cannot afford to slow down; the rate at which material decays in memory forces the pace, driving you to refresh and rehearse information before it is lost. Any task that requires you to keep several ideas in mind at the same time has the same hurried character.”

Short-term memory is very limited and easily overloaded, with new material crowding out something we just read (or heard) a few minutes ago. As we go through the process of thinking through a decision we consider all the information held by our short-term memory. The more recent the information we learned, the more likely it is to have a larger impact on our decision than information we learned earlier. Books on giving effective presentations often point out that when you give a list of options in a presentation, you should make your preferred options either the first on the list or the last on the list. These are the options that are most likely to be remembered; the options in the middle tend to run together in people's minds. This is often called the Primacy effect, Recency effect, or Serial position effect: those items near the end of a list are the easiest to recall, followed by the items at the beginning of a list; items in the middle are the least likely to be remembered.

An interesting side effect of this is called the Modality effect: that memory recall is higher for the last items on a list when the list items were received via speech than when they were received via writing. When we hear something, the information goes into short-term memory but is quickly replaced by what we hear next. When we're given something in writing, we can reinforce the memory by re-reading the material.

How can we compensate for the shortcomings of our short-term memory? The best approach is to keep lists. When you write things down it reinforces the material in memory and helps the transfer from short-term memory to long-term memory.

4.   Mistaking the symptom for the problem

If you solve the wrong problem you haven't accomplished anything — no matter how impressive you looked while you were making the decision. This may be the most difficult part of the decision-making process, because in real-life most problems are not obvious. They're subtle, fuzzy. How many times have you and your spouse or current significant other had a discussion because one of you saw a problem in the relationship and the other didn't?

Recognizing that your sales have fallen 10% is a good start, but this is a symptom, not the problem itself. You need to determine WHY your sales have fallen. Not easy — was it poor product design, poor marketing, high prices, and so on?

What are some symptoms that tell us there's a problem?

Deviation from planned performance is a primary indicator on a project. On a one-year long project, if the project is a week behind schedule six months into it, then that is rarely a problem. But if you notice a slow slippage from one reporting period to another, that's a strong sign that something is happening that impacts the schedule. The slippage itself is not the cause of the problem; it's a symptom that's telling you something is happening that's causing the schedule to slip.

One common occurrence on projects is that critical stakeholders do not show up for meetings. Is this a problem? Well, yes, because we need their awareness and support. But if the same stakeholders consistently do not show up, there is something that's causing that to happen and you should start identifying the causes of why they're not showing up. There are many similar occurrences in projects where we tend to treat the symptom and not the cause of the problem.

Deviation from past performance is another common indicator.

If the project team isn't performing as you expect based on past performance, instead of berating the team you need to identify the reasons for why they're not performing as you think they should. This is the hardest part if you're new to an organization — you don't know what past performance is.

Stakeholder criticism is also a problem, but more than being a problem it's a symptom of a more serious problem. What is causing the stakeholders to complain? You need to identify the reasons why they're complaining and fix those. If senior management is complaining they're not aware of the project's status you should improve your communications with them. If your client is complaining about the quality of the product you're giving them you need to identify the causes of the poor quality and fix those.

Defining problems in terms of the solutions

Personal bias shows up very strongly here. If sales are down — each person you ask is going to have a different perception as to why based on his or her past experience and personal viewpoints. Trying to dig out objective reality from a variety of different perceptions is very difficult.

Sales is going to blame product design. Marketing is going to blame sales. R&D is going to blame marketing, etc. If you state the symptom one way, say that sales are down because of poor product design — you bias the solution.

Especially problematic if there are available technological solutions to relieve the symptoms — then someone in the IT department is going to tell you that your problem can be solved if only they would buy a LINUX-based server instead of the old Windows-based server. In fact the true problem may have nothing at all to do with the technology — it may lie somewhere else entirely."

-5. #biases -

- refer to NAFS' Last post to find a comprehensive list of all the #biases


Parth, F. R. (2013). Critical decision-making skills for project managers. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2013—EMEA, Istanbul, Turkey. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.