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Friday, December 26, 2014

Factoids, Junk Food of the Mind

     Seventy-eight point three percent (78.3%) of statistics are made up on the spot.
     How do I know that? I don’t. I just made it up. It’s a factoid – something that looks like a fact. You can’t call me wrong, because you don’t know, either.
     That doesn’t mean you have to believe me, but maybe you will.
     Numbers can be powerful convincers. They are so definite, so specific. They can be extremely reassuring or terribly frightening. Either way, they don’t taste so bad, and they go down easy. Just  if you don’t examine them too closely. Like junk food.
     That’s why we need to be careful around numbers – when we use them ourselves and when we read or hear them from others.

     Some statistics result from actual count of real things. You can trust those if you trust the people who do the counting, the math and the reporting. Most of the statistics we see, though, are estimates derived through the extrapolation of samples to large bodies of possibility.
     Surveys and polls are based on inspection or interviewing of a fraction – often a tiny fraction – of a whole population. When pollsters attach a margin of error, they really mean it, and we should pay attention. Usually we don’t.
     When they do not mention the margin, we should be extremely cautious, if we don’t just turn away entirely. Often we do, if we don’t like their numbers. After all, they’re not really real, right?  
      Beyond survey reports, there are flat-out allegations made with the expectation that the perceived or purported expertise of the presenter crowns the statements with absolute credibility. 
 
     Sometimes vehemence, insistence and/or persuasiveness is employed to buttress the weight of actual fact. Or substitute for it.
     We’ve all been dazzled on occasion by attractive personalities who convinced us to believe in ways that we came to realize were utterly, ridiculously untrue. A few bright and well spoken words can do the job.
     Those are all factoids. The word “factoid” has a lot of definitions. My own fuzzy interpretation: A factoid is a brief and nicely rounded, smoothly presented statement that purports to represent truth, often an important – perhaps determinative – truth. Not necessarily true. Not necessarily false. Simple. Oversimple?
     A factoid can be the final word on why we should take this or that project risk. No more argument. Let’s go (or not). The term sometimes is taken to mean a simple lie dressed up as truth.
     Factoids provide the way out from overlong debate among people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Or they can finish/interrupt tangled conversations among people who know too much about what they’re talking about.
     What if there actually is no real information to base a judgment on, but we need a reason to act anyway? Then someone avers something that, if accepted, can settle it. Thank you. Factoid.

     We appreciate a quick answer confidently provided by someone accepted as competent to do so. We are tempted to climb into the back seat and settle down for the ride. That’s the judgmental equivalent of the factoid. It’s easy, and maybe it’s right. In any case, whatever it is no longer is our problem.
     “Easy” is the operative word. Any competent manager should be on guard whenever that term enters a conversation. The right decision rarely is the easy decision. In fact, the very concept  of easy is dangerous, so the manager never includes “easy” in any consideration of what is to be done.    
     If we rely upon native genius or dumb luck, we don’t last long in meaningful management positions. If we dally too long, or hunt for reassurance to the detriment of the situation or our standing with our colleagues, our stature as manager dissipates. Decisions made in such situations don’t attract much support.
     So we project managers devote ourselves to research and consultation, as extensively as possible. The ever-present intent is to base our decisions upon solid foundations.  We need to listen, question, compare, evaluate.
     Absolute assurance is rarely available, and time usually is of the essence. The snap decision is an ever-present tendency – sometimes simply to relieve growing pressure (and perhaps the onset of panic).

     So we decide. As managers, our job is to make decisions, often in circumstances that scare other people into mental paralysis. 
     Still, we’re human. If we address our daily issues and opportunities with minds open at both ends, we’re not managing.
     Good managers organize in advance for the certain, the likely and the possible. They also, especially if they’re project managers, are always equipped with effective practices for instant deployment in the event of the unexpected.
     The first commandment of managing surprises is to question – to ask questions efficiently. You didn’t know this was coming. You don’t even know what it is. Rather than grab a quick factoid (Example: “Leaders lead! Do something!”), you quickly question.
     Inoculate against a factoid diet by interposing a carefully designed fast-decision process for emergency use.

Why is a decision necessary?
            If the need arises from someone else’s urgency, why must I take responsibility?
            Do I have the authority to make a decision?
            What is the potential outcome if nothing is done?
            How likely is a negative effect?
            What negative effects could a decision bring about?
            What are the options?
            How serious would or could various outcomes be?

     A snap decision generally takes a few seconds of dithering, maybe interspersed with arguing, and then action . . . often followed by cascading damage of assorted kinds.
     A snap decision is based on a factoid. A quick-and-easy idea about what to do comes from a very rapid process, and a prefabricated conclusion can look very helpful in such a case.
     A quality outcome is based on thorough preparation. It often requires a sequence of rapid decisions, even in a fast-evolving crisis. It radically differs from snap decision-making in that it is a best practice.        
     We prepare ourselves ahead of time in this skill. We research our own experience and the literature of leadership and problem solving. We organize a template that might look something like this:

          Who has information about this? 
          Ask 'em. Listen carefully.
          What’s wrong?
          What’s the impact?
          What’s the cause?
          What do knowledgeable people have to say?
          What are the options?
          What are the potential outcomes of the best options?
          What are the opinions of people closest to the problem?
  
     This is an all-purpose tool in the form of a state of mind. You practice the process to make it fast without losing reliability. When you act as if you know what you're doing, the pertinent conversations can be concluded in minutes.

     One hundred percent of factoids are suspect.
     Project managers will never be 100 percent right. 
     But 100 percent preparation provides a perfectly acceptable shot at project success.
     How’s that for a factoid?

SEE ALSO: Everything's a Problem


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