Don’t Let Phantom Facts Lead You Astray

Scene: The second project team meeting


  • Building A Manager
  • Project Manager
  • User
  • Electrician

Project Manager: I have a question about the yellow switch in Building B, Room Z. Does anyone know what it does?

Building A Manager: It turns on the stage lights. Project Manager: Have you been in Building B?

Building A Manager: No. But the yellow switch in Building A turns on the stage lights, so the switch in Building B must do it too.

Project Manager: You’re sure?

Building A Manager: Well, it makes perfect sense. The buildings are about the same age and look pretty similar. I’ll bet it had the same contractor. Yes, I’m sure.

Project Manager: All right, let’s move on.

What’s wrong here? It’s a problem that afflicts much of project management: The incorrect person answered the question. And the right person was there all along: the Electrician.

The Building A Manager was reasoning by analogy, yet he stated the result as fact. Then the Project Manager accepted it. And she didn’t bother to ask the Electrician, who in turn didn’t speak up.

Opinions disguised as facts can undermine projects. In a recent project I led, for example, one manager showered the project team with ideas about how to merge two data systems. There was just one problem: he didn’t know the details of either system.

His suggestions delayed the project by a day — bad, but not terrible. However, fact-free opinions can have far worse results, especially at the outset.

When a project is ramping up, many decisions are formative. Yet project team members often come from different parts of the organization. Some don’t know each other, and others have never worked together. They may be unfamiliar with each other’s expertise

Then they quickly face key questions, perhaps technical issues about integrating applications, modules, or data, or uncertainties about business processes or impacts.

The right answers are essential.

You often see well-meaning individuals try to provide them, reasoning from checkered knowledge to off-base opinions. They may want to avoid burdensome research or impress others — or they may simply feel secure in their judgment. And those team members who spot the errors may not correct them. They may not feel empowered to do so, unless they are asked directly.

If you open the gateway to such opinions, here’s what often happens. The ill-informed person suggests solutions, including irrelevant and impossible ones. The project manager assigns one or more team members to investigate them, which then occupy their minds and distract them from finding the real answer. The result at best is delay. A project may not meet a deadline.

You may also fall prey to what social scientists call an “informational cascade,” in which a first commenter puts forth an incorrect opinion, a second agrees, and the third — who may have been leaning the right way — then feels social pressure and agrees as well. A false sense of consensus arises, and the discussion veers toward error.

Here are a few strategies for avoiding such problems:

  1. Learn your project team members’ skills and expertise. Ask. People often know more than you think they do. Don’t rely on your own half-informed opinion of their expertise.
  2. Make sure the most knowledgeable team member responds first to questions. Encourage those people to speak up in general. If they repeatedly fail to, replace them. Their silence will harm the project.
  3. Have the best-informed person lay the groundwork for discussion. They should frame the analysis. They can also corral what-if scenarios, keeping them from straying and wasting people’s time. And of course this approach saves time and minimizes basic errors.
  4. Let others fill out the picture as needed. Encourage them to speak up also.
  5. Reward dissent. Lower-status team members, like the Electrician, become less likely to disagree as a discussion progresses, even if they know they are right. They are more vulnerable to the social risks from disputing the majority, and the project leader must make them feel safer. This strategy can also halt informational cascades.
  6. Make everyone realize that the A+ answer is often “I don’t know.” It’s much better to admit ignorance than rely on ill-informed opinions. If no one knows the answer, direct someone to find it.

The philosopher John Rawls called discussion “a way of combining information and enlarging the range of arguments.” To reach this goal, project teams need to minimize opinions posing as facts. These counterfeits waste time, delay projects, and risk error. You can avoid them.

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