Michele McDonough’s One Simple Thing: Question the “Obvious”

Photo: Michele McDonough

Michele McDonough

(The following article is part of our One Simple Thing…to Improve Projects series. It was contributed by Michele McDonough. Michele has a background in education, project management and mathematics, and she is currently a contributing writer and editor to Bright Hub’s Business area. You can follow Michele and the rest of the Bright Hub Project Management team on Twitter at @BrightHub_PM or on Michele’s personal page on Google+.


Several years ago, when I was teaching a critical thinking course, I began a class by writing the following sentence on the blackboard:

There are more traffic-related fatalities during the winter than other seasons.

I asked the class to tell me why they thought this was true. For the most part, everyone said the same thing – they blamed it on the weather. After just a minute or two of discussion, the entire class agreed that not only did it make sense for more accidents to occur when it was snowing or when the roads were icy, but it also seemed logical that these winter accidents would be more severe than those that occurred during the summer.

I walked back to the chalkboard and changed one word in the sentence. The new sentence stated:

There are more traffic-related fatalities during the summer than other seasons.

A few people grumbled and a few others giggled, but right away, they all shifted their arguments to explain why this statement was true. Some claimed there were more people on the highways during the summer months because of vacations and whatnot. Others blamed road construction projects. A couple of others pointed out that people might tend to drive slower and more carefully during the winter, and not display that same level of caution during the summer.

Be a little honest, here. Despite the fact that you probably guessed from the title of this post that I was doing something a little sneaky, were you mentally nodding at either (or both) of these statements? Were you thinking anything like “I can see that” or “That makes sense”?

Finally, someone in the class asked me which of the two statements was true. I shrugged and admitted that I had no idea. Maybe they’re both false. The point I was trying to make is that any group of people – even a very intelligent and rational group – can take two statements that basically contradict one another and find ways to justify each of those statements without even realizing what they’re doing.

As human beings, we’re actually very trusting creatures, especially when we’re dealing with someone we respect or someone we perceive as an authority figure. We hear a statement and our minds work to fill in the blanks – to convince ourselves of the validity of the statement – whether or not it’s true. Like it or not, that’s just how our brains tend to work.

This internal justification process often happens so fast, we don’t even notice that we’re making up our own reasons why something must be true. A lot of times, we even go so far as to say that the original statement is obvious based on these made-up reasons. Then, we treat these facts as assumptions when planning a new project without ever going through the process of legitimately verifying them. But when we can convince ourselves fairly easily that both one statement and another that completely contradicts it are true, it’s time to take a step back.

So, getting back to the point of this entire post, if I had to pick one simple thing that would greatly improve project management (and life, in general!), it would be to put more time and effort into the true verification of initial assumptions – even the small, seemingly obvious ones. Ask questions, and then ask more questions. Perhaps even more importantly, don’t forget to document these questions and their answers along with their associated assumptions.

Don’t get me wrong. Depending on who you’re dealing with, sometimes it can be more than a bit daunting to take a deep breath and ask for the data or the research to back up a statement that everybody else in the room takes for granted. After all, we don’t want the rest of the team to think we’re dumb because we can’t see the obvious! But, therein lies the problem – is the assumption really obvious or has everyone just convinced themselves that it is?

Posted: December 14th, 2011 under One Simple Thing, Project Management.
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