“Avoid strong opinions. Pay more attention to people who talk about their mistakes. Psychologist Philip Tetlock studies the science of forecasts. One of his best findings is that analysts who are the most confident about their predictions have some of the worst track records, while those with the best are always questioning their beliefs. The media love confidence and hate timidity, so the guy who yells the loudest gets the most attention. Which explains another of Tetlock’s findings: Analysts with the highest media profiles have some of the worst track records. Instead of paying attention to strong, loud opinions, I now give more weight to those who talk about why they could be wrong, what they’ve learned from past mistakes, and those who think in probabilities rather than certainties …. They are less entertaining, but more likely to offer good advice.” Morgan Housel , The Motley Fool, December 20, 2013.
I recall presenting the status of one project early in my career. I covered everything that had gone wrong and how we had fixed them and then I mentioned the upcoming risks. Nobody liked that approach. They wanted to hear instead what previous project managers had said: what we had accomplished and how I was going to ensure nothing would go wrong in the future. The previous projects never delivered on time and quality was barely acceptable when they did finally deliver. Instead, we delivered a month early and with no customer complaints in the first six months (i.e., great quality).
While the article quoted above is characterizing economic forecasts, the psychology and advice works well within project management. If someone is telling us that in a troubled project that everything is now just fine or that there is only one way to move forward and we have to do it now, my experience is that we are probably still in trouble and what we are hearing is rarely useful or complete information.
I’ve had to coach some of my project managers, who were overly technically inclined, to put information into a form that others could understand. Their information and insight was generally great, if one understood it, but they had a tendency to try and cover all the possibilities and nuances and risks that they had considered but that level of detail confused many managers, especially senior managers.
On more than one occasion I was asked to assign a new project manager when in fact the individual managing the project was doing a great job — but was not acting the normally expected way which was to be very confident and authoritative.
I was at a medical appointment and accompanying the doctor was a medical intern. Over the months that I was pursuing a particular health issue, I met numerous medical interns as they rotated from different hospitals which they did to gain supervised practical experience in medicine in preparation to becoming an independent doctor.
While each intern was interesting in their own right, there was only one characteristic that was common between them all (except for the lab coat). It was when they spoke. They all spoke with a practiced air of complete certainty. Some I could tell were waiting for a moment to speak and maybe even planning how they were going to say what they said. It was kind of startling. I figured the last class they took before becoming an intern was an intense session on speaking with authority.
The humorous part was that since it was my medical condition, I had researched the bejeezers out of what I had over the many months we had investigated it. This was no different than what I would do with any project issue. My health had become my current, personal, project. What this meant was that for these highly educated but inexperienced medical interns, that I knew a lot more about my condition then they did. They would however attempt to diagnose or recommend an action and it was always me explaining to them what we really needed to do and why we needed to do it. No, the experienced doctor was not in the room. Part of the process, I came to realize, was to let the intern work with the patient alone first, and then the senior doctor would join us. It was funny as they attempted to, with great certainty, tell me what we needed to do. They were almost never right, but they were always certain.
My point here is that we even have some major institutions that go to great lengths to emphasize the need to speak with certainty and authority, even when the situation doesn’t warrant it. Many people who react positively to this kind of “certainty speak” don’t realize that in many cases we are essentially being intentionally manipulated. Instead, when people are willing to mention the mistakes made and the risks ahead then the chances are better that we are hearing more of what we really need to know.
We want to look at the data and not be swayed, too much, by the certainty or authority in the person’s delivery. This helps to remove the emotion and to keep us focused on what we do need to know. There is nothing wrong with speaking loudly and with certainty. I highly recommend we do it as project managers when it is appropriate. This is just a reminder that we can be unconsciously influenced by the method of delivery where what is said does not match up with the actual data. Keeping this in mind will help us stay focused on what we really need to know and to fully communicate what we need others to know.
Do you deal with anyone whose main claim to fame is speaking with certainty and authority without having much to back it up?