What Fake News Teaches Us About Project Management

Critical thinking pitfalls allow us to easily believe what’s untrue

March 29, 2017 | Denise Gifford

Fake news, it seems, is everywhere. It’s a term we didn’t know just a few years ago, but after this political season it’s become difficult to figure out what’s real and what’s not. “Pope Backs Trump,” “Hillary Sold Weapons to ISIS,” and “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead” are some of the fake news headlines that went viral prior to the election. In response, an eight step checklist from FactCheck.org was created to provide a system for spotting fake news. Steps include “consider the source” and “check your bias.”

Why do people believe fake news? There are a couple of psychological concepts that explain our gullibility, writes Adam Waytz, associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management. “Motivated reasoning” is the idea that we are motivated to believe whatever confirms our opinions. Another concept is “naïve realism,” our tendency to believe that our perception of reality is the only accurate view. And the lack of reflection and verification that causes us to believe fake news can lead to some very misguided decisions in other areas as well, including business.

For example, imagine a software product development team that has preconceived ideas about users wanting a product with the latest, greatest technology — when in fact users would prefer a simpler, user-friendly approach. Result? The project is more complicated and costly than necessary. Or consider a product launch that happens with insufficient knowledge of what the customers actually want or need because the project team believes it already knows what the market wants. This was the fallacy behind the epic failure of Pets.com, the 1998 venture that allowed customers to buy pet food online. Problem was, despite a massive marketing push, customers didn’t want to buy their pet food online, a fact that could have been ascertained in advance had any market research been done.

And then there is the situation with the Millennium Towers project in San Francisco. The development, a 58-story condominium building is, unfortunately, sinking and tilting. It has sunk 16 inches since it was built in 2009, alarming residents and causing a flurry of lawsuits. Although it is not clear who exactly is to blame, the developers did not get an independent peer review of their geotechnical report before proceeding with construction. Could problems have been prevented by getting outside analysis and opinions? Too often, it is the false belief that one already knows the answers that prevent these outside opinions from being sought.

We can find plenty of similar examples of projects that have been negatively affected by motivated reasoning and naïve realism, the same factors that cause us to believe in fake news. But what is the antidote? The solution includes recognizing your bias, considering other points of view, and guarding against assumptions: in other words, improving our critical thinking skills. Critical thinking matters because “human thinking left to itself often gravitates toward prejudice, over-generalization, common fallacies, self-deception, rigidity, and narrowness,” as The Foundation for Critical Thinking’s website puts it. To avoid these traps, critical thinkers learn how to collect and assess relevant information, raise vital questions and problems, and have an open mind.

It takes time, and practice, to become a critical thinker. It takes effort to reason through the evidence, consider different possibilities, and include multiple viewpoints. And even though critical thinking might improve project results, who has the time for it? Projects are about deadlines, after all. In fact, to save time and project dollars, even the first, important step of requirements gathering is sometimes overlooked or not allocated enough time or budget. And this can have a direct impact on project results.

A recent Project Management Institute global survey of senior executives cited “inaccurate requirements gathering” as the third leading reason why projects fail. This was surpassed only by “change in the organization’s priorities” and “change in project objectives,” which were numbers one and two, respectively. But unlike these, the responsibility for requirements gathering rests squarely on the project manager.

There are plenty of opportunities for a project manager to improve the accuracy of information that is collected. If you are interviewing stakeholders, what questions can you ask that will go deeper? What are they not telling you? Is there another side to the story? If you have been given data or written information, where did the information come from? How trustworthy is the source? How was the information collected? What are the assumptions? And are you bringing any of your own biases into the evaluation?

“The key to powerful thinking is powerful questioning,” according to critical thinking experts Richard Paul and Linda Elder. “When we ask the right questions, we succeed as a thinker, for questions are the force that powers our thinking. Thinking, at any point in time, can go off in thousands of different directions, some of which, by the way, are dead-ends. Questions define the agenda of our thinking. They determine what information we seek. They lead us in one direction rather than another. They are, therefore, a crucial part of our thinking.”

According to M. Neil Browne, a professor who teaches critical thinking at Bowling Green State University, you will improve your critical thinking skills and your ability to make good decisions if you simply make it a habit to ask probing questions.

Asking better questions will yield more accurate, useful knowledge to inform your project — and in order to ask better questions, one needs to question their assumptions and acknowledge their biases. Approaching a project with this attitude, starting with the requirements gathering process, you will greatly increase the chance of your project’s success.

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  • About The Author
  • Denise Gifford is co-founder of InfoWorks® International, which has provided consulting and training to companies worldwide in project management and related skills. Prior to leading InfoWorks, Denise worked in sales and marketing management, and as a consultant to the financial services industry. She holds her MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.