28 February, 2023

Truth Decay: Top 10 Reasons to Apply Skepticism and Doubt

By Mike Clayton

doubt, skepticism, video

The truth is not a constant. Knowledge changes and you must change with it if you are to stay in control of Truth Decay. And that means that your best friends are skepticism and doubt.

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Truth Changes

In every field of human knowledge – from astronomy to zoology and from geology to sociology – we make progress when new knowledge challenges old ideas. Consequently, the wisest stance to adopt is skepticism: ‘a tendency to doubt’.

For project managers, doubt is a valuable weapon in your professional arsenal.  Let’s look at some examples.

1. Project Planning and Doubt

Amos Tversky & Daniel Kahneman (whose wonderful book, ‘Thinking: Fast and Slow‘ I recommend) coined the term ‘Planning Fallacy’ to describe the well-observed tendency to assume that the time things will take is pretty close to the best-case scenario. I would add that ‘Planning Delusion‘, a tendency to believe our plans will be a true reflection of events. They rarely will. Doubt is the key to proper planning and preparation – doubt your best-case scenario and doubt your plan.  

The only rule I think we can rely on here (and notice, I say ‘think’, connoting doubt), is ‘Hofstadter’s Law’:

‘It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.’

This was coined in his book ‘Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid‘.

2. Project Delivery and Doubt

When things go well, we fall into an optimistic bias that leads us to suspect that we are working on a special project that is an exception to Hofstadter’s Law. What rot. Healthy skepticism keeps your senses attuned to the problems, delays, and general foul-ups that are the very nature of life. The sooner you spot them, the simpler it tends to be to fix them, so the heightened awareness that doubt brings is the key to staying in control of your project.

3. Risk and Doubt

The nature of risk is uncertainty, so where can doubt be of more value? And there are different types of risk. ‘Aleatory risks’ represent inherent uncertainty in the system – we cannot know where a ball will land when the roulette wheel spins. ‘Epistemic risks’ arise from the uncertainty due to the gaps in our knowledge. ‘Ontological risks’ are those about which we are wholly unaware. We therefore tend to believe that absence of evidence is evidence of absence – and are frequently wrong. Once again, doubt would prevent this mistake. For a summary of these kinds of risk, take a look at my video on the ‘Four Types of Risk’.

4. Stakeholders and Doubt

When I was working on my book on stakeholder engagement (The Influence Agenda), I spoke with a former colleague, Paul Mitchell, about his experiences. I loved his tip that ‘just because they are quiet; it doesn’t mean they agree.’ Spot on – absence of evidence again.

5. Resistance and Doubt

When people resist our ideas our first instinct is to tackle that resistance – to take it on and aim to overcome it. Wrong! Step 1 is doubt: ‘what if they are right and I am wrong?’ It is a crazy notion, I know, but if it turns out to be true, doubt can save you a lot of wasted time and a possible loss of reputational capital. 

6. Performance and Doubt

Next is the doubt we should apply to excellent performance. We tend to consider it to be ‘what we expect’ so we focus on fixing poor performance. One of the vital practices of the best and most flourishing organizations is to focus on this ‘positive deviance’ and work hard to understand and then replicate it.

7. Decisions and Doubt

Doubt frustrates decision making so it cannot be a good thing, can it? Well, yes, it can. Often, doubt arises from ‘gut instinct’. We know what the facts are telling us, but our intuition disagrees. Daniel Kahneman (yes, him again) warns us that our instincts are fueled by bias and faulty thinking, but another excellent thinker, Gary Klein (author of The Power of Intuition) reminds us that in domains where we have true and deep expertise, that intuition may be working on data we have not consciously processed. Doubt should lead us to look more deeply before committing to an important decision.

8. Time Management and Doubt

One of the reasons clients most value my time management seminars is that I don’t have a system. This is good for them, because their people have numerous interruptions in their working day, meaning that any plan they draw up will be hampered by necessary reactions to events. I do advocate making a plan, but I also advocate reviewing it frequently. Sticking to an out-of-date plan, based on yesterday’s priorities is worse than having no plan at all.

9. Stress and Doubt

Doubt causes stress because doubt robs us of control. Is the solution, therefore to work hard to eliminate doubt? It could be in some circumstances, but the solution to removing stress is to regain control, and this need not require you to remove doubt, but to embrace it and make it part of your process. That way, you keep the value of doubt, but take control of how you apply it.

10. Wisdom and Doubt

Doubt and skepticism suffuse my whole concept of wisdom. It arises from the combination of perception – noticing new evidence – and evolution – altering your worldview in accordance with your new knowledge. It features in conduct and judgment, and even in fairness. And what authority can you have, if you hold fast to old certainties in the face of new realities?

Carefully curated video recommendations for you:

What Kit does a Project Manager Need?

I asked Project Managers in a couple of forums what material things you need to have, to do your job as a Project Manager. They responded magnificently. I compiled their answers into a Kit list. I added my own. 

Check out the Kit a Project Manager needs

Note that the links are affiliated.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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