Friday, 10 January 2014

"This time it's different" (wrong!)

Albert Einstein's definition of insanity was "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results".

And yet, any analysis of a collection of corporate lessons will show the same mistakes being made time after time. My colleague Rupert has made an analysis and collection of these repeat mistakes, with a series of blog posts describing each one - excellent reading for any project manager or knowledge manager.

So organisations obviously DO "do the same thing over and over again and expect different results".

Are organisations insane?

Or is there another factor at work?

The factor may well be what the Farnam Street blog calls the "This time it's different" fallacy. I quote from the blog -
“This time is different” could be the 4 most costly words ever spoken. 
It’s not the words that are costly so much as the conclusions they encourage us to draw. We incorrectly think that differences are more valuable than similarities. After all, anyone can see what’s the same but it takes true insight to see what’s different, right? We’re all so busy trying to find differences that we forget to pay attention to what is the same.
Different is exciting and new, same is old hat. People focus on the differences and neglect the similarities. In projects, this becomes the "my project is different" fallacy that I described here. People look at their projects, see the unique situations, find the differences, overlook the similarities to all similar projects on the past, and assume that "this time it will be different".

It never is.

The same old mistakes will creep up on you and bite you in the bottom, as they always do.

Instead of assuming "this project is different", perhaps we should start with the assumption that "this project is just like any project. It involves building and understanding client requirements, choosing and forming the team, selecting and managing sub contractors, balancing the innovation against the risk, communicating within the team and with the client, keeping the client requirements always in mind, managing quality, managing cost, managing time, managing expectations, managing risk, and so on".

Then look for the lessons that will help you with all those tasks, and will help you avoid all the old pitfalls. As the Farnam Street blog says,
If you catch yourself reasoning based on “this time is different” remember that you are probably speculating. While you may be right, odds are, this time is not different. You just haven’t looked for the similarities.
A great antidote to the "This time it's different" fallacy is that good old, tried and tested mainstay of Knowledge Management, the Peer Assist. Once a project team gets into a room with a bunch of people with experience, the conversation automatically focuses on the similarities. "Yes, we've seen that, we've been there, here's what we learned" and it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain that "This time it will be different".

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