Friday, June 21, 2013

Irrational behavior is not stupid behavior

Wait a minute... how is this related to Project Management? Well, let’s try this reasoning: project management is a great deal about people, right? And people occasionally act in ways that are not rational. For instance, when people get mad they can say and do things that they would otherwise be incapable of. So this post is really about the impact in Project Management of our generic irrational behavior.
Have I got your attention now? Please keep on reading then!

I invite you to take this attention test first - if you haven't done it before. (I actually used this same test before here on Ah-Ha-Moments on the article “Is focus what you really need?”.

Surprised with the result? Most people actually fail the test, but just in case you didn't fail you can have some friends or coworkers to also do the test and check for yourself that most people do fail this test. So what’s the point? Assuming you did fail the test, this serves as an example of irrational behavior that is not stupid: yes, it’s not rational, it’s not logical but it’s not stupid either.
But let’s dig a bit deeper. What is irrational behavior anyway? Irrational behavior is defined by the negative, by what is not a rational behavior. And a rational behavior is a behavior based on a logical reason. Now if you look up rationality in a dictionary, you'll get something like the following:

  1. Having or exercising the ability to reason.
  2. Consistent with or based on reason and logic
  3. Of sound mind; sane.

And these 3 directions are:

  1. The exercise of reason and logic itself (for basic stuff, like “fire is hot, a lighted match is on fire so it must be hot”)
  2. What you build on reason and logic (it can be a more complex thing, like mathematical induction, or a bunch of related simple exercises on reason and logic such as a crime fiction novel)
  3. And a sound, healthy mind.

Now, which of these with be the opposite of stupidity? My best guess is that none of them are - even when they lead you to the wrong conclusions. For instance, by a simple observation of the Sun you can logically conclude that the Sun orbits the Earth, right? Although you got a wrong conclusion using logic and simple observation, does it really matter? You probably have to think really hard to come up with something you've done where the fact that it's the Earth that orbits the Sun is important. Relying on the wrong conclusion that “the Sun orbits the Earth” is good enough to explain most of what happens around you - it perfectly explains why there is night and day, for example.
On the other hand, putting the starting point on irrational behavior, you must agree that the love of a mother for her child is irrational. Logically, every woman should love every child just the same, right? There’s no valid reason or logic for her for caring more about her own child, is there? There may be evolutionary reasons for that to happen, but a mother isn't conscious about them. But in the end, is it stupid for a mother to love her own child more than any other child? Definitely not!

Don't confront irrationality with logic

So how can you take advantage of this in Project Management? For starters, you can't convince someone who is behaving irrationally with logic. Do you think you could convince any mother that the logical thing to do would be to love every child just the same as her own? Situations such as this happen all the time when working with people. Did you ever get to manage a project that makes no sense but nevertheless someone in the organization wants it done really bad? Well, I did. And believe me, there’s no use on trying not to get the project started by showing that the project doesn't make sense.

Hot and cold states

One good example of successfully confront an irrational behavior (that I first experienced quite a while back) involves hot and cold states. Basically, you're in a cold state if you're capable of reasoning and in a hot state when you’re not. Hot states include anger, passion, sexual arousement and so on. The scenario is as follows: someone I used to work with exploded all the time just about anything and when that happened, as I was the one working right next to, this coworker of mine with be shouting at me - even if just explaining why she was so mad at someone else. Instead of facing with facts (such as “you're shouting”) my response was to talk in a low, calm tone. And before you know it, we were both talking like civilized people...
This was way before I knew about hot and cold states, irrationality or even soft skills, it was just my natural response that seemed to work. From then on I've been using it a lot, sometimes on purpose and even on myself. But it’s pretty difficult to do it when you're the one in an hot state... just recognizing that you're in a hot state is not all that easy.

Don't think it’s stupid

We're all irrational but we're not all stupid. There’s a “why” that explains each and every irrational behavior. And they happen because they are useful in some situations - just maybe not at the situation at hand. For instance, the fight-or-flight response (more on Wikipedia here) which consists of an instant response to danger, to fight or to run away from it, is useful in many situations because it saves you precious reaction time: you just take a course of action in a split second without considering the pros and cons. But it can also end up in disaster, like in most stampedes...
The point is: there’s a reason (maybe not logic or rationale) for such behaviors. But they are not stupid.


There are lots of things that we do that are not rational. If in doubt, just check these lists in Wikipedia for our cognitive bias. This doesn't mean we’re wrong or plain stupid about it, it’s just the way we function.
Ignoring this in Project Management will lead unsuccessful actions, such as the previous example of setting up a project that in fact should never have started. It has direct impact in any human interaction (and Project Management is full of them) and impact on any soft skill such as leadership or negotiation (and these are also pretty much essential to Project Management).
So bottom line: don't act and don't expect always rational behaviors. Instead take them into account from the very start of your project and pay attention to the interaction you have with others (pay attention to others and to yourself as well): are they irrational?

Image from, and http;//en.wikipedia,org

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Julian Sammy said...

Great information, Luis. The same principles and ideas apply to business analysis as well. About 5 years ago I put together some of these ideas in sessions called 'The Dangerous Question' and 'Gold From Garbage: Harnessing Human Irrationality'. If you'd like to explore these ideas more, I'd love to chat with you - perhaps we can have a hangout on air?

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