Why Smart People Defend Bad Ideas

Scott Berkun is a project management consultant and writer. He previously worked at Microsoft as a lead program manager. He recently published a book called “The Art of Project Management”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0596007868/104-7397168-1549531?v=glance.

Beside writing books Scott also publishes essays. Last month’s essay was entitled “Why Smart People Defend Bad Ideas”:http://www.scottberkun.com/essays/essay40.htm and it’s a good read. I particularly liked this passage:

Smart people, or at least those whose brains have good first gears, use their speed in thought to overpower others. They’ll jump between assumptions quickly, throwing out jargon, bits of logic, or rules of thumb at a rate of fire fast enough to cause most people to become rattled, and give in. When that doesn’t work, the arrogant or the pompous will throw in some belittlement and use whatever snide or manipulative tactics they have at their disposal to further discourage you from dissecting their ideas.

This sounds so familiar. I’ve talked to people like that. Their convincing strategy consists of firing relevant and irrelevant facts at you at an unbelievable pace. They continue doing this until you give up and you say “ok, you’re probably right.”

So your best defense starts by breaking an argument down into pieces. When they say “it’s obvious we need to execute plan A now.” You say, “hold on. You’re way ahead of me. For me to follow I need to break this down into pieces.” And without waiting for permission, you should go ahead and do so.

First, nothing is obvious. If it were obvious there would be no need to say so. So your first piece is to establish what isn’t so obvious. What are the assumptions the other guy is glossing over that are worth spending time on? There may be 3 or 4 different valid assumptions that need to be discussed one at a time before any kind of decision can be considered. Take each on in turn, and lay out the basic questions: what problem are we trying to solve? What alternatives to solving it are there? What are the tradeoffs in each alternative? By breaking it down and asking questions you expose more thinking to light, make it possible for others to ask questions, and make it more difficult for anyone to defend a bad idea.

“Why Smart People Defend Bad Ideas”:http://www.scottberkun.com/essays/essay40.htm. Recommended reading!

Oh, at the moment of this writing his website suddenly went offline, you can still read the essay through “Google’s cache”: