How could we mistake-proof our thinking?

How could ideas from psychology, lean, systems thinking and behavioural economics help us design systems which are better able to detect and correct error, so that we could ‘mistake-proof’ our own (and others’) thinking?

We know that it is common for humans to feel that they are right.  As Kathryn Schulz (@wrongologist!) says in her book “Being Wrong: Adventures in the margin of error”, “what does being wrong feel like?  It feels *exactly* the same as being right until the point we realise that we’ve done something wrong”.  She illustrates this through the “Wile E. Coyote Moment” where the cartoon character, runs off a cliff (he is ‘wrong’ at this point, but still feeling ‘right’), looks down and realises (detects the error) that he’s standing in thin air and plunges (now he no longer feels ‘right’)

One of the problems we have with detecting error is that we often trust our direct sensory experience as a way of testing if we are wrong or not.  We know, from optical illusions and auditory illusions, that our eyes and ears can play tricks on us.  However, we rarely acknowledge or act with an awareness that we can have similar problems with our thinking.  There are many sources of evidence that we experience ‘cognitive illusions’, such as the work of Behavioural Economist Dan Ariely.  For the Lean readers, Taiichi Ohno discusses the problem of “illusions involving mental processes” in “Workplace Management”.

Chris Argyris’ research (see my Argyris links) has found that we are often ‘blind’ to the fact that we could be wrong.  Further, in situations where the consequences of being wrong are potentially embarrassing or threatening then we are even less likely to be vigilant about the detection of error, and if it is discovered that we were wrong we’re likely to bury, bypass or cover-up the error (and deny that we’re bypassing the bypass!).

So, if we know that humans act like this (e.g. this is the ‘system’ we have to work with), how would we mistake-proof our thinking? (the concept, not tool)

I’d say that we should ask questions like the following:

  • How could we reduce the potential embarrassment and threat around being wrong?
  • How could we be more open to the fact that we rely too much on our own tests of our assumptions (where we often ask ourselves “Do I believe what I believe? Why, yes, I do!”)?
  • How could we be more aware of the fact that we often cover-up the fact that we test our assumptions privately? (e.g. we generally don’t say “I was unsure if I was wrong, but I’ve just tested it with myself and have decided I’m right!”)
  • How could we work with others to overcome these problems and remain vigilant about detecting and correcting errors?

What are your thoughts?


(* Disclosure: if you buy these excellent books after using these links I get money from amazon to buy more books I’ll blog about!)

About Benjamin Mitchell

Hi, I’m Benjamin. I hope that you enjoyed the post. I’m a consultant and coach who helps IT teams and their managers consistently deliver the right software solutions. You can find out more about me and my services. Contact me for a conversation about your situation.

5 responses to “How could we mistake-proof our thinking?”

  1. Mike says :

    Benjamin, well done for finally getting the post written – I know how hard it is to move from ‘draft’ to ‘publish’.

    Its a great post and poses some critical questions that seem to have a direct progression from the personal to the collective and beyond to bigger collections of people and systems.

    The journey of any individual to even begin to address the questions you pose at a personal level can be a difficult one, but I sincerely believe we have all the tools to unlearn, relearn and rediscover.

    My personal view is that there are no hard an fast answers, that the best option we have may lie in personal tools and resource states. Tools like courage and honesty and states like being open to the possibilities, self awareness in relation to a bigger whole (and spirals of nested wholes).

    I feel really strongly and closely attached to this discussion and want to see it develop. How do you think we could get more people to get together and explore this?


  2. Bob Marshall says :

    Great post! I very much believe this line of reasoning offers much promise in the way of improving interactions within organisations.

    I have also come to believe that coaching senior managers and executives requires a degree of intrepidity along with a certain terminological leisure-de-main. That is to say, it behoves the coach to appreciate the particular dynamics of the executive suite. Many organisations have, over many years, built a context where being seen to make a mistake can be fatal to a career. The term “mistake-proofing” in this context implies that executives can make mistakes. Some organisations and individuals cannot even ADMIT of this possibility. We may indeed be fair in referring to this as a (pervasive) phobia. Hence the all-too-worthy message may be rejected out of hand before it even receives a fair hearing.

    So to the aforementioned leisure-de-main. Can we find a term which offers less likelihood of trigging the “mistake” phobia? I am minded of Shigeo Shingo’s promotion of the term poka-yoke (mistake-proofing) and the story that he originally names the practice “baka-yoke” (fool-proofing) before becoming dis-enamoured of the implications of referring to workers as fools. Note: I’m not suggesting that we adopt a Japanese term here; this can trigger its own associated phobias, of course :} Nor am I pleading for some kind of “easing-in”.

    Rather, I suspect mistake-proofing is not the most accurate description of what you admirably propose. If we can refine our understanding of just what we’re trying to achieve, I’m sure the name (term, label) will reveal itself.

    – Bob

  3. Simon Kirk says :

    The whole “testing assumptions” thing is a curious one to me. Not in principle: I can see the truth in how we test our assumptions privately.

    Rather, the curiosity is in how one would test one’s assumptions publicly. What would such a “test” look like?

  4. John Hunter says :

    Thanks for the post. I hope you start posting more often 🙂

    The Illusion of Knowledge touches on the themes you mention here.

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