Giving a thing a name is helpful. Finding an existing accepted name is even more helpful. I encountered a management challenge that has been hard to name. After circling the problem for a few weeks, I opened up Pirie’s, How to Win Every Argument. The book is an alphabetical list of logical and thought traps that I’d read prior to 2005 as part of a sales training class. This post started with me going through each possible logical fallacy and listing out whether or not it fit the behavior that was annoying me so much. It was a bit disappointing with how many of them were relevant, so I just kept on going. Now, with a name in hand, I have another ally in addressing the real issues.
Team members were circulating plans and not getting useful commentary.
If anything, the majority of the feedback was, “I don’t like it.” We’d been following classic Western management philosophy, enlisting support, putting opposing minds on the same team, looking to gather consensus. Things were going no where following the mantra of, “Let them plan the battle or they will battle the plan.” Our colleagues, not Western – were creating obstacles in a place where we had a hard time fathoming any obstacles.
“How can they not want a plan?”
But we were continuing to put people into battle without any plan and watching everyone get shot. [All business metaphors here.] We couldn’t keep this pace, hoping and wishing that plans would emerge like Minerva from the head of Jupiter. Alignment without a plan is impossible. All would fail. Good managers were getting chewed up again and again with apathetic disinterest.
Recently, we’d started saying bluntly to objections, “The goal isn’t to create *this* plan – it is to create A PLAN. If you have a better plan, it has to meet this criteria and be circulated by [DATE]. We will then provide feedback and determine how to move forward. Until then, this is the acting plan.”
Of all the relevant arguments – damning the alternative was the clear winner. Unfortunately for my sanity, all too many are relevant. With a name for this one behavior, I’ve got a place to start and a method to get things on track.
List of Relevant Logical Traps and Fallacies
Antiquatum: Argumentum ad antiquitam (Page 14) – This is the way it has always been. There has never been such a plan, so there is no need for a new one.
Apriorism (15) – The assumption that priorities trump evidence. “We don’t need to have a plan, what we need is revenue.”
Bifurcation (19) – There are only two options. We never had a plan before, and our real focus should be on revenue.
Blinding with science (22) – Use of technical detail to avoid discussion. Also known as ‘technical-thuggery’.
Bogus dilemma (24) – If we create and follow the plan, and the plan fails – then where will we be?
Crumenam: Argumentum ad crumenam (39) – the justification of an activity by money. “We closed those accounts without a plan, so why do we need one now?”
Damning the alternatives (44) – This might be the right term!
In cases where there is a fixed and known set of alternatives, it is legitimate to establish the superiority of one by showing all of the others to be inferior. However, in cases where the alternatives are not fixed or known, and where absolutes rather than comparisons are sought, it is a fallacy to suppose that we argue for one by denigrating the alternatives.
There is a need to populate a list of ideas or plans. The list is neither fixed, nor known. Absolutes are sought to populate the lists and plans.
Definitional retreat (46) – The changing of a term or phrase to change the argument. “What do we mean by plan? (Or budget? Or timing?)”
Denying the antecedent (49) – Challenging an argument by saying that a necessary condition has or has not been met. This is close, but not quite in line with what we’re seeing. Instead, we’re experiencing, “Preventing the antecedent.” If we don’t have a plan, we cannot be wrong. Therefore, stop the plan. Do not participate in the formulation of ideas, plans or other activities. Sit and wait.
Dicto simpliciter 51) – The use of sweeping generalizations. “All politicians are liars.” All foreigners are threats. All foreigners are here to steal.
The exception that proves the rule (63) – Well, we did have one customer that did this without your (plan/idea/concept)!
The existential fallacy (67) – A subjective case of Dicto simpliciter. “Some politicians are liars.” Or further, “some ideas are wrong.”
Ex-post-facto statistics (69) – Your last plan failed! (Even more effective when combined with Ad hominem concerns.)
Extensional pruning (72) –
We are guilty of extensional pruning if we use words in their commonly accepted meaning, but retreat when challenged into a strictly literal definition.
“You asked me to read and comment on your plan. I read it. I had no comments.” [There were also no new ideas on the list of needed solutions.]
False precision (77) –
False precision is as necessary to the continued happiness of many academics as are public money and whisky. Whole departments float upon it, just as some do on the other two ingredients….
Macroecomists happily report that growth-rates were only 1.4 per cent, instead of the predicted 1.7 per cent, without telling us that some measurements of GDP cannot be taken within 5 per cent accuracy.” (Page 78)
“What is our percentage increase of hitting our revenue targets with this plan?”
“What percentage increase in quality of sampling will we see with this idea?”
Ignorantiam: Argumentum ad Ignorantium (92) – The ignorance, or lack of evidence, of a fact to support an argument. “We know that technique won’t work, because we’ve tried it a thousand times.” [None of those 1,000 attempts were done with good method, on good assets, with clear targets.]
Illicit process (97) – The construction of false and/or unsupported claims in phrasing. “All plans are the work of foreigners, no foreigners are good people, no plans are the work of good people.”
Lapidem: Argumentum ad lapidem (101) – Arguing against the stone – where the stone is an object that is not relevant. “The data is not enough of a guide – you must also use your heart.”
Lazarum: Argumentum ad Lazarum (104) – Anointing an expert based on their lack of material goods, wealth or other status. “Ladislav is but a poor lab technician, while Alfred is a wealthy a foreigner. Clearly Alfred is conflicted and Ladislav is right.”
Misericordiam: Argumentum ad Misericordiam (109) – Use of misery on the part of one side as an emotional appeal. “Ladislav and his family will feel such woe if he were to find out that he is wrong. Surely we can just accommodate him this time and do what he likes?”
Nauseum: Argumentum ad nauseum (111) – Repetition of an argument over and over again without any change in evidence or data. “We’ve heard your ten reasons that reference products make sense – I still just don’t want to do it.”
Non-anticipation (114) – The use of non-planning as supporting evidence. “If it is so good to have a strategy and plans, then why didn’t we have it years ago?”
Numeram: Argumentum ad numeram (118) – The use of others supporting an argument to promote an argument, “We’ve had 100 other installations – none of them ever needed this!”
One-sided assessment (121) – Only looking at 1/2 of the argument and not fully developing alternatives. “Look at all the things that can go wrong with that plan!” [What are all the things that can go right?]
Petitio principii (120) aka ‘Begging the Question’ – “We should not pursue this effort, because we cannot prove that the whole plan will work.” Well, how can we ever prove that a whole plan will work? How can we pursue any effort if there is no plan?
Poisoning the well (126) – “We all know it would take millions to make that plan work – and cash is tight.”
The red herring (136) – The use of a non-relevant term to interrupt an argument. “Of course this is not a good plan – I’m too busy to do any more work or planning.”
Refuting the example (138) – “There is only one project going well, and it was the one based on a plan. But that plan won’t work over here!”
The runaway train (143) – Lowering the speed limit by 10 saves lives. Lowering by 20 will save more. Where should we stop? “That plan will *not* work with this account. Or that one…” (Thus, no plan is needed.)
Secumdum quid (145) – The fallacy of a hasty generalization. “We spoke with three lab tool customers at an academic trade show. None of them said they needed that kind of help.”
Shifting the burden of proof (149) – “No one thinks we really need a plan!”
Our investors and customers need one.
“They must tell us what kind of plan they want!”
Special pleading (153) – The creation of select scenarios where different rules apply. “You cannot expect a team with this limited cultural background to understand!”
Temperantiam: Argumentum ad temperantiam (157) – The splitting of differences. “You would like to have a plan. We would not. How about we write out 1/2 a plan and do a bad job of it so we can meet in the middle?”
Thatcher’s blame (160) – The creation of unrelated hypothetical discontent to avoid a scenario. “Well, we could do a meeting to discuss plans, but any plan in the end will probably wind up missing out on the markets where we’ll have the greatest societal impact.”
Trivial objections (162) – “If the new plan is successful, we’ll have to totally reorganize our accounting team.”
Tu quoque (164) – The challenging of the mind of the proponent, or highlighting past changes of opinion. “Only two years ago you thought the other market was better – why now do you wan to change our plans and target markets?” (Maybe that is coming from your head sales guy who sees problems ahead. Maybe your lead technical guy just realized that the product does not work.)
Unaccepted enthymemes (166) –
An enthymeme is an argument with one of its stages understood rather than stated. This is all right as long as both parties accept the tacit assumption. When the unstated element is not accepted, we move into the territory of the fallacy.
“We don’t need to change our methods, assets, or even go about planning more robustly. We will win the next evaluation round by simply trying harder, and from there everything will be fine.”
Unobtainable perfection (171) – The use of the ideal to deny validity in an attempt. “Why make a plan if it is not perfect?”
Wishful thinking (176) – The use of happy ideals instead of the pursuit of evidence, data or action. “No one will ever give us money to execute this plan – instead I’ll focus on the simple problems I can solve and work my hardest. That will solve everything.”