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May 28, 2005

Scott Berkun, Smart People, Bad Ideas

Scott Berkun, former Microsoftie, just got slashdotted with an essay about "Why smart people defend bad ideas". It's a very interesting essay. I'm not crazy about his examples, but his portrayal of the bad-idea-defender is dead on: "Until they come face to face with someone who is tenacious enough to dissect their logic, and resilient enough to endure the thinly veiled intellectual abuse they dish out during debate (e.g. 'You don’t really think that do you?' or 'Well if you knew the rule/law/corollary you wouldn’t say such things'), they’re never forced to question their ability to defend bad ideas." And then again: "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."

Scott Berkun has a book just out called The Art of Project Management (currently zoomin' up the charts thanks to his /. link). I went to a talk he gave last fall at Microsoft about project management. And I didn't like the talk at all. In fact I took a whole page of notes about what I didn't like (which I never bothered sending, natch). The biggest complaint I had, in fact, was a classic "smart-person-defending-bad-idea" move he pulled. He had showed a graph of how projects get behind schedule, then have to adjust back to schedule, then get behind again, etc. He suggested just moving the line to the left, so that they started ahead of schedule and only slipped back to "on schedule", at which point they should be adjusted to be ahead of schedule again. OK, fine, sounds good. But later on he said that it was wrong to incorporate slack time in schedules because people just procrastinated. Someone immediately asked (and the whole audience presumably thought), "Wait a minute, isn't your suggestion for scheduling the project ahead just another way of saying you include slack time?" Which of course it is. Berkun refused to admit this, and displayed several of the behaviors he rails against in his essay. First he simply asserted they were two different things and the questioner just couldn't see why, then when that didn't work he explained that he had a lot of experience in project management so we should believe him, then when THAT didn't work he just said, "Well, I think we should move on, we have a lot to cover in this talk."

Berkun was evidently very successful at Microsoft, and this behavior is in fact characteristic of successful people at Microsoft. Losing an argument in public is a bad career move, and dragging a meeting down a rathole is also a bad career move. So when someone calls you on a bad idea, the tried-and-true behavior is to first try to bluster through, then when that fails quickly switch to "let's take this offline" (where you can safely lose the argument in private). Presto, instant status.

But the fact that I witnessed Berkun being guilty of the exact behavior he is strategizing against actually encourages me to consider reading his book--something I had dismissed after watching him talk. Because as I said, the essay is quite good (the book also has good blurbs and reviews, and I would not be surprised if it is indeed more entertaining than the typical project management tome). Maybe in this case those who don't do can still be good teachers. Perhaps Berkun's experience was gained working for the dark side of the Force, but the fact is that you have to deal with people who throw out intellectually bankrupt ideas. If Berkun's book has as much good advice as his essay, then it could be worth reading--for one thing, if you ever plan on running into him.

Posted by AdamBa at May 28, 2005 10:58 PM

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Just my $0.02, but I never got much out of any of the Berkun talks I'd been to at MS. I really didn't feel like there was much substance in his delivery. What I'll definitely say is that he's an extremely eloquent speaker and knows how to talk to a crowd.

Maybe I'm biased cos I dislike most PM's I have to deal with at work :-\

Posted by: anonymous at May 29, 2005 02:31 AM

Man, willing to be wrong and accept that other folks might know more or have better insight in to a problem is a sign of intelligence, ability and maturity. Needing to always be right by playing "calvin ball" is a sign of an asshole and a huge (dangerous) ego. Sounds like MS needs a culture upgrade.

Posted by: Gideon S at May 29, 2005 11:54 AM

I was at that same talk, and I was just as annoyed at that response. I have used his "step function" graph many times when trying to convince people we need to cut features. Another interesting book I read on this that you might enjoy is "The Critical Chain" which is one of the new style of "business books as semi-fiction", which raises several interesting points, including a long discussion of buffers in schedules.

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Posted by: at June 12, 2005 08:40 PM