What’s your problem?

Steve Dempsey
5 min readNov 24, 2020


Working remotely has made our lives more difficult. This is particularly true in product management and digital transformation where soft power, trust and influence play a vital role in keeping cross-functional teams focused on the right initiatives, the right metrics and the right ways of working together.

In the last few months I’ve noticed an increased number of fallacies, paradoxes and cognitive cock-ups creeping into discussions around requirements, projects and overall programmes. So, I’ve decided to make a catalogue of these to help recognise them when they crop up. Some are familiar terms from the field of behavioural economics; some are more obscure; some I’ve just made up.

Availability Heuristic

Availability Heuristic describes how teams, or specific team members make decisions based on their ability to recall information about the available options. The more memorable the initiative/feature, the more likely it is to be selected.

The Bartlett Rule

The Bartlett Rule was coined by Journalist Jamie Bartlett, when he observed how tasks get delegated downwards until they reach someone who can’t delegate any further.

This insight was gleaned from a Guardian story on how teenagers ended up responsible for crucial parts of England’s COVID-19 response. In teams where senior stakeholders are “too busy” to participate in requirements gathering or understanding operational imact, the Bartlett Rule comes into effect. It can be even more damaging when processes and systems are operationalised and the controls are handed over to juniors without sufficient training or oversight.


Bike-shedding is also known as Parkinson’s law of triviality. It refers to a team’s tendency to spend time and effort on a trivial details when they don’t understand the complicated stuff.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias happens when people use or evaluate information in a way that fits with their existing thinking and preconceptions. Confirmation bias is so common, I barely notice it any more

Decoy Effect

When presenting options to a team, the presenter often uses the decoy effect to nudge others to choose their preferred option. The likelihood of chosing the preferred option is improved by showing it alongside additional unappealing options, or decoys.

The Dunning–Kruger Effect

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias where team members with low ability at a task overestimate their ability. Example: “Just get it into the next release, It’s a two-line code drop.”

Deferral Through Dynamism

When a team can’t make a decision on hard settings as oppose to configurability, it can seem like a sensible decision to make something configurable. However, while configurability is necessary in some areas, too much deferral results in onerous operational complexity. Buy now. Pay later.

Endowment Effect

People tend to value things they own more than others value them — this includes abstract things such as ideas and beliefs. The endowment effect can be particularly difficult to deal with in cross functional teams where one function is overly protective of a product feature or integration that no-one else (including users) gives a toss about.

Fredkin’s Paradox

Fredkin’s paradox describes the negative correlation between the difference between two options and the difficulty of deciding between them. In short, the more similar the outcomes, the harder it is for a team make a judgement between them. Where Fredkin’s paradox arises in relation to different versions of product features, discussions around A/B testing are sure to follow.

Hofstadter’s Law

Hofstadter’s Law describes how difficult it is for a team to accurately estimate the time it will take to complete tasks of substantial complexity.

Hyperbolic Discounting

Hyperbolic Discounting refers to teams’ propensity to disproportionately focus on the costs and benefits incurred in the near future, and pay less heed to costs and benefits beyond that.

The Narcissism of Minor Differences

This is a great term from Freud that explains how nearby communities are likely to engage in petty feuds and mutual ridicule because of hypersensitivity to details of differentiation. Often rears its heads in cross functional teams where roles and responsibilities overlap.

The Peter Principle

The Peter Principle states that every employee in an organisation will to rise in the hierarchy through promotion until they reach a level of respective incompetence. The Peter Principle is particularly dangerous in an organisation where HPPO’s (highest paid person in the office) make the decisions.

Planning Fallacy

The Planning Fallacy states that an individual’s estimate of the length of time it will take to complete a task is always shorter than the actual time required. Good project managers never fall foul of the planning fallacy.

Nik Kershaw Effect

Nik Kershaw is best remembered for his 1984 hit “Wouldn’t it be good”. The opening verse goes like this:

I got it bad
You don’t know how bad I got it
You got it easy
You don’t know when you’ve got it good

And the chorus goes like this:

Wouldn’t it be good to be in your shoes
Even if it was for just one day?
Wouldn’t it be good if we could wish ourselves away?

The Nik Kershaw Effect comes into play in particularly poor performing cross-functional teams, where groups resent other groups; and think they can do a better job of each others’ roles. When this happens the afflicted teams can often spend considerable time and effort working on projects, that play to their perceived strengths, where they believe they can prove they can outperform their colleagues, rather than their actual strengths.

Relativity Blind-Spot

Sometimes percentages are great for making decisions. Sometimes they’re not. Teams fall prey to relativity blind spots where they make decisions like pulling product features based on relative values, where absolute numbers actually matter. A team could decide to discontinue a feature because only 10% of users avail of it. However, This 10% could amount to 30,000 users. Plus they could be your most valuable users.

Sayre’s Law

Sayre’s law holds that the intensity of feeling in any dispute is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake. The most undignified squabbling often relates to the most trivial features.

The Tyranny Of Small Decisions

The tyranny of small decisions describes a situation in which a team’s small decisions, snowball with a cumulative result that is neither optimal nor desired. The tyranny of small decisions must always be kept in check when data capture and progressive onboarding is being discussed.

Aware of any common or uncommon fallacies that should be added to the list? Put them in the comments and I’ll append/update.



Steve Dempsey

Digital Transformation + People + Business + Product Development & Design.