Lately I've seen several people on social media quote advice of mine, "when estimates and reality differ, believe reality." I think this sentence is the biggest takeaway people had from my session at the Agile 2022 Conference. Estimates are built on assumptions, and when reality is different from our estimate, we can examine our assumptions to see where they're wrong. Sometimes it's obvious. Sometimes it doesn't seem very important. Always we have the opportunity.
Last week, at the 2023 Cornell University International Systems Thinking Conference, Dr. Derek Cabrera made the point several times to love reality, because it tells us where our mental models are leading us astray. That's the generalized version of my statement about estimates. Reality, though, is hard to pin down. Our mental models also affect how we perceive reality.
In the same conference, Dr. Rachel Lilley described how people generally have a mental model that reality is "out there" and we observe it through our senses. She offered that we construct the world, or our perception of the world, more than we observe it. We send out predictions or expectations and look for confirmation that we can sense in the world. We look for data that can fill in the gaps of our expectations.
Dr. Lilley mentioned the situation of seeing someone, a stranger, coming toward you. Before you even talk to them, you've likely created a sense of who they are based on your prior experiences with other people. This is the phenomena that Virginia Satir called "hat hanging"--hanging the hat of someone you know onto someone you don't. It's a marvelous example of how powerful the human mind is at pattern matching, and understanding by inference. It's also a great example of how we often get it wrong when we do that.
What's the antidote? Part of it starts with metacognition and interoception--paying attention to what we're thinking and feeling. As we become aware of our process of seeing the world through our expectations, we start to gain control over which expectations we use. We develop an expectation that the first expectation that pops into our mind is likely wrong, and we can consider other possibilities, also. We can consider other points of view.
Understanding our internal world of thinking and feeling therefore helps us understand the external world around us. Similarly, understanding the external world around us helps us understand our internal world, as we correct based on the reality we didn't expect.
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