One of the most neglected skills in the business world is the ability to apply formal logic to arguments made in the boardrooms and conference rooms. And that’s a shame because formal logic can prevent companies from following strategies and tactics that are untethered from reality.
Schools and colleges no longer teach formal logic, as evidenced by the huge number of people who espouse conspiracy theories (all of which fall apart when subjected to formal logic.) So, unless you want your organization to end up as confused and conflicted as the crazies that talk at school board meetings, you’ll want employees who can think logically.
Fortunately, there is an easy and entertaining way to learn formal logic: An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments: Learn the Lost Art of Making Sense by Ali Almossawi. This book should be required reading for all employees, because when understood, the concepts within it will increase your company’s “organizational intelligence.”
Even a single logical fallacy can bring a huge corporation to its knees, as I learned from personal experience. When I worked at the minicomputer manufacturer DEC in the early 90s, the company’s executives were unable to accept the easily-demonstrable truth that PC sales were swamping sales of traditional computers. It was a textbook example of the logical fallacy known as “argument from consequences.” As Almossawi explains:
“The fact that a proposition leads to some unfavorable result does not mean that it is false. Similarly just because the proposition has good consequences it does not all of a sudden make it true… In the case of good consequences, such an argument may appeal to an audience’s hopes, which at times take the form of wishful thinking. In the case of bad consequences, the argument may instead play upon an audience’s fears.”
In this case, had DEC executives accepted the truth about PCs versus minicomputers, it would mean that the company’s strategy was doomed, hence the the conclusion, hence it had to be false. When I showed a slide comparing sales revenues of both product categories, I remember one VP saying outright “that can’t be true.” He then proceed with the meeting as if PCs were just a fad. This pervasive blind spot eventually drove the company out of business.
One logical fallacy that appears constantly in the business world–greatly to the detriment of good business decisions–is the “Ad Hominem” attack which Almossawi describes as
“an argument [that] attacks a person rather than the argument that he or she is making, with the intention of diverting the discussion and discrediting the argument.”
I can even begin to estimate how many times I’ve heard good ideas poohpoohed because they came from somebody from a different business discipline. I’ve experienced this in this column, which is often discredited in comment because I’m just a “sales guy.”
(Note: I suspect the most common form of “Ad Hominem” is actually “Ad Feminem” where men reject ideas simply because they come from a female. I’ve seen this happen dozens of times.)
Another logical fallacy that wreaks havoc in the business world is the “Appeal to the Bandwagon” which Almossawi describes as the notion that a proposition must be true if a large number of people believe it to be true. Two huge examples of this are the open plan office and the (always promised but never actually arriving) driverless car.
An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments: Learn the Lost Art of Making Senseidentifies 20 logical fallacies that pop up everywhere. Because it’s so short and entertaining its more than just a must-read, it’s a “have-to-read-or-you’re-fired” book.