Dealing with Contractors–“Working Theories” to Increase Perception (2)

The first post about increasing perception and reducing mental errors, including the background, can be found at Increase Perceptions (1).

This example shows the use of working theories applied to the evaluation of a physical renovation project done an outside contractor. The example is followed by a more general description of observation and working theories in order to apply the method to other situations.

At both work and home, we periodically contract people to do perform services. At home, it may be to remodel the kitchen, landscape, repair windows etc. The arrangements may be either formal or informal. There has to be a natural tension in the relationship since you want a quality product and the contractor needs to make a profit.


John has hired a contractor to remodel his kitchen. He is not be an expert in renovation, but he does have a clear idea of the appearance and function of the finished kitchen. However, if he inspects the job at the end and is not satisfied , there are few options still available to correct earlier errors or poor workmanship.

So, at regular intervals during the project, he can inspect the work. His attitude and preparation for these inspections are important factors for eventually getting the kitchen he expects. It is important that he does not view the inspection as a tour.

Think about the tours you may have gone on at a museusm or in a new city. The tour director is a wealth of information and is paid to give out the story. It really doesn’t matter if the details are accurate. There may be a few questions from the tourists, but since much of the information is new to the tourists, the director has ready answers.

At home, an inspection trip with a contractor who recounts the details of the job and its special problems is equivalent to a tour. The observed facts and explanations do not have a readily available reference standard. These one-sided inspections have marginal value in ensuring the quality of the work. Just looking at the job from the perspective of the contractor is like being on tour. John is at the mercy of the contractor and will get what he deserves.

It doesn’t matter that John is not an expert in the underlying details of the construction. If John has taken the time to develop a working theory to sharpen his perspective, he can be more fully engaged during the inspection with the contractor.

For example: Where does he expect the electrical outlets to be? What does he expect the plumbing to be made out of? When should the cabinets be installed to meet the schedule? John’s own answers to these types of questions are the basis of his working model for the kitchen inspection.

Armed with this information, when he does inspect the job, he has a basis to evaluate and discuss the observed facts and comments of the contractor.

Continuing the example, if John expected to see the cabinets installed and the cabinets are not even in the house, John can then probe further to determine if the job is behind schedule (a problem) or if he did not understand the construction order (an education).

The use of the working model has allowed him to be more fully engaged. Rather than wait until later to learn that the project is behind schedule, John’s use of a working model forced that information to surface sooner. On the other hand, if he were on a tour, the observation may be simply that the kitchen cabinets were not installed.

Working Theories

A working theory is quite simply your idea of what you expect to see when before you observe a physical situation. It provides a mental reference against which you can evaluate the actual situation. It is not essential that you working theory be accurate. It is the process of making and using it as a reference that allows you to focus your perception.

Perceptive Observation

Observation is taking in the facts of the situation to form a mental picture. Perceptive observation requires more than seeing. It requires identifying the differences between the observed facts and your own working theory. Once the differences are identified, you can really focus on understanding the reason for them and work to improve the project.

Application to other projects

Once you get into the habit of having your own mental picture for any project and then using it, the using working theories becomes second nature. Your baseline performance has been increased.. However, as noted, it can be used in areas in which you do not have experience!

Sometimes though, its fun to take a tour and see things without a reference point, like to experience art for example. Everything has its place.


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