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Volume 11, Issue 3;   January 19, 2011: The Focusing Illusion in Organizations

The Focusing Illusion in Organizations

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The judgments we make at work, like the judgments we make elsewhere in life, are subject to human fallibility in the form of cognitive biases. One of these is the Focusing Illusion. Here are some examples to watch for.
The Japanese battleship Yamato during machinery trials 20 October 1941

The Japanese battleship Yamato during machinery trials off Bungo Strait, 20 October 1941. To avoid an arms race, the great naval powers had agreed to a sequence of treaties from 1922 to 1936 constraining the sizes and numbers of capital ships they could construct. In 1934, Japan withdrew from the treaty (and the League of Nations), and in 1937 began construction of the Yamato. Its great size was intended to enable it to engage multiple U.S. warships simultaneously, a capability that was believed necessary because of the industrial capacity advantage of the U.S. The idea of initiating a decisive engagement that would bring an end to the war might have been, in part, an instance of the focusing illusion. For more, read the Wikipedia articles, "Treaty battleship" and "Japanese Battleship Yamato." The photo is part of the records in the Yamato Museum (PG061427). It is available from Wikipedia.

The Focusing Illusion[*] is a cognitive bias — a tendency to misjudge — that leads to attaching too much significance to one feature of an event or situation. We then make erroneous predictions of future outcomes. For example, many believe — wrongly, research shows — that wealth inevitably leads to happiness. That's why feature stories in the media about tragically unhappy lottery winners are so fascinating — the stories seem paradoxical.

The essence of the illusion is a failure to grasp the full complexity of life situations. Although living in California might increase the probability of attaining happiness, happiness is far from certain, and indeed, the probability of being happy in Los Angeles, California, isn't much different from the probability of being happy in, say, Cleveland, Ohio. The focusing illusion leads us to misjudge these probabilities. We forget, for example, that although Los Angeles has more sunny days, it also has more smog.

Most of the common examples of the focusing illusion emphasize the personal: if I were rich (or thin, or beautiful, …), I'd be happy. Some examples relate to relationships: if we had a child, our marriage would be saved.

But the focusing illusion also applies to organizations. Here are some examples of the focusing illusion in organizational life.

  • If we acquire that company, we'll own the market and profits will dramatically increase.
  • When we finish this project, the pressure will ease and we can get back to 40-hour weeks.
  • If we can get Snidely off the team, we'll finally have peace and get some work done.
  • If we hire this superstar, we'll be so much better managed that the share price will triple.
  • If we can keep these production problems secret until they're fixed, nobody will ever find out and all will be well.
  • If we redesign our work processes, productivity will increase so dramatically that our time-to-market will drop by 40%.
  • If we consolidate these three locations into one, the cost savings in Fed-X and airfare alone will pay for the relocations in three years.

To guard against the focusing illusion, remember:

  • The value of almostThe value of almost any
    organizational attribute (like net
    income, time-to-market, …) is
    the result of contributions from
    many elements
    any organizational attribute (like net income, time-to-market, …) is the result of contributions from many elements.
  • Changing some of these elements will probably change the result, but the direction of the change depends on what else is happening.
  • Any change you make might also change contributions from elements you don't change.
  • Other elements you don't control are always free to change on their own or in response to external factors.

Consequently, the effects of changes we make are usually tangled up with other changes that are either already underway or that result unexpectedly from what we've done. We simply cannot get what we want by focusing solely on what we actually do control. Everything matters. Go to top Top  Next issue: Why There Are Pet Projects  Next Issue

For more on cognitive biases, see "Nine Project Management Fallacies: IV," Point Lookout for January 11, 2006.

[*]
First identified by D.A. Schkade and D. Kahneman in 1998. See Schkade, D.A., and Kahneman, D. (1998), "Does living in California make people happy? A focusing illusion in judgments of life satisfaction." Psychological Science, 9, 340-346.

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