Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 14, Issue 11;   March 12, 2014: Scope Creep and Confirmation Bias

Scope Creep and Confirmation Bias

by

As we've seen, some cognitive biases can contribute to the incidence of scope creep in projects and other efforts. Confirmation bias, which causes us to prefer evidence that bolsters our preconceptions, is one of these.
The Great Wall of China near Mutianyu

The Great Wall of China near Mutianyu. Walls of this kind have been built by many nations, throughout history, though perhaps no other reached the scale of the Great Wall. Typically, they serve multiple functions, including military defense and customs enforcement. But in a larger sense, they are intended to serve to define the scope of the governments that erect them. They are statements that, for the most part, on one side, one government rules, and on the other side, some other government — or no government at all — does so. In this way, they actually define scope for multiple governmental entities.

But do they actually work? In the case of the Great Wall, and in the case of the wall of the Roman emperor Hadrian, the operations of the imperial government occurred on both sides of the wall. These walls may have been conceived as a scope definition mechanism, but they were imperfect. Some imperial operations spanned these walls. We can view these operations as early examples of scope creep, and then wonder, did confirmation bias play a role in the construction of these walls? Photo by Ahazan, courtesy Wikipedia.

Although scope creep can arise independently of cognitive biases, the role of cognitive biases in scope expansion is powerful, because cognitive biases influence our decisions without our knowing. And among the most insidious of these biases is confirmation bias. Confirmation bias affects the objectivity of the evidence-gathering process, and then once evidence is presented, it affects our ability to weigh evidence objectively. Under the influence of confirmation bias, we tend to:

  • Seek evidence that supports our preconceptions
  • Avoid seeking evidence that conflicts with our preconceptions
  • Give preferential weight to confirmatory evidence
  • Reject or discount disconfirming evidence

For example, when considering adding features to a planned product — features we favor — we tend to examine critically projections of cost and schedule that predict trouble. By contrast, we tend to examine less critically any rosy sales projections. When considering combining two projects located at different sites, people who favor the combination tend to accept projections of cost savings less critically than they would treat cost or schedule projections indicating problems arising from merging the projects and relocating one of them.

Here are four indicators that confirmation bias might be driving a scope expansion decision.

Political rivalry and feuds
One political actor might use scope expansion to attack a rival by acquiring responsibility for efforts that are the responsibility of the rival. The intense emotions that typically underlie such plots are fertile ground for confirmation bias.
Masking past offenses and performance issues
When an effort faces financial or schedule trouble, expanding its scope to enable it to acquire a healthier sibling effort can conceal much of its trouble, especially if resources from the healthy effort can be harvested to repair or disguise the problems of the troubled effort. The fears that accompany such situations make decision makers vulnerable to confirmation bias.
Absence of disconfirmation indicators
For efforts we Any high-impact organizational
decision probably ought to also
include anti-goals that, if met,
trigger questioning the
wisdom of that decision
undertake, we usually define success as achieving specific goals. But any high-impact organizational decision probably ought to also include anti-goals that, if met, trigger questioning the wisdom of that decision. For example, if we don't satisfy condition C by date D, we will revisit the decision; or if a competitor enters the market before date D, we will reconsider the decision. When goals are clear, but anti-goals are missing, poorly defined, or ignored, confirmation bias might be playing a role.
Reliance on anecdotal "evidence"
Anecdotes can illustrate — nothing more. They contain no information about the prevalence of the mechanisms they exemplify. Proponents of a scope expansion can use anecdotes to illustrate their arguments, but when they fail to offer estimates of the importance of the phenomena the anecdotes illustrate, the use of anecdotes suggests the effects of confirmation bias.

These effects actually apply to a variety of organizational decisions, but I've restricted the discussion to scope creep to avoid scope creep. First in this series  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Why Scope Expands: I  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrengirrfMZfrWEIPjmoner@ChacWRJyjMBXTZeIaPHKoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Project Management:

The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill BridgeThe Cheapest Way to Run a Project Is with Enough Resources
Cost reduction is so common that nearly every project plan today should include budget and schedule for several rounds of reductions. Whenever we cut costs, we risk cutting too much, so it pays to ask, "If we do cut too much, what are the consequences?"
Hurricane Warning flagsDeclaring Condition Red
High-performance teams have customary ways of working together that suit them, their organizations, and their work. But when emergencies happen, operating in business-as-usual mode damages teams — and the relationships between their people — permanently. To avoid this, train for emergencies.
The Samuel Morse Telegraph ReceiverRemote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: III
Facilitators of synchronous distributed meetings (meetings that occur in real time, via telephone or video) can make life much easier for everyone by taking steps before the meeting starts. Here's Part III of a little catalog of suggestions for remote facilitators.
The "Face on Mars" as seen by Viking 1 in 1976, compared to the MGS image taken in 2001Wishful Thinking and Perception: I
How we see the world defines our experience of it, because our perception is our reality. But how we see the world isn't necessarily how the world is.
The U.S. F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter lifts off for its first training sortie March 6, 2012, at Eglin Air Force Base, FloridaWishful Thinking and Perception: II
Continuing our exploration of causes of wishful thinking and what we can do about it, here's Part II of a little catalog of ways our preferences and wishes affect our perceptions.

See also Project Management and Emotions at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A review meetingComing December 13: Reframing Revision Resentment: II
When we're required to revise something previously produced — prose, designs, software, whatever, we sometimes experience frustration with those requiring the revisions. Here are some alternative perspectives that can be helpful. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
Raquel Welch (left) and Gilda Radner (right) from a @Cite{Saturday Night Live rehearsal, April 24, 1976And on December 20: Conceptual Mondegreens
When we disagree about abstractions, such as a problem solution, or a competitor's strategy, the cause can often be misunderstanding the abstraction. That misunderstanding can be a conceptual mondegreen. Available here and by RSS on December 20.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrendrXEKSoSJdBaqybCner@ChacjWxTCcJTPthcJqRhoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applications
When Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applicationswe talk, listen, send or read emails, read or write memos, or when we leave or listen to voice mail messages, we're communicating person-to-person. And whenever we communicate person-to-person, we risk being misunderstood, offending others, feeling hurt, and being confused. There are so many ways for things to go wrong that we could never learn how to fix all the problems. A more effective approach avoids problems altogether, or at least minimizes their occurrence. In this very interactive program we'll explain — and show you how to use — a model of inter-personal communications that can help you stay out of the ditch. We'll place particular emphasis on a very tricky situation — expressing your personal power. In those moments of intense involvement, when we're most likely to slip, you'll have a new tool to use to keep things constructive. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.