Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 14, Issue 13;   March 26, 2014: Why Scope Expands: II

Why Scope Expands: II

by

The scope of an effort underway tends to expand over time. Why do scopes not contract just as often? One cause might be cognitive biases that make us more receptive to expansion than contraction.
An artist's conception of a planetary accretion disk

An artist's conception of a disk of gas and dust orbiting a young star. It is this material that, under the influence of gravity, eventually accretes into planets. By analogy, we can think of projects in an enterprise as bits of the enterprise orbiting its treasury. Among the forces bringing these efforts together — that is, causing accretion — are cognitive biases. In this model, resisting scope expansion is like resisting gravity. Scope expansion is inevitable. Instead of trying to resist it, instead of trying to find ways to limit it, we might do better by searching for ways to exploit it and to manage it effectively. Image courtesy U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration/JPL-Caltech.

As we've seen, scope tends to expand, rather than contract. In Part I of this exploration, we briefly examined cognitive biases that lead us to avoid changes that would tend to contract scope. In this Part II we explore cognitive biases that lead us to favor proposals that tend to expand scope.

Confirmation bias
In the grip of confirmation bias we tend to favor information that confirms our beliefs and preconceptions. Although it operates when we're evaluating information, its most important effects for scope creep relate to its influence on information gathering. To the extent that confirmation bias influences them, those decision makers who have a preference for expanding the scope of an effort will tend to seek proposals that expand that effort's scope. This might include, among others, those decision makers who want to limit the total number of efforts underway, those who want to "piggy back" a favored capability on an effort already underway, and those who seek to enhance their power by expanding the scope of efforts they lead. For more, see "Scope Creep and Confirmation Bias," Point Lookout for March 12, 2014.
Ambiguity effect
The ambiguity effect is the human tendency to prefer options for which the probability of a favorable outcome is known fairly well, compared to options for which the probability of a favorable outcome is less known. When two projects, A and B, are both in trouble, and A is led by someone known to the decision makers, while B is led by someone less well known, the arguments contained in a proposal by A's leader to acquire B are likely to hold sway over B's counter-arguments, even when there are some doubts about A's likelihood of success and no evidence suggesting doubts about B's likelihood of success.
Bias blind spot
The bias blind spot [Pronin 2002] creates in humans a tendency to believe that they are not affected by cognitive biases. Scope expansion might be
inevitable. Instead of trying
to prevent it, we might do
better by learning
to exploit it.
It causes decision makers to fail to compensate for cognitive biases in the decision process. An example of a cognitive bias compensation might be a review of the set of options under consideration, to ensure that scope-contracting approaches receive due consideration.
The anchoring effect
This bias causes us to assign too much importance to the first available piece of information. With regard to scope creep, that information might be an early proposal, or market research, or a senior management directive. For example, in the latter case, management might solicit proposals for cost reduction. Decision makers then might tend to become anchored on cost reduction, which could lead them to favor consolidating several projects, failing to even consider the possibility that any cost savings from consolidation might be surpassed by revenue advantages arising from earlier completion by continuing to operate those projects separately.

Most important, perhaps, is the Optimism Bias — the tendency to overestimate favorable and pleasing outcomes. Any proposal that manages to come up for a final decision is more likely to be accepted if it promises success. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: On Snitching at Work: I  Next Issue

[Pronin 2002]
Pronin, E., D. Y. Lin, and L. Ross. "The Bias Blind Spot: Perceptions of Bias in Self Versus Others," Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 28 No. 3, March 2002, pp. 369-381. Back

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? rbrentsCahomaBmFsdIOMner@ChacXzljCAKpBsiXbgSKoCanyon.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:

Tape recorder AKAI GX-260DResuming Projects: Team Morale
Sometimes we cancel a project because of budgetary constraints. We reallocate its resources and scatter its people, and we tell ourselves that the project is on hold. But resuming is often riskier, more difficult and more expensive than we hoped. Here are some reasons why.
The Marx brothers: Chico, Harpo, Groucho and ZeppoTINOs: Teams in Name Only
Perhaps the most significant difference between face-to-face teams and virtual or distributed teams is their potential to develop from workgroups into true teams — an area in which virtual or distributed teams are at a decided disadvantage. Often, virtual and distributed teams are teams in name only.
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.
Boeing 747-409LCF Dreamlifter at Edinburgh AirportUnresponsive Suppliers: I
If we depend on suppliers for some tasks in a project, or for necessary materials, their performance can affect our ability to meet deadlines. What can we do when a supplier's performance is problematic, and the supplier doesn't respond to our increasingly urgent pleas for attention?
The Perito Moreno Glacier in ArgentinaUnresponsive Suppliers: II
When a project depends on external suppliers for some tasks and materials, supplier performance can affect our ability to meet deadlines. How can communication help us get what we need from unresponsive suppliers?

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Mistletoe growing in abundance in the Wye Valley, WalesComing April 25: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VI
Narcissistic behavior at work distorts decisions, disrupts relationships, and generates toxic conflict. These consequences limit the ability of the organization to achieve its goals. In this part of our series we examine the effects of exploiting others for personal ends. Available here and by RSS on April 25.
A shark of unspecified speciesAnd on May 2: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VII
Narcissistic behavior at work prevents trusting relationships from developing. It also disrupts existing relationships, and generates toxic conflict. One class of behaviors that's especially threatening to relationships is disregard for the feelings of others. In this part of our series we examine the effects of that disregard. Available here and by RSS on May 2.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenJeOpSqdZcOTIGMRjner@ChacUDOZgCGwtNlUYWEMoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, 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

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.