The Focusing Illusion [Schkade 1998] 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 a given individual being happy in Los Angeles, California, isn't much different from the probability of that same individual 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. Top Next Issue
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For more on cognitive biases, see "Nine Project Management Fallacies: IV," Point Lookout for January 11, 2006.
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More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- Trips to Abilene
- When a group decides to take an action that nobody agrees with, but which no one is willing to question,
we say that they're taking a trip to Abilene. Here are some tips for noticing and preventing trips to Abilene.
- Astonishing Successes
- When we have successes that surprise us, we do feel good, but beyond that, our reactions are sometimes
self-defeating. What happens when we experience unanticipated success, and how can we handle it better?
- The Retrospective Funding Problem
- If your organization regularly conducts project retrospectives, you're among the very fortunate. Many
organizations don't. But even among those that do, retrospectives are often underfunded, conducted by
amateurs, or too short. Often, key people "couldn't make it." We can do better than this.
What's stopping us?
- Down in the Weeds: I
- When someone says, "I think we're down in the weeds," a common meaning is that we're focusing
on inappropriate — and possibly irrelevant — details. How does this happen and what can
we do about it?
- Paradoxical Policies: I
- Although most organizational policies are constructive, many are outdated or nonsensical, and some are
actually counterproductive. Here's a collection of policies that would be funny if they weren't real.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 23: Power Distance and Teams
- One of the attributes of team cultures is something called power distance, which is a measure of the overall comfort people have with inequality in the distribution of power. Power distance can determine how well a team performs when executing high-risk projects. Available here and by RSS on October 23.
- And on October 30: Power Distance and Risk
- Managing or responding to project risks is much easier when team culture encourages people to report problems and question any plans they have reason to doubt. Here are five examples that show how such encouragement helps to manage risk. Available here and by RSS on October 30.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
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- The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership
On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in leadership and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at leadership from the vantage point of history. Read more about this program.
Here's a date for this program:
- Baldwin-Wallace University, 275 Eastland Road, Berea, Ohio
44017: November 7,
Kerzner Lecture Series/International Project Management Day, sponsored by Baldwin Wallace University and the Northeast Ohio Chapter of the Project Management Institute.
- Baldwin-Wallace University, 275 Eastland Road, Berea, Ohio 44017: November 7, Kerzner Lecture Series/International Project Management Day, sponsored by Baldwin Wallace University and the Northeast Ohio Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people 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.