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:
- Figuring Out What to Do First
- Whether we belong to a small project team or to an executive team, we have limited resources and seemingly
unlimited problems to deal with. How do we decide which problems are important? How do we decide where
to focus our attention first?
- Appreciate the Moment
- Often, we focus our awareness where we aren't or when we aren't. Whether we're in a heated meeting,
or blowing out the candles of a birthday cake, being fully present can make our experiences more positive
and memorable. Why are we so often someplace else? When we are, how can we come back? Or better, how
can we stay fully present when we want to?
- Excuses, Excuses
- When a goal remains unaccomplished, we sometimes tell ourselves that we understand why. And sometimes
we do. But at other times, we're just fooling ourselves.
- Trying to Do It Right the First Time Isn't Always Best
- You've probably heard the slogan, "Do it right the first time." It makes sense for some kinds
of work, but not for all. For more and more of the work done in modern organizations, doing it right
the first time — or even trying to — might be the wrong way to go.
- How to Foresee the Foreseeable: Preferences
- When people collaborate on complex projects, the most desirable work tends to go to those with highest
status. When people work alone, they tend to spend more time on the parts of the effort they enjoy.
In both cases, preferences rule. Preferences can lead us astray.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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