The hot hand fallacy is the belief that we can better estimate the outcome of tests of skill if we weigh recent results more heavily than less recent results. It was first identified by Gilovich, Vallone, and Tversky in 1985. [Gilovich 1985] They found that the belief that basketball players can have "hot hands," leading to streaks of successful shooting, is without statistical foundation. That is, players do have "hot streaks" and "cold streaks," but the streaks that do happen are consistent with random chance.
Nevertheless, people do believe in the "hot hand," in basketball, and at work.
When someone has succeeded at a string of assignments, managers and executives tend to attribute that success, without proof, to the performer's innate capabilities. And the longer the string of successes, the more faith they have in the belief, even though every string of successes has a beginning, before which outcomes were less stellar.
When we believe someone has a "hot hand," we tend to ensure that he or she is fully occupied. Then, when a difficult challenge with a troubled history comes along, we sometimes try to fit it into whatever the hot-handed people are already doing. We add it to their responsibilities, hoping for yet another success. If it doesn't fit well, we make it fit. Voila! Scope creep.
But there's a little more to it. The people whom we regard as having a "hot hand" often regard themselves that way, too. They overestimate their capabilities, partly because of the hot hand fallacy, and perhaps partly due to another cognitive bias called the illusion of control. The illusion of control is our tendency to overestimate our ability to control events that are beyond our control.
For example, a project manager who completes a project successfully might not notice that she was able to retain all of her staff for the life of the project — no key people were suddenly reassigned to other projects. Scope creep often takes place
outside our awareness, due to
misjudgments arising from
cognitive biasesIn many organizations, such a record is rare. But a project manager exulting in success might not notice this fortunate turn of events. Most project managers cannot control these "staff raids," but when they don't happen, the project runs more smoothly. Project managers then might tend to attribute the project's success to their own performance, neglecting to attribute any of it to good fortune. Project managers, or any managers, who attribute successes to their own performance, ignoring good fortune, might be in the grip of the illusion of control. And someone in that state is more likely to accept additional responsibilities when they're offered. Voila! Scope creep.
This example suggests that two people under the influence of different cognitive biases might produce collaborative misjudgments more erroneous than either of them acting independently, if their respective cognitive biases interoperate synergistically. Fascinating. First in this series Next in this series Top Next Issue
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See also Project Management, Emotions at Work and Cognitive Biases at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- And on June 21: Asking Burning Questions
- When we suddenly realize that an important question needs answering, directly asking that question in a meeting might not be an effective way to focus the attention of the group. There are risks. Fortunately, there are also ways to manage those risks. Available here and by RSS on June 21.
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