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 decisionundertake, 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. See "The Power and Hazards of Anecdotes: I," Point Lookout for December 31, 2014, for more.
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More articles on Project Management:
- The 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?"
- TINOs: 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.
- Nonlinear Work: Internal Interactions
- In this part of our exploration of nonlinear work, we consider the effects of interactions between the
internal elements of an effort, as distinguished from the effects of external changes. Many of the surprises
we encounter in projects arise from internals.
- Ground Level Sources of Scope Creep
- We usually think of scope creep as having been induced by managerial decisions. And most often, it probably
is. But most project team members — and others as well — can contribute to the problem.
- False Summits: I
- Mountaineers often experience "false summits," when just as they thought they were nearing
the summit, it turns out that there is much more climbing to do. So it is in project work.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 8: Multi-Expert Consensus
- Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus, members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision with all its relationships intact. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
- And on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
- In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
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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.
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Decision-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.