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. [Nickerson 1998] 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:
- Nine Positive Indicators of Negative Progress
- Project status reports rarely acknowledge negative progress until after it becomes undeniable. But projects
do sometimes move backwards, outside of our awareness. What are the warning signs that negative progress
might be underway?
- Project Improvisation as Group Process
- When project plans contact reality, things tend to get, um, a bit confused. We can sometimes see the
trouble coming in time to replan thoughtfully — if we're nearly clairvoyant. Usually, we have
to improvise. How a group improvises tells us much about the group.
- The Planning Fallacy and Self-Interest
- A well-known cognitive bias, the planning fallacy, accounts for many unrealistic estimates of project
cost and schedule. Overruns are common. But another cognitive bias, and organizational politics, combine
with the planning fallacy to make a bad situation even worse.
- Lessons Not Learned: I
- The planning fallacy is a cognitive bias that causes us to underestimate the cost and effort involved
in projects large and small. Mitigating its effects requires understanding how we go wrong when we plan
projects by referencing our own past experience.
- The Risk Planning Fallacy
- The planning fallacy is a cognitive bias that causes underestimates of cost, time required, and risks
for projects. Analogously, I propose a risk planning fallacy that causes underestimates of probabilities
and impacts of risk events.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- Checklists help us remember the steps of complex procedures, and the order in which we must execute them. The simplest form is the conventional checklist. But when we need a record of what we've done, we need an auditable checklist. Available here and by RSS on February 28.
- And on March 6: Six More Insights About Workplace Bullying
- Some of the lore about dealing with bullies at work isn't just wrong — it's harmful. It's harmful in the sense that applying it intensifies the bullying. Here are six insights that might help when devising strategies for dealing with bullies at work. Example: Letting yourself be bullied is not a thing. Available here and by RSS on March 6.
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