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:
- Scheduling as Risk Management
- When we schedule a complex project, we balance logical order, resource constraints, and even politics.
Here are some techniques for using scheduling to manage risk and reduce costs.
- Flanking Maneuvers
- Historically, military logistics practice has provided a steady stream of innovations to many fields,
including project management. But project managers can learn even more if we investigate battlefield tactics.
- Scope Creep and the Planning Fallacy
- Much is known about scope creep, but it nevertheless occurs with such alarming frequency that in some
organizations, it's a certainty. Perhaps what keeps us from controlling it better is that its causes
can't be addressed with management methodology. Its causes might be, in part, psychological.
- Unnecessary Boring Work: I
- Work can be boring. Some of us must endure the occasional boring task, but for many, everything about
work is boring. It doesn't have to be this way.
- Unresponsive Suppliers: III
- When suppliers have a customer orientation, we can usually depend on them. But government suppliers
are a special case.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
- When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
- And on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
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