Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 14, Issue 11;   March 12, 2014: Scope Creep and Confirmation Bias

Scope Creep and Confirmation Bias

by

As we've seen, some cognitive biases can contribute to the incidence of scope creep in projects and other efforts. Confirmation bias, which causes us to prefer evidence that bolsters our preconceptions, is one of these.
The Great Wall of China near Mutianyu

The Great Wall of China near Mutianyu. Walls of this kind have been built by many nations, throughout history, though perhaps no other reached the scale of the Great Wall. Typically, they serve multiple functions, including military defense and customs enforcement. But in a larger sense, they are intended to serve to define the scope of the governments that erect them. They are statements that, for the most part, on one side, one government rules, and on the other side, some other government — or no government at all — does so. In this way, they actually define scope for multiple governmental entities.

But do they actually work? In the case of the Great Wall, and in the case of the wall of the Roman emperor Hadrian, the operations of the imperial government occurred on both sides of the wall. These walls may have been conceived as a scope definition mechanism, but they were imperfect. Some imperial operations spanned these walls. We can view these operations as early examples of scope creep, and then wonder, did confirmation bias play a role in the construction of these walls? Photo by Ahazan, courtesy Wikipedia.

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 decision
undertake, 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.

These effects actually apply to a variety of organizational decisions, but I've restricted the discussion to scope creep to avoid scope creep. First in this series  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Why Scope Expands: I  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenRJkzVSdNtQrTKXCSner@ChacnLAeZCZKcKFlDGZloCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Project Management:

Bottle of poisonToxic Projects
A toxic project is one that harms its organization, its people or its customers. We often think of toxic projects as projects that fail, but even a "successful" project can hurt people or damage the organization — sometimes irreparably.
A recently reclaimed property near Buffalo, New YorkThe True Costs of Cost-Cutting
The metaphor "trimming the fat" rests on the belief that some parts of the organization are expendable, and we can remove them with little impact on the remainder. Ah, if only things actually worked that way...
"Taking an observation at the pole."Risk Management Risk: II
Risk Management Risk is the risk that a particular risk management plan is deficient. Here are some guidelines for reducing risk management risk arising from risk interactions and change.
Two F-22A raptors line up for refuelingSymbolic Self-Completion and Projects
The theory of symbolic self-completion holds that to define themselves, humans sometimes assert indicators of achievement that either they do not have, or that do not mean what they seem to mean. This behavior has consequences for managing project-oriented organizations.
Cargo containers at a port of entryUnresponsive Suppliers: III
When suppliers have a customer orientation, we can usually depend on them. But government suppliers are a special case.

See also Project Management, Emotions at Work and Cognitive Biases at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A forest pathComing November 14: The Goal Is Not the Path
Sometimes, when reaching a goal is more difficult than we thought at first, instead of searching for another way to get there, we adjust the goal. There are alternatives. Available here and by RSS on November 14.
An informal meeting geometryAnd on November 21: Make Suggestions Privately
Suggesting a better way of doing things can sometimes backfire surprisingly and intensely. Making suggestions privately reduces that risk, but introduces a different risk. Available here and by RSS on November 21.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenEPXtZUEpDukjbXmkner@ChacEIiMwakbnUcefqEJoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople 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.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.