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Volume 14, Issue 13;   March 26, 2014: Why Scope Expands: II

Why Scope Expands: II

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The scope of an effort underway tends to expand over time. Why do scopes not contract just as often? One cause might be cognitive biases that make us more receptive to expansion than contraction.
An artist's conception of a planetary accretion disk

An artist's conception of a disk of gas and dust orbiting a young star. It is this material that, under the influence of gravity, eventually accretes into planets. By analogy, we can think of projects in an enterprise as bits of the enterprise orbiting its treasury. Among the forces bringing these efforts together — that is, causing accretion — are cognitive biases. In this model, resisting scope expansion is like resisting gravity. Scope expansion is inevitable. Instead of trying to resist it, instead of trying to find ways to limit it, we might do better by searching for ways to exploit it and to manage it effectively. Image courtesy U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration/JPL-Caltech.

As we've seen, scope tends to expand, rather than contract. In Part I of this exploration, we briefly examined cognitive biases that lead us to avoid changes that would tend to contract scope. In this Part II we explore cognitive biases that lead us to favor proposals that tend to expand scope.

Confirmation bias
In the grip of confirmation bias we tend to favor information that confirms our beliefs and preconceptions. Although it operates when we're evaluating information, its most important effects for scope creep relate to its influence on information gathering. To the extent that confirmation bias influences them, those decision makers who have a preference for expanding the scope of an effort will tend to seek proposals that expand that effort's scope. This might include, among others, those decision makers who want to limit the total number of efforts underway, those who want to "piggy back" a favored capability on an effort already underway, and those who seek to enhance their power by expanding the scope of efforts they lead. For more, see "Scope Creep and Confirmation Bias," Point Lookout for March 12, 2014.
Ambiguity effect
The ambiguity effect is the human tendency to prefer options for which the probability of a favorable outcome is known fairly well, compared to options for which the probability of a favorable outcome is less known. When two projects, A and B, are both in trouble, and A is led by someone known to the decision makers, while B is led by someone less well known, the arguments contained in a proposal by A's leader to acquire B are likely to hold sway over B's counter-arguments, even when there are some doubts about A's likelihood of success and no evidence suggesting doubts about B's likelihood of success.
Bias blind spot
The bias blind spot [Pronin 2002] creates in humans a tendency to believe that they are not affected by cognitive biases. Scope expansion might be
inevitable. Instead of trying
to prevent it, we might do
better by learning
to exploit it.
It causes decision makers to fail to compensate for cognitive biases in the decision process. An example of a cognitive bias compensation might be a review of the set of options under consideration, to ensure that scope-contracting approaches receive due consideration.
The anchoring effect
This bias causes us to assign too much importance to the first available piece of information. With regard to scope creep, that information might be an early proposal, or market research, or a senior management directive. For example, in the latter case, management might solicit proposals for cost reduction. Decision makers then might tend to become anchored on cost reduction, which could lead them to favor consolidating several projects, failing to even consider the possibility that any cost savings from consolidation might be surpassed by revenue advantages arising from earlier completion by continuing to operate those projects separately.

Most important, perhaps, is the Optimism Bias — the tendency to overestimate favorable and pleasing outcomes. Any proposal that manages to come up for a final decision is more likely to be accepted if it promises success. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: On Snitching at Work: I  Next Issue

[Pronin 2002]
Pronin, E., D. Y. Lin, and L. Ross. "The Bias Blind Spot: Perceptions of Bias in Self Versus Others," Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 28 No. 3, March 2002, pp. 369-381. Back

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

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Workplace speech and writing sometimes strays into the land of pretentious but overused business phrases, which I like to call high falutin' goofy talk. We use these phrases with perhaps less thought than they deserve, because they can be trite or can evoke indecorous images. Here's Part III of a collection of phrases and images to avoid. Available here and by RSS on July 18.
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A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.

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