Making plans for projects, campaigns, developments, complex events, or other collaborative activities is a collaborative activity in itself. A common experience of plans, sadly, is their inadequacy, even when we invest significant resources in developing them. Indeed, it's often said that "…no plan survives first contact…" with the enemy if in a military context, or with reality in a project management context.
But the planning activity has a reputation perhaps worse than it deserves. Planning a complex undertaking is difficult to do well because of unpredictable changes in the context, or incomplete or inaccurate information about that context, or incomplete or inaccurate information about the undertaking itself. That much is understood and expected. But much of what's wrong with our plans is a direct result of the way we think about making plans. Our human limitations manifest themselves in plan deficiencies.
In these next posts, I "plan" to construct a short catalog of seven observations about how plan deficiencies arise from the way we think, or the way we go about developing plans. This first part addresses how we use our experience and preferences and our knowledge of past mistakes to develop plans.
- We make better plans for things we know, or favor, or can imagine
- When we make plans, we rely on experience, preference, and imagination. That's why our plans exhibit three kinds of biases. First, plans tend to anticipate better those events or conditions that have occurred in the past. In military conventional wisdom, as the saying goes, we tend to plan to re-fight the last battle or the last war.
- A second source of bias in our plans arises from our preferences or preconceptions. We tend to search for reasons that justify or coincide with our preferences or preconceived notions. We tend also to avoid searching for reasons why our preferences or preconceived notions about our plan might be mistaken. In this way, the data generated by our research tends to confirm our preferences and preconceptions. The pattern is so prevalent that psychologists have given it a name: confirmation bias. [Nickerson 1998]
- The third source of Much of what's wrong with our
plans is a direct result of the way
we think about making plansbias in our plans is a cognitive bias known as the Availability Heuristic. [Tversky 1973] We're using the Availability Heuristic when we determine the relevance of a phenomenon by sensing the difficulty of imagining or understanding the string of events that contribute to its development. So if we have difficulty imagining a phenomenon, or if we have difficulty imagining the conditions that bring it about, we regard it as less than likely, and we tend not to address it effectively in our plans.
- We lack adequate information about failures
- When we make plans and choose approaches, we tend to focus on what has worked for us or for others in the past. We invest effort in understanding why a particular method is reliable, or why an approach is recommended. We try to be knowledgeable about "best practices." Usually, whatever we draw upon does need tailoring, but we use it as guidance nevertheless.
- We pay much less attention to failures. Finding information about "worst practices" or "less-than-best practices" or even "ok practices" is next to impossible. Failures are often buried quietly. We have difficulty consulting people of our own organizations who led past efforts that failed, because they are often terminated, blocked from promotion, reassigned, or departed from the organization. Other organizations rarely publish results of investigations into their own failures, even when they do publish stories of their successes. These are some of the reasons why our understanding of failures is much less thorough than is our understanding of successes. In some cases, there are past failures of which current planners are completely unaware, even when the causes of those failures might be relevant to the planning task at hand.
- Our relative ignorance about failures might be a contributing factor when we repeat our own errors or the errors of others. We follow this pattern so often that psychologists have given it a name: survivorship bias. [Elton 1996] Survivorship bias is our tendency, when making plans or decisions, to pay too much attention to past events that we regard as successes, and too little attention to past events that we regard as failures.
- But failures have more to offer than mere patterns to avoid. If we truly understand a particular failure, sometimes we can identify those attributes of a failed approach that account for the failure and which could be adjusted. Occasionally these insights can lead to solutions for new problems that might be very valuable indeed.
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More articles on Cognitive Biases at Work:
- Historical Debates at Work
- One obstacle to high performance in teams is the historical debate — arguing about who said what
and when, or who agreed to what and when. Here are suggestions for ending and preventing historical debates.
- Wishful Significance: II
- When we're beset by seemingly unresolvable problems, we sometimes conclude that "wishful thinking"
was the cause. Wishful thinking can result from errors in assessing the significance of our observations.
Here's a second group of causes of erroneous assessment of significance.
- Seven Planning Pitfalls: II
- Plans are well known for working out differently from what we intended. Sometimes, the unintended outcome
is due to external factors over which the planning team has little control. Two examples are priming
effects and widely held but inapplicable beliefs.
- Seven Planning Pitfalls: III
- We usually attribute departures from plan to poor execution, or to "poor planning." But one
cause of plan ineffectiveness is the way we think when we set about devising plans. Three cognitive
biases that can play roles are the so-called Magical Number 7, the Ambiguity Effect, and the Planning Fallacy.
- Risk Acceptance: One Path
- When a project team decides to accept a risk, and when their project eventually experiences that risk,
a natural question arises: What were they thinking? Cognitive biases, other psychological phenomena,
and organizational dysfunction all can play roles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 7: Reaching Agreements in Technological Contexts
- Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.
- And on December 14: Straw Man Variants
- The straw man fallacy is a famous rhetorical fallacy. Using it distorts debate and can lead groups to reach faulty conclusions. It's ad readily recognized, but it has some variants that are more difficult to spot. When unnoticed, trouble looms. Available here and by RSS on December 14.
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