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.
In Part II, I'll examine the effects of factors external to the planning process, and which are therefore beyond the control of the planning team. Next in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Cognitive Biases at Work:
- Why Scope Expands: I
- Scope creep is depressingly familiar. Its anti-partner, spontaneous and stealthy scope contraction,
has no accepted name, and is rarely seen. Why?
- How Messages Get Mixed
- Although most authors of mixed messages don't intend to be confusing, message mixing does happen. One
of the most fascinating mixing mechanisms occurs in the mind of the recipient of the message.
- Motivated Reasoning
- When we prefer a certain outcome of a decision process, we risk falling into a pattern of motivated
reasoning. That can cause us to gather data and construct arguments that erroneously lead to the
outcome we prefer, often outside our awareness. And it can happen even when the outcome we prefer is
known to threaten our safety and security.
- Seven More Planning Pitfalls: II
- Planning teams, like all teams, are susceptible to several patterns of interaction that can lead to
counter-productive results. Three of these most relevant to planners are False Consensus, Groupthink,
and Shared Information Bias.
- Risk Acceptance: Naïve Realism
- When we suddenly notice a "project-killer" risk that hasn't yet materialized, we sometimes
accept the risk even though we know how seriously it threatens the effort. A psychological phenomenon
known as naïve realism plays a role in this behavior.
See also Cognitive Biases at Work and Project Management for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 29: Time Slot Recycling: The Risks
- When we can't begin a meeting because some people haven't arrived, we sometimes cancel the meeting and hold a different one, with the people who are in attendance. It might seem like a good way to avoid wasting time, but there are risks. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
- And on April 5: The Fallacy of Division
- Errors of reasoning are pervasive in everyday thought in most organizations. One of the more common errors is called the Fallacy of Division, in which we assume that attributes of a class apply to all members of that class. It leads to ridiculous results. Available here and by RSS on April 5.
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