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Volume 20, Issue 41;   October 7, 2020: Seven More Planning Pitfalls: III

Seven More Planning Pitfalls: III

by

Planning teams, like all teams, are vulnerable to several patterns of interaction that can lead to counter-productive results. Two of these relevant to planners are a cognitive bias called the IKEA Effect, and a systemic bias against realistic estimates of cost and schedule.
Assembling an IKEA chair

Assembling an IKEA chair. Image (cc) Cheon Fong Liew.

In two previous posts, I noted five different phenomena that can lead planning teams to devise unworkable plans. They included Group Polarization, Trips to Abilene, False Consensus, Groupthink, and Shared Information Bias. In this final post of the series, I explore effects that cause planning teams to adopt or accept approaches for reasons other than their merits.

The IKEA effect
A cognitive bias known as the IKEA Effect causes individuals to place an inordinately high value on products they assembled themselves. [Norton 2012] One might speculate that an analogous bias occurs with respect to organizations. If this speculation is valid, organizations would tend to place inordinately high value on assets and processes that they created or helped to create, compared to similar assets or processes that they could acquire elsewhere. This phenomenon, if confirmed experimentally, might be related to what is sometimes called the not-invented-here syndrome. [Katz 1982]
Planning teams A cognitive bias known as the
IKEA Effect causes individuals
to place an inordinately
high value on products
they assembled themselves
would be affected by the "organizational IKEA Effect" by assessing as more valuable or effective approaches that exploited products or technology developed in part or in toto by in-house efforts. That might also cause them to be compelled by internal political forces to use such assets, even if they were inferior to commercial alternatives.
Competition bias
When internal experts provide estimates of cost and schedule, they're vulnerable to a number of cognitive biases that cause them to underestimate both. I've noted some of these, such as the priming effects or Shared Information Bias, in previous posts. But even if the members of the planning team weren't vulnerable to these biases, another problem — potentially even more significant — causes them to produce underestimates. The forces that create this problem are traceable to competition, both internal and external. I call this phenomenon Competition Bias.
Boehm, et al., observe that because organizational resources are finite, project advocates compete with each other for resources. [Boehm 2016] They are compelled by this competition to be unrealistically optimistic about their objectives, costs, and schedules. Although the authors call this mechanism the "Conspiracy of Optimism," possibly facetiously, it isn't actually a conspiracy. Rather, it's a variant of the N-Person Prisoner's Dilemma. [Hamburger 1973]
Market dynamics provide a second illustration of the effects of competition. Those who advocate marketing strategies based on the so-called "first mover advantage" believe that the organization that first delivers an offering to a marketplace can gain advantages by arriving early. The strategy is somewhat controversial [Suarez 2005], but it is believed widely enough that it leads to pressure on project planning teams to reduce their estimates of cost and schedule.
Estimates of cost and schedule are more likely to be realistic if the estimators aren't subjected to pressure to produce low estimates.

Last words

In these last six posts, I've inventoried 14 different phenomena that can lead to unworkable plans.

But there is a trap here. Some might feel that when a plan goes awry, and we see some evidence that the IKEA effect might have played a role, then the people who devised the plan are at fault for not recognizing the problem and doing something about it. That would be a mistake. Replacing those people, or disciplining them in some way, is unlikely to affect substantially the probability of a recurrence.

The root cause of the problem lies not in the people who devised the unworkable plan, but in the processes they used when devising the plan. To reduce the probability of recurrence of the IKEA effect, for example, we need to add to the planning process new steps. Those new steps must ensure decision maker objectivity with respect to the origins of the assets they're planning on using. For each of the 14 phenomena I've been exploring, we would need to add some measures like that.

Undoubtedly there are dozens more phenomena that lead to unworkable plans. It's a wonder that any of our plans are workable. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Power Mobbing at Work  Next Issue

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Footnotes

[Norton 2012]
Michael I. Norton, Daniel Mochon, and Dan Ariely. "The IKEA effect: When labor leads to love," Journal of Consumer Psychology 22:3 (2012), 453-460. Available here. Retrieved 21 September 2020. Back
[Katz 1982]
Ralph Katz and Thomas J. Allen. "Investigating the Not Invented Here (NIH) syndrome: A look at the performance, tenure, and communication patterns of 50 R & D Project Groups," R&D Management 12:1 (1982), 7-20. Available here. Retrieved 21 September 2020. Back
[Boehm 2016]
Barry Boehm, Celia Chen, Kamonphop Srisopha, Reem Alfayez, and Lin Shiy. "Avoiding Non-Technical Sources of Software Maintenance Technical Debt," USC Course notes, Fall 2016. Back
[Hamburger 1973]
Henry Hamburger. "N-person Prisoner's Dilemma," Journal of Mathematical Sociology 3 (1973), 27-48. doi:10.1080/0022250X.1973.9989822. Back
[Suarez 2005]
Fernando Suarez and Gianvito Lanzolla. "The half-truth of first-mover advantage," Harvard Business Review (2005), 121-127. Available here. Retrieved 21 September 2020. Back

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Related articles

More articles on Cognitive Biases at Work:

Louis Pasteur in 1885Wishful 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.
Winston Churchill in the Canadian Parliament, December 30, 1941The Trap of Beautiful Language
As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus.
Matt Schaub, as quarterback for the American football team known as the Houston TexansNeglect of Probability
Neglect of Probability is a cognitive bias that leads to poor decisions. The risk of poor decisions is elevated when we must select an option from a set in which some have outstandingly preferable possible outcomes with low probabilities of occurring.
A so-called "Paris Gun" of World War ICognitive Biases at Work
Cognitive biases can lead us to misunderstand situations, overlook options, and make decisions we regret. The patterns of thinking that lead to cognitive biases provide speed and economy advantages, but we must manage the risks that come along with them.
The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill BridgeSeven 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.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerComing 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.
An owl of undetermined speciesAnd on October 19: Bullying by Proxy: I
The form of workplace bullying perhaps most often observed involves a bully and a target. Other forms are less obvious. One of these, bullying by proxy, is especially difficult to control, because it so easily evades most anti-bullying policies. Available here and by RSS on October 19.

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