Wishful Thinking: Why It Happens, How to Prevent It,
and How to Return to Reality

Wishful thinking is expensive. It causes delays, rework, and even outright failure, on every scale from the project to the enterprise. In this program, we explore tools we can use to detect wishful thinking while we're doing it. We then describe several techniques for preventing it, noticing it, and finally, for repairing the consequences of wishful thinking when it happens.

When things go wrong, and we look back at how we got there, we must sometimes admit to wishful thinking. In this program, we explore why wishful thinking is so common and suggest techniques for limiting its frequency and effects.

Wishful Thinking

A dandelion gone to seed. Some people like to make wishes and then blow on the seeds to set them free.

Wishful thinking is a means of reaching pleasing conclusions, maintaining preferred beliefs, or rejecting unfavorable beliefs, even when reality demands otherwise. We think wishfully by cherry-picking evidence, bending the rules of rational thought, or creating substitutes for reality. Wishful thinking is a source of risk in every human endeavor, whether we're rebuilding the U.S. Air Traffic Control system, or deciding whether or not to have a third child, or crossing a street in heavy traffic.

For example, a phenomenon known as the IKEA effect is the tendency for people to overvalue objects that they partially assembled themselves, such as furniture from IKEA, independent of the quality of the end result. This phenomenon, in organizations, might explain the "not invented here" syndrome that is, in many organizations, responsible for so much waste of resources and loss of market position.

In this program we provide practices and procedures for decision makers or groups of decision makers to help them detect and prevent wishful thinking. The work is based on tools for improving interpersonal communication due to Virginia Satir, and on recent advances in our understanding of the various psychological phenomena known as cognitive biases.

This program gives attendees the tools and concepts they need to detect and prevent wishful thinking, and once detected, to intervene constructively to limit its effects. It deals with issues such as:

  • How does wishful thinking affect our awareness of situations?
  • How does it influence our ability to remain attentive to tasks?
  • How does it affect the likelihood of seeing patterns that aren't actually present?
  • How does it contribute to the sunk cost effect, thereby interfering with attempts to cancel failed efforts?
  • What is the sunk time effect and how does it affect management?
  • How does wishful thinking prime us to make bad decisions?
  • How does wishful thinking affect negotiation?
  • Can it distort our assessment of the state of mind of superiors, subordinates, colleagues, or rivals? How?

This program is available as a keynote, seminar, or breakout. For the shorter formats, coverage of the outline below is selective.

Learning objectives

This program helps people who make decisions or who want or need to influence others as they make decisions. As it turns out, that's just about everyone in the knowledge-oriented workplace. Participants learn:

  • The concept and importance of cognitive biases
  • The Satir Interaction Model of communication, and how to use it as a framework for detecting wishful thinking
  • How cognitive biases contribute to the incidence of wishful thinking
  • What conditions expose groups to the risk of wishful thinking
  • Indicators of those cognitive biases that most affect individual and group decision making through wishful thinking
  • A basic checklist to use to evaluate the likelihood that wishful thinking has affected group decisions through cognitive biases

Participants learn to appreciate the causes of wishful thinking, both personal and organizational. Most important, they learn strategies and tactics for limiting its effects, or, having discovered that wishful thinking is in action, how to intervene to enhance decision quality.

Program structure and content

We learn through presentation, discussion, exercises, simulations, and post-program activities. We can tailor a program for you that addresses your specific challenges, or we can deliver a tried-and-true format that has worked well for other clients. Participants usually favor a mix of presentation, discussion, and focused exercises.

Whether you're a veteran decision maker, or a relative newcomer to high-stakes decision making as a workplace practice, this program is a real eye-opener.

Learning model

When we learn most new skills, we intend to apply them in situations with low emotional content. But knowledge about how people work together is most needed in highly charged situations. That's why we use a learning model that goes beyond presentation and discussion — it includes in the mix simulation, role-play, metaphorical problems, and group processing. This gives participants the resources they need to make new, more constructive choices even in tense situations. And it's a lot more fun for everybody.

Target audience

Decision makers at all levels, including managers of global operations, sponsors of global projects, managers, business analysts, team leads, project managers, and team members.

Program duration

Available formats range from 50 minutes to one full day. The longer formats allow for more coverage or more material, more experiential content and deeper understanding of issues specific to audience experience.

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