De-biasing project management

Have you had one of those folks on your project team that seemed to be eternally optimistic, and then the project team struggled to meet an unrealistic deadline because of it, with the inevitable failure to meet the schedule in the end? Also, have you ever noticed how we tend to look for information that confirms what we believe? Or, how we tend to prefer our own team over those other guys?

What I just mentioned, are three different cognitive biases: optimism bias, confirmation bias, and ingroup bias. These biases have been studied in psychology (and some in neuroscience), with measurable results that show how they impact real-life decision making.

A cognitive bias is an error in reasoning, evaluating, or recalling, which often deviates from rational judgment as a systematic pattern of thinking to enable faster decisions. The issue with biases is that we are often unaware that we are using them. One of the reasons we don’t recognize biases is because they are part of the automatic system in our brain. Our minds generally operate using a Dual-system: System one, which is the automatic and quick-thinking system, and System two, which is the slower and more deliberative system.

System one is often described as the unconscious system that is automatic, fast, and efficient at running with data or experiences it already knows (or thinks it knows). It requires much less of your energy or attention, and you operate in this mode about 95% of your day. System one is also more prone to errors, with little awareness that it is making them. It is also partially responsible for your “gut feeling” and “intuition.” This is because System one takes memories of past experiences and compiles them in fractions of a second to give you an instant, intuitive feeling of ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ However, if you do any reading on confirmation bias, you’ll learn that our brain is always searching for information that supports what we already believe; this means that our memories and experiences are filtered through the lens of what we believe the situation is, and those biased, filtered memories are then fed back into your System one at a later date, further biasing your decisions in present and future moments.

System one is a complex animal, wouldn’t you agree?

So, of the over 150 researched biases, how do we begin to solve the problem? Moreover, what’s the significance of these biases? Well, just to give you an example of the real, material impact that bias can have, the cost of a year of delay from an optimistic project plan has been shown to increase cost overruns by 4.6% (Flyvbjerg et al., 2004).

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