Ever wonder why some folks just seem to be blind to a problem or fail to see an issue for long periods of time, and when they finally do they resist the idea of changing? So did I!
There are really interesting things that happen in our brains that cause us to either not realize what is going on around us, or when we do actually realize it, result in us totally ignoring it or diminishing its relevance. I’m sure you’ve experienced this when you suddenly realize something blatantly obvious, and think, “why didn’t I see that all along?” Or worse, when you bring a new thing to light with coworkers that they resist. Well, you’re not alone in your experience.
Let’s look at a couple of interesting concepts that explain what might be going on:
- Habituation – the dictionary defines this as the “diminishing of a physiological or emotional response to a frequently repeated stimulus”. In other words, when you do the same things over and over or are exposed to the same things repeatedly, your brain starts to get used to it, and you may not even see or hear what you used to in the same environment.
- Functional Fixedness – defined as a cognitive bias that causes people to use an object only in the way it has been traditionally used. In other words, because we are used to using something in one way, we often fail to see other ways of using the same object or tool.
- Status Quo Bias – as the name implies, this is a cognitive bias that explains the preference for the status quo, or the current state of affairs, over any change from the baseline. Changes from that baseline are perceived as a loss or a threat and are uncomfortable because they interrupt inertia.
Because we avoid uncomfortable situations and don’t like to spend too much time doing hard thinking, our mind looks for shortcuts all the time, sometimes without our even consciously deciding to do so. Due to this, we also unconsciously seek routines as it lets our minds make cognitive processing easy and put those seemingly irrelevant pieces into the background and makes it part of the automatic system (System 1).
The problem with routines is that although we may gain efficiencies, we may also be shutting off some of those senses that allow us to see things differently and potentially creatively. From this can come habituation and functional fixedness.
So, what should we do about it?
There are a couple of steps that can be taken to help reduce habituation and functional fixedness (Status Quo Bias is too big of an issue to address in this article):
- The first step in fixing cognitive biases is being aware of them. People will often try to correct their own biases, but first, they have to know that they exist. Furthermore, in an organization where routines are the norm, it’s not good enough for one or two people to be educated in cognitive biases, the whole organization needs to have a basic understanding so that they collectively can be aware of how our brains process routines and the potential consequences of this.
- The other big part of mitigating habituation and functional fixedness is disrupting current processes or routines. Even minor changes to patterns can have positive outcomes. (I guess there’s something to that “disruption” everyone’s been talking about).
Disclaimer: Maybe disrupting processes isn’t something your organization needs. Maybe everything is working smoothly and interrupting the process would be counterproductive. This is okay. The point of this article is to point out that, in some cases, habituation and functional fixedness can be a problem, especially if you’re looking for creativity, ingenuity, analysis, or looking to find a way to increase efficiencies in current processes.
Now how does this apply to project management specifically? Remember my article on time pressure? Time pressure increases the use of System 1, and with more automatic System 1 mental processing can come more habituation and functional fixedness. The time constraint of a project causes time pressure, and with time pressure comes a whole host of potential issues, including a generally increased reliance on cognitive biases. These are some of the things we are researching in Behavioral Project Management. If the time constraint is what typifies a project, how our minds work under a time-pressured environment is very relevant. And with about 70 percent of project performance attributed to human factors, this particular human factor is worth noting.
The things that make you go “hmm…”
Evans, J. S., Handley, S. J., & Bacon, A. M. (January 01, 2009). Reasoning under time pressure. A study of causal conditional inference. Experimental Psychology, 56, 2, 77-83.
Forstmann, B. U., Dutilh, G., Brown, S., Neumann, J., von Cramon, D. Y., Ridderinkhof, K. R., Wagenmakers, E. (2008). Striatum and pre-SMA facilitate decision-making under time pressure. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 105(45), 17538-17542.
Kahneman, Daniel; Tversky, Amos (1979). “Intuitive prediction: biases and corrective procedures”. TIMS Studies in Management Science. 12: 313–327.
Kahneman, D., & Frederick, S. (2002). Representativeness revisited: Attribute substitution in intuitive judgment. In T. Gilovich, D. Griffin, & D. Kahneman (Eds.), Heuristics and biases: The psychology of intuitive judgment (pp. 49-81). New York, NY, US: Cambridge University Press.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. London: Allen Lane.
Kirchler, M., Andersson, D., Bonn, C., Johannesson, M., Sørensen, E. Ø., Stefan, M., Tinghög, G., … Västfjäll, D. (January 01, 2017). The effect of fast and slow decisions on risk taking. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 54, 1, 37-59.
Kocher, M. G., Pahlke, J., & Trautmann, S. T. (January 01, 2013). Tempus fugit: Time pressure in risky decisions. Management Science, 59, 10, 2380-2391.
Lundin, R. A., Arvidsson, N., Brady, T., Ekstedt, E., & Sydow, J. (2015). Managing and Working in Project Society. S.l.: Cambridge Univ Press.
Nepal, M. P., Park, M., & Son, B. (February 01, 2006). Effects of Schedule Pressure on Construction Performance. Journal of Construction Engineering and Management, 132, 2, 182-188.
Nordqvist, S., Hovmark, S., & Zika-Viktorsson, A. (January 01, 2004). Perceived time pressure and social processes in project teams. International Journal of Project Management, 22, 6, 463-468.
Josh Ramirez, PMP, MSM-PM, is a consultant at Evanclaer and is experienced in business operations management, project management, and project controls. He has worked at several national laboratories and other projects throughout the Department of Energy and is pursuing a Ph.D. in business psychology. He has a Masters’ degree in project management, is an adjunct professor of project management and conducts training courses that integrate the behavioral sciences with project management. Josh writes about culture and behavior, as well as Metrics and KPIs.