Scatterwork Guest: Beware of Project Bias

Project Bias or how our psychology undermines perceptions and decisions.

Projects are meant to be diligent,almost scientific undertakings with carefully planned business cases, weighted risks and detailed procedures and governance. But the reality is that everyone is biased and these biases affect the way we see the world, the assumptions we make and the basis for all our decisions.

The problem with any bias is when it’s unconscious. If you know for example that you tend to be over-optimistic in your view of the future,then you can make sure other people know this about you and you can take particular care to make sure you have mitigated any risks may cause.

My name is Jonathan Norman. I’m the publisher at Gower Publishing and I’m going to share a couple of striking examples of project bias and offer you some advice on how to deal with it.

We all like to believe what we want to believe and as a result we all fall foul of confirmation bias from time to time.

Arguably project managers are more prone than others because there’s so much pressure to provide hard evidence when he you’re making a business case or advocating a change.

Essentially confirmation biases are inclination to put unjustified weight behind selected pieces of evidence because they support or confirm some aspect of our Project. I suspect that illusion of control is the most challenging bias for project managers not least because people expect us to be in control.

But don’t ever be tempted to assume that because you’re planning your schedule map out the way a project will run that you control the project.

Remember, if you ever find your risk riding superhuman power to your ability to deliver outcomes the benefits associated with your project and only be realized by the users and if you think you can control customers, employees or other users,then clearly you are deluding yourself.

In many situations including projects, people resist change and this is a really compelling reason to do it, most often because we believe the changes will make things worse.

Look at the recent FIFA elections and the re-election Sepp Blatter. How many of those voting were more concerned about what the absence of Sepp might do to the continued commercial success of FIFA and investment in football in their country than they were by the prospect of a fifth term with Sepp.

I’m not telling you about project bias to trip you up or make you feel bad about yourself or other people but here are five simple tactics you can use to mitigate the problem.

The first thing is to recognize that project bias happens. Everyone is subject to bias.

Secondly, try to keep things simple. Bias is far more apparent in situations where decisions and solutions are transparent.

Thirdly, ask yourself what happens if i’m wrong or if we are wrong. Just because something is unlikely doesn’t mean it will never happen. Make sure you have a backup plan.

Fourthly, check the sources of your information. Risk registers and benefit maps can look imposing and authoritative but to what extent are they based simply on someone’s perception as opposed to actual research.

Finally be suspicious of your bias, particularly if it is pronounced and particularly if you’re dealing with a genuinely new situation but it’s hard to categorize on the basis of prior knowledge. But don’t discount you bias out of hand. Biases are developed from our experience of prior events so they can be very useful radar systems if something is going wrong.

Thank you for listening.

Dr. Deasún Ó Conchúir (pronounce) is a Collaboration Consultant at Scatterwork, which supports Project Solutions for Virtual Teams.


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