How to Defend Against the Cognitive Assumptions That Can Threaten a Project's Success—Right from the Start
BY ASHLEY BISHEL
ILLUSTRATION BY CARL WIENS
Could the biggest risks threatening a project's success lie not in the external environment but between the ears of every person involved in a project? It's possible. From the sponsor to the project or program manager to individual team members, everyone is susceptible to certain cognitive biases that can subtly influence how they approach and plan for initiatives and how objective they are when assessing risks.
These cognitive biases are perhaps most dangerous at the project's start, which sets the tone and trajectory, says Francesco Luna, PMP, project director Asia Pacific, Merlin Entertainments, Singapore. “In my experience, not managing the biases correctly can influence the project without the project manager even understanding how and why it happened,” he says. But beating early biases is also particularly challenging, as it's a time when excitement and confidence can both run high, and there's a natural inclination to jump in and get started.
The best way to defend against such biases is to know how to spot them—and defeat them—from the start.
What It Is: When project professionals subconsciously prioritize lessons learned in which the project went well or are quick to discount failed initiatives as having markedly different constraints.
“For example, let's say you forgot to include decommissioning costs in your project budget,” says Elizabeth Harrin, program manager, Otobos Consultants Ltd., London, England. “You might seek out information that says it's not necessary to decommission the old solution and reject data that shows it is important for your project to include that activity.”
That cognitive filter—subconscious or not—is dangerous, because it screens out insights that might be gleaned from lessons learned that don't point toward project success. But it's often the red flags and warning signs from past initiatives that can be the most valuable.
How to Beat It: Look for broad points of comparison when combing the lessons learned database, not hyper-specific similarities, says Leonardo Martinez Ramos, PMP, senior project manager, Scitum S.A. de C.V., Mexico City, Mexico. For a telecom initiative in a new region, for instance, that would mean pulling lessons learned for projects with similar scopes, budgets and timelines—but also looking at other projects the company has completed in that region, even if they aren't narrowly similar in scope.
“Not taking into account the new environmental context—such as the geopolitical situation and the stakeholders in that area—is a real problem,” he says. And building the project plan based only on those successful telecom initiatives could set the team up for setbacks.
One way to make sure the team is testing for confirmation bias is to slow down and second-guess whatever data or past examples the team is pulling from, says Matthew Kohut, managing partner, KNP Communications, Hopewell, New Jersey, USA. “Make it a habit to always ask: Can I support this with more than just a single data point?” If the answer is no, it's time to push past a potential bias and keep digging.
What It Is: When one vocal or authoritative person speaks up first, others on the team might have a harder time raising doubts or red flags about the project plan.
“It's a common social phenomenon—individuals can strive for cohesion so much that they start suppressing dissent,” says Mr. Kohut. While groupthink might be great when the team is trying to pick a takeout spot for lunch, it can spell disaster on project tasks. Rather, there's real value in everyone weighing in with diverse opinions, risk tolerances and experiences. Those early debates and differences of opinion can help produce a stronger and more effective project plan.
How to Beat It: When gathering the team, set expectations that everyone's voice adds value and encourage team members to raise any and all red flags or considerations, says Manuel Salero Coca, managing director, PIN Technologies, Mexico City, Mexico. He goes so far as to call on individuals to chime in, “so you don't have one or two people creating the whole project narrative,” he says.
And when an idea or opinion does begin to gain momentum in the meeting, the project manager shouldn't hesitate to slow the team's pace with questions: What are we not considering? What if this wasn't an option? What assumptions have we included that might not prove true during execution? Naysayers may appreciate the opportunity to take the meeting in a different direction.
Also consider staggering attendance or splitting up into small groups so the team has a second chance to break the spell of groupthink, says Ulrike Maria Graetsch, PMP, project services manager, Maddocks, Melbourne, Australia. “I once had a manager who did not attend some team meetings on purpose because she wanted the team to work through items without her opinion being the leading one. When I first joined that organization it felt strange, but I now take the same approach.”
—Ulrike Maria Graetsch, PMP, Maddocks, Melbourne, Australia
Mr. Kohut is a big fan of setting up clear communication channels for team members to weigh in away from the group, whether that's encouraging post-meeting emails, setting up one-on-one interviews or even establishing an anonymous feedback system.
What It Is: When project managers feel so much pressure from above to deliver the project at scope, on budget and on schedule that they lack the latitude to carefully consider whether the project's charter aligns with organizational strategy or whether there are enough resources to successfully focus on the triple constraint.
“Success bias is tricky because we want people to have a success-oriented attitude,” says Mr. Kohut. And pulling off complex or first-of-their-kind initiatives does require a bit of bravado and ingenuity. “The question becomes: How do you step back and really assess whether something can be done?”
—Matthew Kohut, KNP Communications, Hopewell, New Jersey, USA
How to Beat It: Success bias tends to stem from overly ambitious project sponsors, says Mr. Luna. “Their attitude might push the project manager to swallow a very challenging project charter without feeling like they can push back or to get caught up in the sense that everything will unfold according to plan,” he says.
It's human nature to be optimistic about the future. But basing project estimates only on best-case scenarios or underweighting a potential risk on the risk register jeopardizes the very success of the initiative. Stress-testing assumptions against available data and being willing to talk frankly with the project's sponsors can help curb this subconscious pull to assume success is within reach.
Ms. Graetsch found herself in this situation when she was brought in to turn around a struggling IT project with scant resources. The project sponsor seemed confident that, with the right motivation, the team could pull off the project, but Ms. Graetsch didn't want his strong success bias to influence her own planning. So she dug into the data from past initiatives and presented the evidence to senior leaders about what it would objectively take to deliver the project within the timeline they requested. “We'd need to allocate additional resources, and I showed how that would also impact existing resources at the firm,” she says. “The conversation changed from then on.”
What It Is: Instead of acknowledging pitfalls and setbacks on past initiatives as potential risks to the project at hand, people may assume this undertaking is somehow special or different enough to discount those risks.
“As a project manager, we like to think that we learn from our mistakes,” says Ms. Graetsch. “However, one mistake we're vulnerable to again and again is assuming that we have more control over the risks this time around than we actually do.” Team members and project sponsors may have a natural tendency to downplay potential problems, but ultimately the project is weaker for it.
How to Beat It: “There's a mindset change required in dealing with this kind of bias,” says Ms. Harrin. The team or project sponsor may rush to point out why a certain setback from the past will never impact the current project or how this initiative's different schedule, project site or team will somehow protect it from certain risks. In those conversations, remind them that the risk registers might not be identical, but that doesn't mean the risks are necessarily smaller. “As project managers, it's our job to assume that everything could happen and plan for how to mitigate it,” she says.
—Elizabeth Harrin, Otobos Consultants Ltd., London, England
In her experience, it helps to present multiple examples of prior issues, rather than just one. “People can overlook a single incident, but it's much harder to ignore what looks like the start of a trend.” PM
HOW TO HOST A PRE-MORTEM
Hindsight may be 20/20, but what if a team could analyze why a project failed before it was even underway? That's the idea behind a pre-mortem, and this simple exercise can sometimes yield surprisingly fruitful findings, says Matthew Kohut, managing partner, KNP Communications, Hopewell, New Jersey, USA.
Ask the Team to Time Travel: Gather the team and ask them to imagine that they are at a point in the future—whether that means one month or two years from now—and the project has failed. Now ask: Why?
Turn Them Into Storytellers: This isn't the time to recite from the risk register. Instead, ask them to come up with individual narratives about what doomed the project. Was there some catastrophe that no one could have predicted? Did a particular risk not only happen, but rock the very bedrock of the project's basis? Was there some move in the competitive landscape that sent shock waves through the organization? Encourage team members to think beyond the project plan and elaborate with details in the stories.
Capture Insights: A pre-mortem's narrative framing encourages participants to exercise creativity in identifying risks and may spotlight variables, like company culture or the business landscape, that can threaten the project's success. Make it a point to take notes during the meeting, so none of those insights is lost.
Praise Candor: In other contexts, members may not speak up with negative feedback for fear of seeming too pessimistic. In this exercise, worst-case-scenario speculation is encouraged—and it's possible to cultivate that sense of candor throughout the project. End the meeting by thanking the team for their honest participation and encourage them to speak uncomfortable truths long after the pre-mortem is over.