PM Guest Article July 2020

The Common Confirmation Biases You May Have as A Project Manager

Karthik Richard

Karthick is a project/people manager and content creator with close to 8 years of experience delivering course modules, assessments, ancillaries, and tools in the e-learning industry. He currently blogs at Go For The Quill and LinkedIn.

Your friend who just purchased an expensive gadget on EMI walks up to you all excited and shows off a new phone. You’re not impressed, but you force an “awesome phone.” Your friend goes, “right? It’s amazing.” Great job. That’s exactly what your friend wanted to hear.

A few months later, a new model of the phone is released, and you tell your friend about it. Your friend goes, “no, it’s not all that great. There’s nothing new in this model. The one I bought was better.” You know that’s not true because the newer model is a substantial improvement over the previous model. Think Samsung’s S20 vs S10. This behavior is termed post-purchase rationalization, a type of cognitive bias.

What is Cognitive Bias?

As humans, our decision making is aided by cognitive biases. Often, we have incomplete information, too much information, or irrelevant information. We may also be pressed for time. Biases help us bridge these gaps and arrive at an optimal decision given these constraints. Marketers and other agents use our biases to their own advantage. We Project Managers, being a subset of the human species, are not immune to biases. You may think of cognitive biases as the human brain tricking you into believing that you have all bases covered. While in reality, you may not have it covered. You may have heard a murmur go around about someone, maybe you yourself, being biased. Have you wondered what’s the truth of it? I’ll talk about some common biases that you may have or face as a project manager.

When You Think You Know More Than You Do – The Dunning-Kruger Effect

If you work in a corporate environment long enough, you will either come across someone who thinks they know everything or come across as someone who thinks they know everything. This bias, the Dunning-Kruger Effect, is associated with an overestimation of your own skills when faced with a lack of evidence to evaluate those skills. In some cases, it is caused by just turning a blind eye to any deficiencies.

For example, consider a Project Manager who’s handled several IT projects receiving a project based on a new technology. The Project Manager might consider it unnecessary to consult experts familiar with the technology in scoping the project. This can lead to complications in scope and delivery timelines. Consider another situation. When handling a project team, some team members may become oblivious to their mistakes and assume that they’re doing a great job, when they’re not. You can handle this by providing timely feedback and preventing your team from turning into a ship of fools. The opposite of the Dunning-Kruger Effect is the Imposter Syndrome, when you discredit your successes and underestimate yourself.

When You Have More Time For The Trivial – Bike-Shedding

A finance committee meets to discuss three items: the commissioning of a nuclear reactor, the building of a bike shed, and the purchase of coffee supplies. The committee breezes through the discussion on the nuclear reactor and approves it in quick time. They deliberate a little longer about the bike shed on components of the roof and the color of the door and such. The discussion about what coffee should be procured goes on forever.

Have you ever found yourself and your team stuck on trivial details that derail or stall your progress on other important things?

This is known as bike-shedding or Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. For example, you decide to purchase a Project Management tool and get the approval for it. However, you are not sure if the IT team should purchase it using a newly created email id or using your email id. You discuss the pros and cons on an email chain, going back and forth for a week, and you finally decide that it doesn’t really matter.

When You Invest More In A Losing Cause – Sunk-Cost

When people go to a wedding and eat food, you may notice the amount of food wasted. However, when they go to a restaurant, they ensure that they eat everything or “parcel it” even if it isn’t qualitatively better than the wedding food. This is known as the sunk cost fallacy. While this bias is useful in some cases, like when you purchase a gym subscription, it’s also used as a marketing trick to get you to be a long-term consumer. Think of “premium” subscriptions to e-commerce or food delivery sites. Because you’ve invested money in these subscriptions, you’re more likely to use these services regularly.

The IKEA Effect is a related effect. When you buy IKEA furniture, you assemble it by hand. Because you’ve had a major hand in making a chair, you’re bound to appreciate it, irrespective of how it turns out. If the chair breaks, you’d rather stick it with glue than admit that you made a bad choice. As a Project Manager, when you’ve already invested effort or cost into a project, you’re bound to believe that you’ve created something of value. If you discover something severely wrong with the project, instead of scrapping it and restarting, you’re likely to throw more effort and cost at the project in an effort to redeem it.

How Do I Get Rid of Cognitive Bias?

If you get lost in a forest and spot a tiger, your previous experience and cognitive bias will guide you to put distance between you and the tiger. You will not stick around to find out if this particular tiger wants to play or have dinner. Fortunately, or unfortunately, most biases aren’t inherently bad. While biases are useful in approximating solutions to difficult questions when faced with inconsistent or excess information and time shortages, they can also cause problems.

The first step to correcting any bias is to recognize the different cognitive biases influencing you as a Project Manager. Once you’re aware of the specific bias influencing your decision, you can debias. There’s no silver bullet to address all biases. Depending on your situation, you may choose to correct a bias or leave it be. The choice is yours.