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  • Writer's pictureDr. Hamood Al-Kharusi

10 Common Determinantal Project Management Biases & How to Mitigate Them

Are you a Biased Project Manager?

The answer at the tip of your tongue is likely to be no, as we would like to think we make informed, rational and fair decisions. However, we all have biases, regardless of how intelligent and well experienced we are. These biases can hinder our ability to make the best decisions based on the information and data we have. Some are conscious and others unconscious which ultimately come as a detriment to the performance and bottom-line of projects.

What Does it Mean to be Bias?

A bias is a tendency, inclination toward or against something or someone often unbacked by valid information, rational and fair deductive reasoning. Biases are a part of human nature caused by the minds attempt to process, interpret, and simplify information/stimuli, which is heavily influenced by an individual’s life experiences, emotions, individual motivations, limits in the minds ability to process information and social pressures. It acts as a rule of thumb to help people make faster decisions. Some biases are explicit occurring on a conscious level and the arguably more dangerous ones are implicit which are unconscious and do not necessarily align with one’s beliefs.

Common Biases

Confirmation Bias: A tendency to search and interpret information in a way that only confirms one’s preconceived views, perception and beliefs whilst neglecting any other information that may prove otherwise. This causes you to be less objective when analysing data or information to make decisions.

For example, you are trying to determine what Project Management methodology would best suit the needs of your project. However, because you’re comfortable using waterfall as a methodology you focus on informational that proves waterfall is the best methodology, when in fact agile or a hybrid methodology could be more effective. You may not even process any of the other information that doesn’t fall in line with your preconceived notions.

Optimism Bias: The tendency to be overly optimistic about the outcome of planned actions, including overestimation of the frequency and size of positive events and underestimation of the frequency and size of negative ones. Being overly optimistic can lead to undesired outcomes when you over promise to a client and the team fails to perform up to the predicted level or the worst possible case occurs (it was not planned for because it was disregarded). This commonly leads to what is known as the ‘Planning Fallacy’.

For example, you’re conducting a risk assessment and due to your over-optimism, you underestimate the likelihood and impact of certain risks and don’t plan for them accordingly. This could be due to your past experience and not having to face such risks or otherwise. This over-optimism could lead to substantial losses in the case of these risks occurring.

Information Bias: Information and data are so easily accessible, now more than ever it has become an environment for information bias to thrive. Information bias drives us to seek for information that doesn’t lead to action- it follows a ‘the more the merrier’ mindset.

For example, you might be looking to implement a solution to replace legacy systems for Project Management. Information bias would prompt you to look at all systems (even ones that do not meet your Project Management needs) instead of defining a scope that matches the needs to refine the search. Exploring all avenues causes a substantial loss of time on unnecessary tasks.

Base-Rate Bias: This bias creates a tendency for individuals to erroneously judge the probability of a situation occurring or misjudge specific data due to not considering all other relevant data. In this case you may overweigh information that is irrelevant to the outcome.

For instance, as part of change management activities your change manager presents adoption rate results for a Project Management system that has gone live. It may appear that certain departments are inactive on the system which in swift agreeance you and the change manager push for further change management activities for that stakeholder group as in both your minds this is due to resistance. However, this could be because certain departments do not have as many projects to manage as others or do not require to use it as much as other departments. It is crucial to understand the information and base-rate data presented and not take it at face-value as resources could be wasted making decisions prompted by such biases.

Status-Quo Bias: This bias gives preference to the current state of affairs out of comfort over the best option for current circumstances. You may find yourself hesitating to make decisions that entail major changes in your plan or strategy due out of comfort with the way things are. This bias clearly impedes opportunity for development.

Self-Serving Bias: This bias credits positive outcomes to the success of our own character and attributes negative ones on external factors. It is easy for Project Managers to only recognize successes as a result of teamwork but assume all failure is due to external factors. Failure/mistakes are crucial opportunities to learn; determining shortcomings, causes and opportunity for improvement. Failing to recognise a team’s shortcomings stunts growth/development.

Bandwagon Effect: People will often agree with the majority even if they know it is incorrect. We opt to not share our opinion and follow suit when our ideas deviate from the majority opinion. Project Managers should be cautious of this bias festering amongst their team; members should feel comfortable enough to share their opinions no matter how much they deviate from popular opinion. Moreover, Project Managers should be cautious they are not following suit either, when dealing with clients and top management, especially if it deviates from popular opinion. You could have certain qualms about risks or challenges that only you are aware of, making it essential for you to share your unique opinion unimpacted by the majority.

Authority Bias: When we favor opinions that come from authority without assessing how effective or efficient they are. When looking for input from the team a Project Manager should be mindful with their approach. For example, it is best to hold off sharing your input and ideas before collecting the teams as they are more likely to just agree with your opinion/idea as you are their point of authority. Moreover, there may be decisions top management/ program managers / PMOs make on behalf of Project Managers that may not suit particular projects- simply deciding to do as you are told rather than, stop, think and determine how this may impact your project could cause major implications along the project lifecycle.

Functional Fixedness: The tendency to only see people as one-dimensional rather than multifaceted. For instance, you are managing a project and due to additional requirements, you require another resource with specific skills to fulfil this requirement. You unfortunately run into a challenge- you are struggling to find the appropriate resource to deliver this requirement and time is not on your side. It may be worth revisiting/reassessing your team, there may be an opportunity for you to re-purpose one of your team members (despite their background and because of their skill set) and redistribute tasks.

Commitment Bias/ Escalation of Commitment: Feeling the need to remain committed to a decision made, especially those exhibited publicly, even if the outcome is undesirable. You may have decided with a client to add a certain feature functionality. During development, you find that the function does not add value and creates user experience drawbacks. Despite this revelation, you feel forced to push the team to continue working on the addition/changes as you have made that commitment and communicated it to the client. Failing to raise these concerns with the client and choosing to stay committed could result in even more time wasted- they could come to the same conclusion once the work is completed and ask for the function to be removed.

Although these biases are implicit/unconscious, there are ways train the mind to adopt new patterns of thinking and attenuate the impact of biases. The golden question, how?

How to Mitigate Them?

Final Note:

Biases are a natural part of human condition; the way we process the stimuli around us which is reinforced by our life experiences and social pressures. They are not innately negative but can come as a detriment when making costly decisions as they could lead to severely undesired outcomes. We make several crucial and frequent decisions as Project Managers, to ensure we are making the right ones we need to be aware of what can influence the accuracy of those decisions. We should, to the best of our ability, make informed and rational decisions based on data rather than rule of thumb. We have only scraped the surface of some of the common biases as a starting point. To mitigate them, enable desired outcomes and ultimately develop as managers we should 1: admit we are bias, 2: make ourselves aware of what biases exist, 3: identify what factors are influencing and triggering our biases, 4: actively challenge them (challenge your decisions).

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