How to be the catalyst for project success

In a rare example of realism in project management, the NASA administration was critical of the estimated $10 billion suggested by the engineers for the Apollo programme (1961–72) to successfully land a man on the moon. The estimate was predicated on the assumption that everything would go according to plan. Recognising optimism bias (discussed in a previous article), the administration took arevised estimate of $13 billion and increased it to $20 billion. This uplift in budget was an allowance against the unknown. It was predictable that there would be something that would take longer or require more resources, but it was unpredictable what that ‘something’ would be. NASA mandated that leaders of large projects account for optimism bias in their budget estimates and adjust their estimates accordingly.

Optimism bias is just one of many biases that undermine our personal, team and organisational performance. In this article we outline 7 such biases. Think about a project you are involved with and decide whether any of the seven biases listed below are likely to threaten the success of the project.

1. Strategic misrepresentation bias

Strategic misrepresentation bias is when communication about a project is selectively chosen to paint the best picture and to minimise or disguise negative aspects. The desire to get the go ahead on a project results in significant issues being dismissed and framing criticism as negativity and a lack of ambition/drive/engagement. Are you being honest with the organisation about what the true position is? Better that they sign up with ‘eyes wide open’ than you become accused of over promising and under delivering.

2. Optimism bias

As discussed in our last article, optimism bias is underestimating the difficulty or being overly optimistic about the benefits that might be achieved. Whereas strategic misrepresentation is done intentionally, optimism bias is more likely the result of over enthusiasm and naivety. Get a trusted third party to evaluate your plan to help you avoid optimism bias. What could go wrong? And have you accounted for it?

3. Uniqueness bias

This is the mistaken belief that what you are doing is so unique it cannot be compared to anything else and therefore any potentially helpful comparison with other projects is meaningless. In reality, whilst the goal of a project might be unique, the many aspects that make up its completion are probably similar to aspects of many other projects. As a result, it is possible to make meaningful comparisons between your project and other projects that will better inform proposed benefits, timescales, and required resources . Putting a man on the moon was genuinely unique, but large scale engineering projects were not unique and lessons from other projects could have been applied to the Apollo project. What lessons can you learn from other organisations to inform your next big project proposal?

4. Overconfidence bias

Overconfidence bias stems is an illusion of certainty that arises from a set of opinions or beliefs. Typically overconfidence bias fails to take into account the true risks. Here in the UK, a walk in the hills of any of our national parks will involve seeing others out enjoying the hills in clothing that makes the assumption they will have no accidents or the weather will remain stable. They fail to think through the consequences of an accident happening and how quickly they will become hypothermic without spare clothing layers to keep warm. We are often not good at estimating risk, but we are good at understanding consequences. Rather than focus on how likely something is to happen, ask yourself how well prepared you are to deal with that issue should it arise.

5. Base rate fallacy

Base rate fallacy is where people choose to ignore the rich amount of information out there on how long a specific activity might take to complete. For example, you estimate that a project needs two additional personnel and that recruiting them willtake 2 months, all while forgetting that the previous 4 people recruited to the organisation each took 6 months to find and several more before they properly understood the business. Take an evidence-based approach to your decisions. Look at the stats and use them to guide your decisions.

6. Anchoring bias

Anchoring bias is referred to in the literature as ‘heuristic representativeness’. It’s an over reliance on one source of information as the basis for calculating the time to complete a project. It’s the equivalent of looking at the times of one elite runner to complete a marathon and using that time as a frame of reference for how long it will take you to complete your first marathon. It would be much more productive to look at the average marathon completion times by gender and age in a mass participation marathon as this will provide a substantially more reliable estimate of the time it will take you to complete a marathon.

7. Sunk cost bias

This is where you are almost at the end of the proposed implementation period, it’s clear the project is not going to deliver on its promise, but as you are so close to the end, you continue anyway. The better decision would be to stop immediately. Many’s the IT project where the costs keep rising and rising and the organisation is in so deep that the leaders believe it is better to continue than it is to ‘waste’ all that has already been put into the project. Put some ‘lines in the sand’ as to when you will stop doing what you are doing. Decide these in advance so that when you reach that point the decision is already made.

You can play a valuable role in almost any piece of work by spotting these biases and doing something about them. Develop your skill in spotting biases and asking the right questions and not only will you increase the likelihood of project successes, you will also become an indispensable part of any project team.

Dr Dominic Irvine & Professor Emeritus Simon Jobson