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February 26, 2014 Volume 14, Issue 9
 
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Scope Creep, Hot Hands, and the Illusion of Control

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Despite our awareness of scope creep's dangerous effects on projects and other efforts, we seem unable to prevent it. Two cognitive biases — the "hot hand fallacy" and "the illusion of control" — might provide explanations.
Gachi Fernandez and Sergio Cortazzo, professional tango couple

Gachi Fernandez and Sergio Cortazzo are one of Argentina's top young professional tango couples. They have toured the world, and they perform frequently in Buenos Aires. Tango may be unique among dances, because observing tango performed well can be a moving, dramatic experience. But it is far less dramatic when the dancers perform separately, which might explain the meaning of the expression, "It takes two to tango."

So it is with scope creep and cognitive biases. We can experience scope creep when only some people in the organization are in the grip of a cognitive bias. But when several people are so influenced, and when each one's cognitive bias mates well with the biases of others, scope creep can truly blossom. Photo by Marcela Carena, courtesy U.S. Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

The hot hand fallacy is the belief that we can better estimate the outcome of tests of skill if we weigh recent results more heavily than less recent results. It was first identified by Gilovich, Vallone, and Tversky in 1985 [Gilovich 1985]. They found that the belief that basketball players can have "hot hands," leading to streaks of successful shooting, is without statistical foundation. That is, players do have "hot streaks" and "cold streaks," but the streaks that do happen are consistent with random chance.

Nevertheless, people do believe in the "hot hand," in basketball, and at work.

When someone has succeeded at a string of assignments, managers and executives tend to attribute that success, without proof, to the performer's innate capabilities. And the longer the string of successes, the more faith they have in the belief, even though every string of successes has a beginning, before which outcomes were less stellar.

When we believe someone has a "hot hand," we tend to ensure that he or she is fully occupied. Then, when a difficult challenge with a troubled history comes along, we sometimes try to fit it into whatever the hot-handed people are already doing. We add it to their responsibilities, hoping for yet another success. If it doesn't fit well, we make it fit. Voila! Scope creep.

But there's a little more to it. The people whom we regard as having a "hot hand" often regard themselves that way, too. They overestimate their capabilities, partly because of the hot hand fallacy, and perhaps partly due to another cognitive bias called the illusion of control. The illusion of control is our tendency to overestimate our ability to control events that are beyond our control.

For example, a project manager who completes a project successfully might not notice that she was able to retain all of her staff for the life of the project — no key people were suddenly reassigned to other projects. Scope creep often takes place
outside our awareness, due to
misjudgments arising from
cognitive biases
In many organizations, such a record is rare. But a project manager exulting in success might not notice this fortunate turn of events. Most project managers cannot control these "staff raids," but when they don't happen, the project runs more smoothly. Project managers then might tend to attribute the project's success to their own performance, neglecting to attribute any of it to good fortune. Project managers, or any managers, who attribute successes to their own performance, ignoring good fortune, might be in the grip of the illusion of control. And someone in that state is more likely to accept additional responsibilities when they're offered. Voila! Scope creep.

This example suggests that two people under the influence of different cognitive biases might produce collaborative misjudgments more erroneous than either of them acting independently, if their respective cognitive biases interoperate synergistically. Fascinating. First in this series Next in this series  Go to top  Top  Next issue: Changing Blaming Cultures  Next Issue
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[Gilovich 1985]
T. Gilovich, R. Vallone, and A. Tversky, "The Hot Hand in Basketball: On the Misperception of Random Sequences," Cognitive Psychology 17, 295-314 (1985)

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