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March 12, 2014 Volume 14, Issue 11
 
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Scope Creep and Confirmation Bias

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As we've seen, some cognitive biases can contribute to the incidence of scope creep in projects and other efforts. Confirmation bias, which causes us to prefer evidence that bolsters our preconceptions, is one of these.
The Great Wall of China near Mutianyu

The Great Wall of China near Mutianyu. Walls of this kind have been built by many nations, throughout history, though perhaps no other reached the scale of the Great Wall. Typically, they serve multiple functions, including military defense and customs enforcement. But in a larger sense, they are intended to serve to define the scope of the governments that erect them. They are statements that, for the most part, on one side, one government rules, and on the other side, some other government — or no government at all — does so. In this way, they actually define scope for multiple governmental entities.

But do they actually work? In the case of the Great Wall, and in the case of the wall of the Roman emperor Hadrian, the operations of the imperial government occurred on both sides of the wall. These walls may have been conceived as a scope definition mechanism, but they were imperfect. Some imperial operations spanned these walls. We can view these operations as early examples of scope creep, and then wonder, did confirmation bias play a role in the construction of these walls? Photo by Ahazan, courtesy Wikipedia.

Although scope creep can arise independently of cognitive biases, the role of cognitive biases in scope expansion is powerful, because cognitive biases influence our decisions without our knowing. And among the most insidious of these biases is confirmation bias. Confirmation bias affects the objectivity of the evidence-gathering process, and then once evidence is presented, it affects our ability to weigh evidence objectively. Under the influence of confirmation bias, we tend to:

  • Seek evidence that supports our preconceptions
  • Avoid seeking evidence that conflicts with our preconceptions
  • Give preferential weight to confirmatory evidence
  • Reject or discount disconfirming evidence

For example, when considering adding features to a planned product — features we favor — we tend to examine critically projections of cost and schedule that predict trouble. By contrast, we tend to examine less critically any rosy sales projections. When considering combining two projects located at different sites, people who favor the combination tend to accept projections of cost savings less critically than they would treat cost or schedule projections indicating problems arising from merging the projects and relocating one of them.

Here are four indicators that confirmation bias might be driving a scope expansion decision.

Political rivalry and feuds
One political actor might use scope expansion to attack a rival by acquiring responsibility for efforts that are the responsibility of the rival. The intense emotions that typically underlie such plots are fertile ground for confirmation bias.
Masking past offenses and performance issues
When an effort faces financial or schedule trouble, expanding its scope to enable it to acquire a healthier sibling effort can conceal much of its trouble, especially if resources from the healthy effort can be harvested to repair or disguise the problems of the troubled effort. The fears that accompany such situations make decision makers vulnerable to confirmation bias.
Absence of disconfirmation indicators
For efforts we Any high-impact organizational
decision probably ought to also
include anti-goals that, if met,
trigger questioning the
wisdom of that decision
undertake, we usually define success as achieving specific goals. But any high-impact organizational decision probably ought to also include anti-goals that, if met, trigger questioning the wisdom of that decision. For example, if we don't satisfy condition C by date D, we will revisit the decision; or if a competitor enters the market before date D, we will reconsider the decision. When goals are clear, but anti-goals are missing, poorly defined, or ignored, confirmation bias might be playing a role.
Reliance on anecdotal "evidence"
Anecdotes can illustrate — nothing more. They contain no information about the prevalence of the mechanisms they exemplify. Proponents of a scope expansion can use anecdotes to illustrate their arguments, but when they fail to offer estimates of the importance of the phenomena the anecdotes illustrate, the use of anecdotes suggests the effects of confirmation bias.

These effects actually apply to a variety of organizational decisions, but I've restricted the discussion to scope creep to avoid scope creep. First in this series  Go to top  Top  Next issue: Why Scope Expands: Part I  Next Issue
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