Why Scope Expands: Part II
by Rick Brenner
The scope of an effort underway tends to expand over time. Why do scopes not contract just as often? One cause might be cognitive biases that make us more receptive to expansion than contraction.
An artist's conception of a disk of gas and dust orbiting a young star. It is this material that, under the influence of gravity, eventually accretes into planets. By analogy, we can think of projects in an enterprise as bits of the enterprise orbiting its treasury. Among the forces bringing these efforts together — that is, causing accretion — are cognitive biases. In this model, resisting scope expansion is like resisting gravity. Scope expansion is inevitable. Instead of trying to resist it, instead of trying to find ways to limit it, we might do better by searching for ways to exploit it and to manage it effectively. Image courtesy U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration/JPL-Caltech.
As we've seen, scope tends to expand, rather than contract. In Part I of this exploration, we briefly examined cognitive biases that lead us to avoid changes that would tend to contract scope. In this Part II we explore cognitive biases that lead us to favor proposals that tend to expand scope.
- Confirmation bias
- In the grip of confirmation bias we tend to favor information that confirms our beliefs and preconceptions. Although it operates when we're evaluating information, its most important effects for scope creep relate to its influence on information gathering. To the extent that confirmation bias influences them, those decision makers who have a preference for expanding the scope of an effort will tend to seek proposals that expand that effort's scope. This might include, among others, those decision makers who want to limit the total number of efforts underway, those who want to "piggy back" a favored capability on an effort already underway, and those who seek to enhance their power by expanding the scope of efforts they lead. For more, see "Scope Creep and Confirmation Bias," Point Lookout for March 12, 2014.
- Ambiguity effect
- The ambiguity effect is the human tendency to prefer options for which the probability of a favorable outcome is known fairly well, compared to options for which the probability of a favorable outcome is less known. When two projects, A and B, are both in trouble, and A is led by someone known to the decision makers, while B is led by someone less well known, the arguments contained in a proposal by A's leader to acquire B are likely to hold sway over B's counter-arguments, even when there are some doubts about A's likelihood of success and no evidence suggesting doubts about B's likelihood of success.
- Bias blind spot
- The bias blind spot [Pronin 2002] creates in humans a tendency to believe that they are not affected by cognitive biases. Scope expansion might be
inevitable. Instead of trying
to prevent it, we might do
better by learning
to exploit it.It causes decision makers to fail to compensate for cognitive biases in the decision process. An example of a cognitive bias compensation might be a review of the set of options under consideration, to ensure that scope-contracting approaches receive due consideration.
- The anchoring effect
- This bias causes us to assign too much importance to the first available piece of information. With regard to scope creep, that information might be an early proposal, or market research, or a senior management directive. For example, in the latter case, management might solicit proposals for cost reduction. Decision makers then might tend to become anchored on cost reduction, which could lead them to favor consolidating several projects, failing to even consider the possibility that any cost savings from consolidation might be surpassed by revenue advantages arising from earlier completion by continuing to operate those projects separately.
Most important, perhaps, is the Optimism Bias — the tendency to overestimate favorable and pleasing outcomes. Any proposal that manages to come up for a final decision is likely to be accepted if it promises success. First in this series Top Next Issue
Is every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. Order Now!
Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? Send me your comments by email
, or by Web form
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful,
and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend
Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive
of past issues. Subscribe for free.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout,
as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in,
anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Project Management
- Restarting Projects
- When a project gets off track, we sometimes cancel it. But since canceling projects takes a lot of courage, we look for ways to save them if we can. Often, things do turn out OK, and at other times they don't. There's a third choice, between pressing on with a project and canceling it. We can restart.
- Long-Loop Conversations: Asking Questions
- In virtual or global teams, where remote collaboration is the rule, waiting for the answer to a simple question can take a day or more. And when the response finally arrives, it's often just another question. Here are some suggestions for framing questions that are clear enough to get answers quickly.
- Communication Traps for Virtual Teams: Part I
- Virtual teams encounter difficulties that rarely confront face-to-face teams. What special challenges do they face, and what can we do about them?
- Seven Ways to Get Nowhere
- Ever have the feeling that you're getting nowhere? You have the sense of movement, but you're making no real progress towards the goal. How does this happen? What can you do about it?
- Guidelines for Sharing "Resources"
- Often, team members belong to several different teams. The leaders of teams whose members have divided responsibilities must sometimes contend with each other for the efforts and energies of the people they share. Here are some suggestions for sharing people effectively.
See also Project Management and Emotions at Work for more related articles.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact me for details at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.com
or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout
are available in six ebooks:
Reprinting this article
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline?
Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Cognitive Biases and Workplace Decision-Making
- For most of us, making decisions is a large part of what we do at work. And we tend to believe that we make our decisions rationally, except possibly when stressed or hurried. That is a mistaken belief — very few of our decisions are purely rational. In this eye-opening yet entertaining program, Rick Brenner guides you through the fascinating world of cognitive biases, and he'll give concrete tips to help you control the influence of cognitive biases. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Bedford, Massachusetts: October 21, Monthly Meeting, Boston SPIN.
- The Politics of Meetings for People Who Hate Politics
- There's a lot more to running an effective meeting than having the right room, the right equipment, and the right people. With meetings, the whole really is more than the sum of its parts. How the parts interact with each other and with external elements is as important as the parts themselves. And those interactions are the essence of politics for meetings. This program explores techniques for leading meetings that are based on understanding political interactions, and using that knowledge effectively to meet organizational goals. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program: