Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 14, Issue 9;   February 26, 2014: Scope Creep, Hot Hands, and the Illusion of Control

Scope Creep, Hot Hands, and the Illusion of Control

by

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

[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)

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs 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. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrennIAbafjRzodeiYEgner@ChacrgWkNxzlcwplzzxdoCanyon.comSend 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.

Related articles

More articles on Project Management:

Mars as seen by Hubble Space TelescopeWho Would You Take With You to Mars?
What makes a great team? What traits do you value in teammates? Project teams can learn a lot from the latest thinking about designing teams for extended space exploration.
Two U.S. Army soldiers use binoculars and a riflescope to watch for insurgentsScheduling as Risk Management
When we schedule a complex project, we balance logical order, resource constraints, and even politics. Here are some techniques for using scheduling to manage risk and reduce costs.
FootprintsStatus Risk and Risk Status
One often-neglected project risk is the risk of inaccurately reported status. That shouldn't be surprising, because we often fail to report the status of the project's risks, as well. What can we do to better manage status risk and risk status?
Rough-toothed dolphinThe Injured Teammate: I
You're a team lead, and one of the team members is very ill or has been severely injured. How do you handle it? How do you break the news? What does the team need? What do you need?
Flooding in Metarie, Louisiana, following Hurricane Katrina in 2005Mitigating Risk Resistance Risk
Project managers are responsible for managing risks, but they're often stymied by insufficient resources. Here's a proposal for making risk management more effective at an organizational scale.

See also Project Management and Emotions at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A human marionetteComing November 29: Manipulators Beware
When manipulators try to manipulate others, they're attempting to unscrupulously influence their targets to decide or act in some way the manipulators prefer. But some targets manage to outwit their manipulators. Available here and by RSS on November 29.
Desperation at workAnd on December 6: Reframing Revision Resentment: I
From time to time, we're required to revise something previously produced — some copy, remarks, an announcement, code, the Mona Lisa, whatever… When we do, some of us experience frustration, and view the assignment as an onerous chore. Here are some alternative perspectives that might ease the burden. Available here and by RSS on December 6.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenEmXMFojAnFnHEQEyner@ChacrHVpYvUCpVHTAlaQoCanyon.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

Public seminars

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy new blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.