I was recently teaching a Project Management Professional (PMP®) prep course to a group of 15 experienced project and program managers. The gray hairs in the room attested to the years of experience, and all of the participants actively described their current project work and challenges. Several of the attendees were employed by a government agency working on capital construction projects – roads, bridges, and drainage.
Not surprisingly, the government agency had a lot of strict and rigid policies and procedures in place to manage projects. Contractors were granted procurement agreements when they had the lowest bid, regardless of past experience. Bidding and acquisition followed specific procedural steps with no allowances for deviations. In no circumstance was budget allowed to overrun, yet cost estimates could be padded beyond a normally-acceptable allowance for private industry.
During the PMP prep class, one individual (let’s call him Spencer), struggled to align practices from the Project Management Institute (PMI®) with the policies and procedures he was used to in his job. Change orders were a particular stumbling block since the government agency required full accountability of any change before it was approved. A general industry practice is to estimate the overall impact scope, schedule, and budget for the change, and to work out the details later if the change is approved.
Spencer’s problem was the curse of knowledge. His experience in one job had taught him that there was one right way to do the job. Of course, his knowledge had served him well in his job and resulted in success in that job.
The Basis of Cognitive Bias
Spencer had learned to follow the rules. He had made sense of complex projects according to one set of policies and procedures. Following these practices to the letter meant he could successfully execute a project in that environment. He simply could not conceive of an alternate way to do things.
All human beings are bombarded with data and information daily – even more so today with social media and technology available to us 24/7. We are exposed to risks and we must make trade-off decisions to balance time, money, and relationships in a constant rhythm. To survive the onslaught of information, we necessarily filter this vast amount of information through our history of past experiences to make the best choice.
For example, we know that if there is a car accident on our primary route to work, a secondary road will be a good alternative. Because we are familiar with the roads, we can easily estimate the trade-off in terms of the delay in time to reach our workplace. Our history leads us to an effective decision in the present.
However, in projects and in innovation, cognitive bias can lead us to uninteresting, trivial tweaks of technology. Our new products and services are “lukewarm”, and sales have only marginal improvements. The Apple iPhone’s latest version advertises “brighter colors”. I have to wonder if the average consumer can discern these subtle intensity changes for brighter colors and if that alone will motivate him to spend $1,000 on a new smartphone.
Reframing the Problem
One of the key principles in Design Thinking is to reframe the problem. This technique is also helpful for project, quality, and risk managers. Looking at a problem from a new perspective can help us generate new insights to a better solution. Even more important is to view the problem from the customer’s perspective.
Andy Zynga shares a story (“The Innovator Who Knew Too Much,” HBR.org, 29 May 2013) in which an organization sought a new vaccine for AIDS. Scientists experience in working on solutions for the dreaded disease did not submit any proposals. Yet, when the organization reframed the problem as a need to stabilize proteins, they received dozens of high-quality proposals. Protein stabilization is a step toward a vaccine, but cognitive bias prevented the scientists from viewing their work from that perspective.
Tools for Overcoming Bias
The first tool to overcome cognitive bias is observation. All too often, R&D scientists, engineers, and project managers sit in offices working on so-called innovations in isolation. Get out there! Talk to potential customers and end-users. Learn what their problems are and seek to understand issues from their point of view.
A second useful tool to generate alternative perspectives is the SCAMPER heuristic. The acronym SCAMPER encourages us to view a product or solution with a different perspective: Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to another use, Eliminate, and Reverse.
Finally, we can use standard project management techniques such as interviews and focus groups to gain insights to the problems our customers face. What these tools have in common is that they are qualitative market research techniques. While data is important, we also have to understand the emotional impacts of trade-off decisions and of how our customers interact with our products and services.
The Curse of Knowledge
I finally convinced Spencer that his experience was very valuable for the government agency and for us to learn from him. But, for four hours, while he sat for the PMP exam, he needed to visualize the ideal world that PMI envisions for successful project management. Spencer suffered from the curse of knowledge, assuming that the right answer in one situation translate to the right answer in another circumstance. While following our internal compass usually results in a predictable outcome, project, product, and engineering managers need to overcome such cognitive biases in order to generate truly innovative solutions. We do this by viewing a problem from new perspectives and especially through the eyes of our customers.
To learn more about problem-solving for project, product, or engineering managers, please join us in an NPDP Workshop. Feel free to contact me at [email protected] or 281-280-8717. At Simple-PDH.com where we want to help you gain and maintain your professional certifications. You can study, learn, and earn – it’s simple!
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